President Trump’s call for unity met the cacophony of Washington politics Wednesday, as Democrats redoubled criticism of his policies and Republicans acknowledged differences of opinion within their party on immigration.
Trump, in his first State of the Union address Tuesday, called for the two parties to come together — remarks sharply at odds with the combative manner in which Trump has conducted his presidency so far.
The president also outlined an ambitious agenda for his second year in office, from a $1.5 trillion plan to rebuild the nation’s crumbling infrastructure, to a four-pronged immigration package, to a pledge to reduce prescription drug prices.
House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Kevin Brady (R-Tex.) called Trump’s infrastructure spending request “a big number” that he expects to be discussed when Republicans gather for a party retreat Wednesday and Thursday in West Virginia.
Funding such a plan “won’t all come from the federal coffers,” Brady said Wednesday as he boarded a bus to Washington’s Union Station. “We have to find ways to bring dollars off the sidelines.”
Rep. Patrick T. McHenry (R-N.C.), a deputy whip and rising star in his caucus, said a big topic at the retreat will be how to pay for Trump’s infrastructure plan. “We’ll talk about it this weekend,” he said as Republicans prepared to depart on a chartered train.
The train collided with a truck near Crozet, Va., midday Wednesday. The extent of the injuries was not immediately clear, though dozens of lawmakers tweeted they were safe.
The president also laid out details of his immigration package, offering citizenship for undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children, who are known as “dreamers,” in return for increased spending on border security, including for his promised wall at Mexico’s border; an end to the visa lottery; and limits on family reunification policies.
Part of Trump’s challenge will be persuading members of his own party to back the plan. House Republicans voiced opposition to his approach just hours before Trump’s speech, with some arguing against offering dreamers citizenship.
“We have members on both sides who don’t want a special pathway to citizenship,” Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) said Tuesday night. “But obviously not having a second-class citizen with just legal status is obviously something we need to address.”
Trump used some of his most polarizing language when lamenting crime from MS-13 and other gangs, which he blamed on “open borders.” He sought to repurpose the term “dreamer” by saying American citizens have seen their economic prospects dimmed and personal safety put at risk because of illegal immigration.
Democrats slammed the president for “scapegoating a population of people by inciting fear,” as Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) put it.
“This has been an administration that has decided that it profits politically from selling hate and division in our country,” she said.
Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), who supports protections for dreamers, credited Trump for supporting a 12-year pathway to citizenship for the group.
“But the overall tone on immigration? Not so much,” Flake said. “If you’re going to mention MS-13, then mention a dreamer, one that has accomplished a lot. Instead of the ‘American Carnage’ version of immigration.”
Trump has set a March deadline to end the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which has protected those who applied from deportation, and lawmakers are scrambling to come up with an alternative that can survive the political crosscurrents of both chambers.
The speech came at a moment when the president faces a number of challenges: historically bad approval ratings for a chief executive at this point in his term, an investigation of Russian meddling in the 2016 election hanging over his administration and midterm elections ahead in which Democrats are expected to make significant gains in Congress.
Walking off the House floor after his speech, Trump was caught on video telling Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-S.C.) that he would “100 percent” release a classified GOP-drafted memo alleging surveillance abuses by the FBI.
The comment effectively ended speculation about whether Trump would support declassifying the document, which Democrats argue will undermine federal law enforcement agencies and special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s probe into Russia’s election interference.
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders sought to tamp down the controversy spurred by Trump’s remark, saying there are no “current plans” to release the memo and there’s “always a chance” it will not be released.
“We’re still going to complete the legal and national security review that has to take place,” she said, adding that Trump has not “seen or been briefed” on the memo’s contents.
Republicans enjoy total dominance in Washington, with the Democrats shut out of power in Congress and the White House. But the party has only one major legislative accomplishment, a new tax law, to show for its first year in full control.
Trump pointed to that achievement — which he again falsely claimed is “the biggest tax cuts and reforms in American history” — as contributing to a resurgent economy. He ticked off growth in jobs, wages, small-business confidence and a stock market that “smashed one record after another, gaining $8 trillion in value.”
While Republicans cheered throughout, Democrats sat stonily. When Trump said the unemployment rate among African Americans was at a record low, for example, members of the Congressional Black Caucus refrained from applauding.
To give their official response, Democratic leaders picked third-term Rep. Joe Kennedy (Mass.), who marks the third generation of the Kennedy clan to serve in Congress. He spoke from a technical-school auto shop in Fall River, Mass.
“It would be easy to dismiss the past year as chaos, partisanship, politics,” Kennedy said. “But it’s far bigger than that. This administration isn’t just targeting the laws that protect us — they are targeting the very idea that we are all worthy of protection.”
Trump made only passing reference to the devastation in Puerto Rico from Hurricane Maria, the federal government’s response to which has been widely criticized as inadequate and slow.
Trump turned even more than presidents typically do to the stories of guests, seated in the gallery box of first lady Melania Trump, to put human faces on his policies and build the narrative arc of his speech. A president so often preoccupied with self-adulation shone the spotlight on ordinary citizens.
Near the end of the speech, as he talked about the nuclear threat of North Korea — which has escalated under his watch amid heated rhetoric — Trump singled out the tragedy of Otto Warmbier, the University of Virginia student who was detained in North Korea and died just after returning home to the United States. In one of the evening’s emotional high points, Trump directed attention to Warmbier’s parents, who sat teary-eyed in the gallery, as “powerful witnesses to a menace that threatens our world.”
Though he did not say “Little Rocket Man,” his provocative nickname for North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, he spoke with toughness and resolve about the threat across the Pacific.
“We need only look at the depraved character of the North Korean regime to understand the nature of the nuclear threat it could pose to America and to our allies,” he said.
Trump did not mention the Russia investigation, which is reaching a critical point that could include the president being called in for an interview with special counsel Mueller’s team.
Ed O’Keefe, David A. Fahrenthold and Sean Sullivan contributed to this report.