President Trump opened an argument for reelection on Tuesday, using the annual State of the Union address to embrace the same two-track message he believes won him the White House in 2016.
Trump simultaneously argued that the country is enjoying unrivaled success under his presidency and that American lives and livelihoods are under attack from an “onslaught” of illegal immigration.
Trump reprised a midterm stump speech staple — his economic statistics hit parade — with a special nod to working-class Americans who were a crucial part of his 2016 winning coalition and whose loyalty he needs again.
“In just over two years since the election, we have launched an unprecedented economic boom — a boom that has rarely been seen before,” Trump said. “We have created 5.3 million new jobs and importantly added 600,000 new manufacturing jobs — something which almost everyone said was impossible to do, but the fact is, we are just getting started.
“After 24 months of rapid progress, our economy is the envy of the world, our military is the most powerful on Earth, and America is again winning each and every day. Members of Congress: The State of our Union is strong. Our country is vibrant, and our economy is thriving like never before.”
Trump’s argument for 2020 was obvious, as Trump listed accomplishments and some Republican members of Congress chanted “USA!” in campaign-rally style.
“That sounds so good,” Trump said in one of his few ad-libs. Otherwise, Trump largely stuck to the script.
Trump’s only reference to the special counsel investigation and expected wave of investigations launched by the new Democratic majority in the House — seen as a potential threat to his reelection — came almost as an aside.
“An economic miracle is taking place in the United States — and the only thing that can stop it are foolish wars, politics or ridiculous partisan investigations,” Trump said to applause from Republicans.
Trump is expected to begin campaigning in earnest by midyear, but his campaign has not announced specifics.
He is expected to return to the same nativist themes of fear of “criminal illegal aliens” and economic usurpation in 2020.
“No issue better illustrates the divide between America’s working class and America’s political class than illegal immigration,” Trump said. “Wealthy politicians and donors push for open borders while living their lives behind walls and gates and guards. Meanwhile, working-class Americans are left to pay the price for mass illegal migration — reduced jobs, lower wages, overburdened schools and hospitals, increased crime, and a depleted social safety net.”
Trump pledged anew to build a wall on the southern border — an unmet promise from 2016.
“I will get it built,” Trump said.
The speech veered between calls for unity and bipartisan cooperation and Republican red meat on abortion, immigration, taxes, deregulation and anti-communism.
He took a sidelong slap at Democrats — whom he often accuses of encouraging socialism — as he cheered the challenge to Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro.
“We stand with the Venezuelan people in their noble quest for freedom,” Trump said.
“Here, in the United States, we are alarmed by new calls to adopt socialism in our country,” Trump said. “America was founded on liberty and independence — not government coercion, domination and control. We are born free, and we will stay free. Tonight, we renew our resolve that America will never be a socialist country.”
That brought Republicans and some Democrats to their feet, though not the liberal Democrats Trump probably had in mind.
Earlier Tuesday, as his aides were previewing what they called a “unifying” State of the Union address focused on “comity,” Trump trashed Democrats, including at least one potential 2020 competitor, at a lunch with television news anchors.
Trump ridiculed former vice president Joe Biden, considered a likely candidate, as “dumb” for his history of gaffes, according to an attendee and a person briefed on the discussion. Trump said he hoped to run against Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) but mockingly said, “I hope I haven’t wounded Pocahontas too badly,” a reference to his attacks on the senator for her claims of Native American heritage.
But Trump praised freshman Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), a frequent target of conservative outrage. The president claimed that he was among the first to spot her political talent and said he had predicted she would defeat longtime Rep. Joseph Crowley in a primary upset last year. Trump said he knew Ocasio-Cortez had “it,” meaning star power, according to the attendee and the person briefed on the discussion, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the closed-door session.
The New York Times was first to report some of Trump’s comments at the lunch.
“Biden was never very smart,” Trump said, according to the Times and confirmed by The Washington Post. “He was a terrible student. His gaffes are unbelievable. When I say something that you might think is a gaffe, it’s on purpose; it’s not a gaffe. When Biden says something dumb, it’s because he’s dumb.”
Tuesday’s speech was delayed a week by a partial government shutdown that was a low point for Trump’s two-year tenure.
Some of the president’s political advisers have seen the beginning of the year as a political loser. Mired in conflict over a border wall and the 35-day shutdown, the president’s ratings have plunged while Democrats and the president’s potential legal problems seized headlines.
The speech could be something of a “restart,” according to a senior administration official. “What his polls are now don’t matter,” said one outside adviser. They and others close to Trump spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal strategy. Current and former White House officials say the speech is important because it attracts a different audience and is seen as a measure of a president’s command of the office.
But many people close to Trump see the State of the Union as largely irrelevant. His campaign will not resemble the speech at all, these advisers said. He has no desire to strike a similar pacific tone on the road, preferring rambunctious, way-off-the-Teleprompter ad-libs that his most loyal supporters love.
Trump embraced a diplomatic tone in his speech, largely because it gets him positive news coverage, according to current and former aides. He has marveled at what he considered unusually positive coverage for his first State of the Union address last year, these people said.
He has discussed several of his foreign policy moves as helpful in 2020 — while Republicans in Washington see some of his Middle East moves as erratic, the president has argued that the American people don’t like any of the “endless wars.” He also has argued to advisers that his moves in Venezuela are likely to help his 2020 campaign.
But the president continues to tell advisers that he wants to make his 2020 campaign a strident referendum on immigration — seeing it as the issue that won him the presidency. And he is still considering a national emergency or other executive action to build the border wall.
The president has kept careful tabs on the 2020 field and has said he is most impressed by Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.).
On Monday, the Republican National Committee promised donors their names would be “proudly displayed LIVE during the President’s State of the Union Address.” The email and text solicitations for small-dollar political contributions did not say where donor names would be displayed.
As Trump’s political campaign did last year, names of supporters scrolled across the bottom of a live stream of the speech on the campaign website.
Philip Rucker contributed to this report.