EDITORIAL: Trump fails to clear the great divide
In his first State of the Union address, President Donald Trump sought to bring a note of bipartisanship to an often-discordant Congress. But his repeated focus on issues that divide public representatives and the public they represent left questions as to his sincerity and his priorities.
The speech was not without its high points. Republican Trump stuck to the script and ignored the occasional Democratic catcalls, such as those that greeted some of his comments on immigration. And he soaked in constant, if often partisan, applause while listing first-term accomplishments including the elevation of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court and the recently passed $1.5 trillion tax bill.
Left unsaid, of course, was that both of those efforts required rule-bending Senate maneuvers that dismissed any pretense to the type of bipartisanship the president claimed to seek.
Thus did much of Tuesday night’s address to both houses of Congress go:
- Trump spoke of companies like Apple and ExxonMobil hiring and investing. He did not mention firms such as Walmart and AT&T, which have recently announced layoffs numbering in the thousands.
- -Trump spoke of helping those still recovering from last year’s series of deadly hurricanes and other natural disasters, including in Puerto Rico: “We are with you, we love you, and we will pull through together.” He did not mention that FEMA had announced it would discontinue emergency distribution of food and water to the island on Wednesday (it reversed that decision amid criticism Wednesday afternoon).
- Trump spoke of 401(k) and tax benefits to the working and middle class stemming from the recent tax overhaul. He did not mention that they are but a shadow of the benefits realized by the very wealthy, or that they will sunset by 2025.
Other topics were avoided altogether. One hardly expected the president to raise — even to dismiss — recent reports of an affair and a subsequent payoff to a porn star. But there was no mention of global warming, the nation’s rampant gun violence, the ballooning federal deficit, the danger posed by violent white nationalist groups, or the subject that has shadowed Trump’s entire first year in office: Russia’s once and perhaps future efforts to meddle with U.S. elections.
Or perhaps there was a reference to that final issue. Tucked between an economic victory lap and an overly long, and overly divisive, defense of the administration’s views on immigration was this peculiar passage:
“I call on Congress to empower every Cabinet secretary with the authority to reward good workers and to remove federal employees who undermine the public trust or fail the American people.”
Those are pretty vague conditions for dismissing federal workers. Was groundwork being laid?
On immigration, the president did the seemingly impossible: He came out in support of a Democratic-backed path to citizenship — he even used that loathed-by-conservatives phrase — for some 2 million young immigrants facing deportation, yet still alienated Democrats with his callous — some said bigoted — rhetoric on immigrants. Trump’s repeated conflating of immigrants and terrorists, for example, may have set back efforts on a bipartisan immigration agreement, on which continuing funding of the government may hang in the balance.
And a $1.5 trillion plan to shore up the nation’s infrastructure lacked detail, especially regarding where that $1.5 trillion would come from.
The president was strongest when sharing stories of everyday heroes, from the Capitol Police officers who responded to an Alexandria, Va., softball field last June for a shooting that seriously wounded House Majority Whip Steve Scalise and four others, to the 11-year-old boy who has made it his mission to provide American flags for veterans’ graves.
And repeated references to police, first responders, veterans and the military brought reflexive rounds of applause — with Trump often joining in.
But when it came to specific policy initiatives, explicit proposals for bipartisan cooperation or an agenda focused on uniting rather than dividing, there was very little to cheer about.