Key Takeaways From Trump’s State of the Union Speech
(Bloomberg) -- President Donald Trump, on the eve of his likely acquittal in the Senate impeachment trial, delivered his third State of the Union address -- and added to the drama with a handful of stage-managed surprises.
His 78-minute remarks to Congress on Tuesday night never mentioned the word impeachment yet partisanship loomed over his visit to the Capitol. Republicans chanted “four more years” after the president was introduced at the podium and a swath of Democratic women were dressed in all white to honor suffragettes.
The State of the Union offered Trump the chance to address the country after a tumultuous start to 2020, marked by conflict in the Middle East, fears over a rapidly spreading virus and new trade deals with Mexico and China. Here are the key takeaways:
Betting on the Economy
Trump spent the first half hour of the speech lauding his record on the economy, calling it the “best it’s ever been” and pointing to a “blue collar boom” in a sign of how much he’ll lean on the issue heading into the November election.
He rattled off a series of robust job market stats: unemployment rates for blacks, Hispanic Americans and women have all hit record or near-record lows during his presidency.
Left unsaid was that those achievements are largely a function of a tight labor market and an economic expansion now in its record 11th year. Cracks remain: wage growth has slowed, the participation rate -- the share of the working population employed or looking for work -- still hasn’t recovered its pre-recession level and the nation’s overall income inequality is widening.
As for the manufacturing sector, factories are planning investment cuts this year for the first time since 2009 and jobs added to the sector have slowed (in fact, declining in December).
Every State of the Union is a partisan affair, but with the impeachment trial and Democratic primaries taking place, the divide between the parties was stark. The president spent nearly the entirety of his speech turned to his left -- to face friendlier Republicans -- while Democrats largely stayed seated.
As Trump made his points, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi frequently looked down and flipped through a copy of the president’s speech, gazed at her colleagues on the right side of the chamber and seemed astonished when Trump cited policy achievements -- such as criminal justice reform -- that only passed because of Democratic support.
Without looking their way, Trump criticized the “one hundred thirty-two lawmakers in this room” who “have endorsed legislation to impose a socialist takeover of our health-care system.” He said another 130 Democrats would “bankrupt our nation by providing free taxpayer-funded health care to millions” of undocumented migrants.
But Pelosi got the final say. As the president finished his speech, she picked up her copy of his remarks and tore it in half.
Limbaugh’s Medal of Freedom
Trump delighted Republicans -- and horrified Democrats -- with the revelation that he was awarding the Presidential Medal of Freedom to conservative pundit Rush Limbaugh, who disclosed on his radio show Monday that he had advanced lung cancer.
The decision, unusual for a State of the Union, seemed to catch Limbaugh off guard. He appeared astonished as Trump made the announcement and First Lady Melania Trump put the blue-ribboned medal around his neck.
“He is the greatest fighter and winner that you will ever meet,” Trump said of Limbaugh. “Rush Limbaugh: Thank you for your decades of tireless devotion to our country.”
Limbaugh, an ardent Trump supporter, has frequently courted controversy. He gave fuel to Trump’s debunked conspiracy that former President Barack Obama wasn’t born in the U.S. Limbaugh also lost many advertisers in 2012 after denigrating law student Sandra Fluke for speaking out about birth control.
Trump demanded that Congress pass legislation that lowers prescription drug prices -- one of the few issues where Republicans and Democrats say they’re willing to collaborate ahead of the November elections.
“I have been speaking to Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa and others in the Congress in order to get something on drug pricing done, and done properly,” Trump said. “Get a bill to my desk, and I will sign it into law without delay.”
An obstacle could be one Trump’s key allies in Congress -- Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell -- who has resisted bringing up bills opposed by the pharmaceutical industry. Despite McConnell’s stance, Grassley, a Republican, has said he would work to advance legislation he’s written with Senator Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat.
Members of both parties say lowering drug prices is a priority, and various proposals have been circulating in Congress. The Democratic-led House passed a bill last year that would enable Medicare to negotiate drug prices but it hasn’t been taken up in the Senate. Many Democrats stood up in the House chamber and shouted the bill number, HR 3, at Trump as he implored them to send him legislation.
Reality Show Speech
In a nod to his reality show past, Trump sprinkled emotional surprises and giveaways into the now common use of civilian guests in the House gallery. To highlight his point about school choice, the president announced that Janiyah Davis, a fourth grader from Philadelphia sitting with her mother, would be receiving a scholarship to attend the school of her choice.
After singling out an eighth-grade student from Arizona who Trump said dreams of joining the new Space Force, the president recognized the boy’s great-grandfather, Charles McGee, a 100-year-old World War II veteran. McGee, who was in the chamber after taking part in Sunday’s Super Bowl festivities, was promoted to brigadier general and had his stars pinned on his uniform by the president earlier Tuesday.
In perhaps the most emotional moment of the night, Trump acknowledged Amy Williams, whose husband Townsend was in Afghanistan on his fourth deployment. After saying that Amy’s two children had “not seen their father’s face in many months,” Trump announced that her husband was actually in the chamber. Townsend walked down the steps toward her seat, hugged their children, and was reunited with his family.
Tough Talk on Mideast, Venezuela
While Trump touted his efforts to push back Islamic State and kill its leader, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, his claims to have wiped out the terror group contradicted military officials. The Defense Intelligence Agency, for instance, has told the Pentagon’s Inspector General that Islamic State exploited the withdrawal plans of U.S. troops from Syria to “reconstitute.”
The president campaigned in 2016 on pulling the U.S. out of the Middle East’s “endless wars” -- a theme he repeated on Tuesday -- but since May he has sent more than 15,000 troops to the region as part of his campaign to pressure Iran.
Trump again said he wants to end the almost 19-year-old war in Afghanistan, but his chief envoy to peace talks said this week that the situation in Afghanistan is complicated and may not lend itself to an easy end.
Referencing another foreign policy hotspot, one of Trump’s special guests in the audience was Juan Guaido, the opposition leader whom the U.S. has recognized as Venezuela’s legitimate leader more than a year ago.
Inviting Guaido -- whom Trump referred to as “Mr. President” -- was clearly meant to give a shot of momentum to the Venezuelan opposition parties that have been unable to oust President Nicolas Maduro.
“Maduro is an illegitimate ruler, a tyrant who brutalizes his people,” Trump said. “But Maduro’s grip of tyranny will be smashed and broken.”
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