U.S. President Donald Trump urged bipartisan cooperation in his annual address before the American people Tuesday night while continuing to insist on the need for some of his most controversial policy goals.
The tone Trump struck was at odds with much of what has defined his first two years in office and indeed in his Twitter activity just hours before he took to the Capitol.
Standing before a House chamber packed with federal lawmakers, however, Trump said he was not laying out a Republican or Democrat agenda, but the agenda of the American people.
"We must step boldly and bravely into the next chapter of this great American adventure, and we must create a new standard of living for the 21st century," Trump proclaimed in nationally-televised remarks. "Together, we can break decades of political stalemate. We can bridge old divisions, heal old wounds, build new coalitions, forge new solutions, and unlock the extraordinary promise of America’s future. The decision is ours to make."
But just moments later, he continued to insist on the need to build a barrier on the Mexican border, a controversial demand that has uniformly fallen on deaf ears within the Democratic Party and has at best lukewarm support among some Republicans.
"In the past, most of the people in this room voted for a wall -- but the proper wall never got built. I will get it built," he said. "Where walls go up, illegal crossings go way, way down."
Lawmakers have just 10 days remaining to pass a spending bill to fund many government agencies that were given a three-week funding allowance following the longest shutdown in U.S. history. Trump is continuing to demand whatever spending bill clears the federal legislature has roughly $5.7 billion in appropriations for his separation barrier.
Should it not, he has threatened to shut the government down again or declare a national emergency to build the wall -- a recourse that would be challenged in court by Democrats and landowners whose property the president would need to appropriate to build the separation barrier. Even some key Republican lawmakers have voiced concern over circumventing the congressional appropriation process.
Trump further said the U.S. has a "moral duty" to develop an immigration system "that protects the lives and jobs of our citizens" after two years of clamping down on both legal and illegal forms of immigration, including the implementation of policies that have separated migrant children from their parents.
In the formal Democratic response to the president's annual address, former Georgia gubernatorial nominee Stacey Abrams derided Trump, ripping him on a slew of issues including the government shutdown, which she called "a stunt engineered by the president of the United States, one that defied every tenet of fairness”.
"Democrats stand ready to effectively secure our ports and borders, but we must all embrace that from agriculture to healthcare to entrepreneurship America is made stronger by the presence of immigrants, not walls," she said.
Switching to foreign policy, Trump announced he will meet for a second time with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un Feb. 27-28 in Vietnam to discuss the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. The exact city where the negotiations will be hosted remains unclear.
The U.S.-North Korean talks have stalled since a June 2018 summit between the leaders over the North's insistence that additional progress be met with the loosening of U.S.-led sanctions. Washington has resisted the demand over past missteps, insisting sanctions only be lifted as a final-status matter.
Trump further defended his plans to withdraw troops from Syria and Afghanistan, saying "great nations do not fight endless wars" and arguing Washington is working with its coalition allies to wipe out the last "remnants" of Daesh in Iraq and Syria while saying he has "accelerated" negotiations to end the U.S.'s longest-running war in Afghanistan.
"In Afghanistan, my administration is holding constructive talks with a number of Afghan groups, including the Taliban," Trump said. “We do not know whether we will achieve an agreement -- but we do know that after two decades of war, the hour has come to at least try for peace."
The comments come mere hours after the Senate approved legislation that rebukes Trump over the planned withdrawals, claiming the exits could allow al-Qaeda and Daesh to regroup.
The bill still has to pass in the House of Representatives, where Democrats currently in control of the chamber are split over an amendment that lets states penalize businesses that support a Palestinian-led boycott movement of Israel.
By Michael Hernandez