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Opinion Trump’s speech exposed Trumpism’s biggest and ugliest lies

Here are 10 of the president's most dubious claims during the State of the Union address. (Video: Meg Kelly/The Washington Post)
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President Trump’s State of the Union speech is being widely described as an effort to move past the chaos, anger, polarization and divisiveness that have been unleashed by his first year in office. The speech tried to “move past tumult,” proclaimed the front page of the New York Times. It was an “appeal to unity,” said the Times’s lead news story. His speech “attempted to suspend the polarizing realities of his presidency,” insisted CNN.

But this isn’t what Trump tried to do at all. Instead, Trump actually doubled down on pretty much every aspect of his presidency that large majorities of Americans have found so searingly polarizing and divisive. The real core of the speech was his effort to rhetorically recast the key elements of that approach as unifying and conciliatory without moving past them at all.

Trump’s “economic nationalist” campaign agenda packaged the promise of a genuine break with conventional plutocratic GOP economic orthodoxy with a series of racial and xenophobic appeals that were more explicit than such GOP appeals usually are. But during his first year in office, Trump fully betrayed the economic side of that proffered bargain. He embraced that conventional GOP plutocracy on most matters, while translating the racial and xenophobic appeals into policy wherever possible, and in some cases venturing even further into naked white-identity politics than during the campaign.

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And so, Trump’s speech had two major goals: First, to persuade working- and middle-class Americans that those economic policies are good for them. Second, to reiterate his commitment to the most polarizing aspects of his approach in the eyes of the base voters who thrill to it while making conciliatory noises directed at the college-educated and suburban white swing voters who have been badly alienated by it — and who, as a result, may deliver control of at least one chamber of Congress to Democrats this year, hamstringing his presidency.

Both of these imperatives required large-scale deceptions on Trump’s part.

The first required Trump to make a deeply misleading case that the economy is doing far better now than when he took office. Trump hailed the jobs created on his watch, the companies that credited his tax plan with new jobs, the soaring stock market. But as Michael Grunwald shows, Trump cherry-picked good company announcements while conveniently forgetting about the ones that went bad (Carrier, anyone?); misrepresented who actually benefits from his tax cuts; and unleashed a whole string of distortions rooted in a refusal to acknowledge the actual state of the economy he inherited.

Even Trump’s efforts to tout his economic record as a boon to minorities, to show that the race mongers are falsely depicting his presidency as polarizing, accomplished the opposite goal. Trump boasted that the unemployment rate among African Americans is at a record low, but taking credit for this required airbrushing away its huge drop under Barack Obama, thus furthering his racially divisive narrative that his predecessor was a full-blown disaster for them. Similarly, when Trump talked about the American flag as a unifying symbol, he immediately undercut it by reminding us of his polarizing attacks on African American football players who protest racism.

Trump rehashed some of his ugliest demagoguery

On the second goal: Trump didn’t back off his immigration agenda, or the toxic ideas and rhetoric undergirding it, in the slightest. He merely tried to repackage those things as conciliatory. Trump called for a deal protecting the “dreamers” that would, he said, give concessions to both sides. But he reiterated his demand for large cuts to legal immigration, even as he rehashed his ugliest demagoguery about undocumented immigrants by blaming fictional open borders for exaggerated levels of crime, hyping the MS-13 threat, and dissembling reprehensibly about the diversity visa lottery program and “chain migration.”

Crucially, Trump cast his proposed immigration restrictions as a boon to immigrants who are legally here (pitting them against future immigrants) and said they are “compassionate” in that they would insulate American workers against foreign competition. But that, too, is based on a distorted narrative about immigrants putting downward pressure on U.S. wages. Trump’s deeper argument remains that immigration at anything close to current levels is basically a malevolent and destructive force. In fact, the opposite is true.

Trump’s twin goals — pitching his economic policies as good for ordinary Americans while putting a unifying gloss on a deeply polarizing presidency — met in his call for bipartisan agreement on more spending on infrastructure, on job training and paid family leave. It was good to hear Trump articulate those goals. But everything we know about his infrastructure plan suggests it will be a tax-break and cronyist privatization scheme. And if you think those other things will happen under a GOP Congress, I have a Trump Steak to sell you. As for his promise of new trade policies, we’ll see if they actually benefit U.S. workers.

The very half-baked nature of those promises only serves to further underscore that the economic side of Trumpism has turned out to be a scam — that there won’t be any serious policies for working people that comport with the break from GOP plutocracy that he promised. Meanwhile, the speech only confirmed that the racial polarization and xenophobia will continue. In short, Trump isn’t moving past his first year on either front at all, and last night, he basically told us so.

The artist behind the "shithole" projection on Trump hotel is serious about his sometimes hilarious work. He says it's a reminder: This is not normal. (Video: Gillian Brockell, Kate Woodsome, Zoeann Murphy, Daniel Mich/The Washington Post)

* TRUMP LIED … AND LIED … AND LIED: The Post fact-checking team takes apart the lies and distortions in Trump’s speech. Trump inflated the jobs created on his watch. He took credit for the low African American unemployment rate, even though it fell nine points under Obama.

Trump did not enact the “biggest tax cuts in American history.” He dishonestly took credit for auto plants moving here. He dissembled about the diversity visa program and family-based immigration, absurdly blaming terrorist attacks here on them. And that’s only a partial summary.

* TRUMP BACKS RELEASE OF NUNES MEMO: Last night, after Trump gave his speech, this happened:

“Oh yeah, don’t worry, 100 percent,” Trump told Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-S.C.), who urged Trump as he was heading out of the House chamber to “release the memo.”

Wait, it’s been reported that a careful internal White House deliberation is under way over whether to release the memo, which could harm national security. But he has already made the decision?

* EXPERTS ARE DUBIOUS OF NUNES MEMO: Legal experts tell Tierney Sneed that they don’t believe the Nunes memo will prove its case that wiretapping of a Trump official was based on the Steele dossier, proving the Russia probe’s partisan taint. Law professor Stephen Vladeck:

For Republicans claims of an abuse to be true, one would have to assume that the dossier was the sole basis of the warrant application, that it was a “fabrication” and that the DOJ knew that it was a fabrication when it applied for the FISA warrant, Vladeck said. “All three things would have to be true for this to actually be an abuse of FISA,” Vladeck said.

The amount of cherry-picking and manipulation of facts to “prove” these things is going to be epic.

* MUELLER WANTS TO INTERVIEW CORALLO: The Wall Street Journal reports that Robert S. Mueller III wants to interview Mark Corallo, the former spokesman for Trump’s legal team. As Michael Wolff’s book reported, Corallo quit over possible obstruction:

Mr. Mueller is examining an Air Force One flight that followed initial reports about the Trump Tower meeting during which top White House advisers, including the president, crafted a statement about that meeting … Mr. Wolff wrote that Mr. Corallo quit after privately confiding that he believed the meeting on Air Force One represented a likely obstruction of justice.”

Trump himself had a hand in crafting the statement that lied about that meeting, which Don Jr. took in order to receive dirt on Hillary Clinton from the Russian government.

* JUSTICE DEPARTMENT HANDS OVER DOCUMENTS TO MUELLER: ABC News reports that the Justice Department has delivered internal correspondence and documents to Mueller that relate to Trump’s demand last spring that Attorney General Jeff Sessions resign:

Details of what the Justice Department has now provided to Mueller’s team, which sources say has been investigating whether President Donald Trump sought to obstruct a federal inquiry into possible connections between his presidential campaign and Russian operatives, reflects how widely investigators are casting their net.

In May, after Mueller’s appointment, Trump berated Sessions and suggested he resign because Sessions had failed to protect him from the probe. Mueller now appears interested in that.

* THE MOST BLISTERING RESPONSE TO TRUMP’S SPEECH: It comes from Rep. Luis Gutierrez, Democrat of Illinois:

The speech was clear and well-delivered. Whoever translated it for him from Russian did a good job. … The White House agenda is to gut legal immigration in exchange for allowing some of the Dreamers to live here. … The speech did nothing to bring the pro- and anti-immigrant sides closer together. I was hoping for some sort of apology on Puerto Rico, but I heard nothing. … I was hoping to get through my life without having to witness an outwardly, explicitly racist American President, but my luck ran out.

As it happens, much of this statement is right on the money.

* AND TRUMP WOULD ‘LOVE’ TO UNIFY THE COUNTRY: Before his speech, Trump said this to a group of TV anchors:

“I would love to be able to bring back our country into a great form of unity,” he told the anchors. “Without a major event where people pull together, that’s hard to do,” he added, referring to a catastrophic moment like a terrorist attack. “But I’d like to do it without that major event, because usually that major event is not a good thing. I would love to do it.”

One shudders to imagine the “unifying” Trump would do after a major terrorist attack.