Vermont delegation skeptical of Trump's call for unity
"So let us begin tonight by recognizing that the state of our union is strong because our people are strong," Trump said, raising cheers from the House chamber packed with lawmakers, Cabinet members and guests.
For a president who communicates with the public directly via Twitter almost daily, the speech in the well of the U.S. House was an opportunity to communicate directly with lawmakers and the nation.
But reaction to the speech was divided along party lines. Within the chamber, there was a stark contrast between Republicans — who cheered the Trump administration's successes and priorities — and the somber attitude of the Democrats, many of whom dressed in black in solidarity with the #metoo movement.
After the speech, members of the Vermont delegation criticized the president as a "bully" and suggested that he had failed to foster bipartisan unity.
Trump touted the tax reform package lawmakers passed and he signed late last year, drawing particularly strong cheers from Republicans when he noted that the legislation included a repeal of the individual health insurance mandate.
He trumpeted the reforms as good for business. "This is our new American moment," he said. "There has never been a better time to start living the American Dream."
Trump's policy priorities echoed the themes of his presidential campaign. He called on Congress to take up a $1.5 trillion infrastructure plan. He promised to lower prescription drug prices.
He also laid out in detail a proposal to extend the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. The plan would create a path to citizenship for 1.8 million undocumented immigrants who arrived in the country as children. It also makes significant changes to immigration policies that Democrats and some Republicans find unsavory.
Division in Congress was apparent at multiple points in the speech as Republicans stood and applauded many of Trump's major policy lines, while most Democrats remained seated.
Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., fired back at Trump in his own speech, broadcast live online.
"The American people do not want a president who is compulsively dishonest, who is a bully, who actively represents the interests of the billionaire class, who is anti-science, and who is trying to divide us up based on the color of our skin, our nation of origin, our religion, our gender, or our sexual orientation," Sanders said.
Sanders said Trump ignored major issues, such as climate change, student debt, campaign finance and more.
He accused Trump of lying about the tax bill, citing a comment from the president about how his tax plan wouldn't benefit the wealthy. "Well, that was quite a whopper," Sanders said.
The Vermont independent, and rumored 2020 presidential hopeful, also panned Trump's immigration proposal, saying that reform should not include a border wall nor "a racist immigration policy that excludes people of color from around the world."
Sanders announced a few hours before the speech that he would bring to the event Luis Alcauter, a DACA recipient who arrived in the United States from Mexico at age 13 with his family. A D.C. resident, Alcauter worked on Sanders' presidential campaign.
Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., said after the speech that Trump gave "a reasonably good show," but that he didn't see a significant shift in the president's stance.
"I didn't see much change," Welch said. "He had an hour and half or so where he was able to speak in a calm way, but what he said is one thing. What he's done for the last year, where he's been really the most divisive president in my lifetime, was not assuaged by what I heard tonight."
Welch said there were some policy priorities in Trump's speech that he agrees with, but even those were lacking. Trump's call for an infrastructure plan, for instance, did not mention of expanding broadband in rural areas, nor did it include a way to pay for it, Welch said.
The president also vowed action on prescription drug pricing reform, an issue Welch met with him on nearly a year ago. Welch said he stands ready to work with Trump, but there has not been any indication that the White House wants to move forward.
Top Republicans in Congress, including Sens. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, lauded the president's priorities — such as renegotiating trade agreements and increasing military resources — and celebrated his spirit of unity.
However, Welch said, many of Trump's proposals were not advanced in a way that encouraged congressional unity. On immigration, for example, Welch said the president was "doubling down" on his "very harsh immigration policies."
"When he was talking policy, he was not addressing in a serious way the deep divisions," Welch said.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., in a statement released partway through Trump's speech, hit back at the president, declaring the state of the union "suddenly tenuous, in many ways."
As Leahy left the chamber, he walked through a gauntlet of reporters, his wife, Marcelle, nearby.
"Somebody said to me it sounded like no clich unturned," Leahy said.
Trump shook Leahy's hand as he left the chamber after the speech ended. Leahy said the president said "a couple things" during the brief encounter.
"We actually get along alright," Leahy said.
But Leahy did not seem not impressed. With Trump's speech Tuesday, Leahy has now attended State of the Union addresses by eight presidents.
"The other seven were quite memorable and I was very happy to be there with them, both Republicans and Democrats," Leahy said.
Asked if he felt the president had succeeded in unifying the country, Leahy responded, "You'd have to ask the country."
"We've had presidents who have worked very hard to unify the country in difficult times and I think successfully," Leahy said. "Those presidents have."
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