WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump delivered his first address to a joint session of Congress on Tuesday night, laying out the agenda for his presidency and, in broad terms, his vision for the country.
Pulling from his campaign speeches and others since taking office, the president ran off a list of accomplishments since taking office and issued promises for the year ahead. Trump highlighted new lobbying restrictions, and executive orders he put in place to reduce regulations, restart halted oil and gas pipelines, and crack down on illegal immigration.
“Above all else, we will keep our promises to the American people,” Trump said.
He touted “billions” in new investments by American companies in the weeks since his inauguration, seeking to highlight the actions his administration has taken to keep his campaign promises.
He vowed to usher in “historic” tax reform, as he appeared to nod to a House Republican “border adjustment” plan, but did not explicitly endorse it.
“Currently, when we ship products out of America, many other countries make us pay very high tariffs and taxes – but when foreign companies ship their products into America, we charge them nothing or almost nothing,” said Trump.
The “border adjustment” is shorthand for a House GOP proposal to tax imports, which some Republicans oppose. Trump didn’t use those words in his address. But his remarks could be seen as a hopeful sign for those Republicans hoping he will back it unequivocally.
Trump’s comments were received with some bipartisan applause and some jeers from Democrats, especially during his mention of a lobbying restriction that some feel does not go far enough.
Reiterating a much-repeated campaign promise, Trump vowed midway thorough his speech to “repeal and replace” the Affordable Care Act but stopped short of resolving disagreements among Republicans about how to do that.
In one of the speech’s tenser moments, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., who was seated in the audience, looked on, shaking her head as Trump criticized the law. Pelosi helped then-President Barack Obama pass the law and has sharply criticized Republicans for trying to undo it. Trump appeared to be pointing someone out in the crowd when he called the law a “disaster.” It was not immediately clear whether he was singling out Pelosi or someone else.
Trump told a series of stories to highlight his calls for reforms to the Food and Drug Administration and public education.
He pointed to two women who sat in the gallery as a guest of first lady Melania Trump. One who was diagnosed with a rare disease and treated with a new drug. A second who was able to attend a private school and become the first person in her family to graduate from high school and college.
Both anecdotes drew bipartisan applause from members of Congress in the audience.
He also pressed his policies on immigration, including his controversial proposal to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.
“We want all Americans to succeed — but that can’t happen in an environment of lawless chaos. We must restore integrity and the rule of law at our borders,” said Trump. “For that reason, we will soon begin the construction of a great wall along our southern border. It will be started ahead of schedule and, when finished, it will be a very effective weapon against drugs and crime.”
Trump challenged members of Congress who disagree with him: “I would ask you this question: what would you say to the American family that loses their jobs, their income, or a loved one, because America refused to uphold its laws and defend its borders?”
He did call for Republicans and Democrats to work toward reforming the immigration system into a merit-based program focused on the “well-being of American citizens.”
Trump argued that the country’s current focus on low-skilled immigration hurts American workers and strains the country’s finances.
The comments come hours after Trump said in a meeting with journalists that he would support comprehensive immigration reform efforts with a pathway to legalization for law abiding immigrants.
At his remarks before Congress, Trump did not specify the parameters of a compromise he would be willing to accept. But he outlined a preference for a system that favors immigrants who are able to support themselves financially.
“I believe that real and positive immigration reform is possible, as long as we focus on the following goals: to improve jobs and wages for Americans, to strengthen our nation’s security, and to restore respect for our laws,” Trump said.
Trump also vowed to take on “radical Islamic terrorism,” a divisive term that many have taken issue, arguing it unfairly singles out the Muslim religion.
He also pledged to announce new steps to bolster national security and “keep out those who would do us harm,” weeks after his executive order barring immigration from seven predominantly Muslim countries was halted by a federal judge.
Pointing to statistics on terror convictions by foreigners from the Department of Justice, Trump said that it was “reckless” to allow foreigners into the country who could then perpetrate attacks on Americans.
“We cannot allow a beachhead of terrorism to form inside America – we cannot allow our Nation to become a sanctuary for extremists,” Trump said.
The comments drew mixed reaction from the gathered lawmakers.
Though Trump did not specifically mention the travel ban, he suggested that new efforts to put in place “improved vetting procedures” would be forthcoming.
Later in his speech, there were some audible groans in the crowd as Trump announced that he has ordered the Department of Homeland Security to create on office to address victims of crimes committed by undocumented immigrants. The office is called “VOICE” — which stands for “Victims of Immigration Crime Engagement.”
As he often did on the campaign trail, Trump mentioned Jamiel Shaw, whose teenage son was killed by an undocumented immigrant.
In a highly emotional moment, President Trump led an extended tribute to a U.S. Navy SEAL William “Ryan” Owens, the first U.S. service member to die in the line of duty during Trump’s administration.
With Owens’s widow, Carryn, sitting in the audience, Trump called him “a warrior and a hero” who gave his life for his nation.
“Ryan’s legacy is etched into eternity,” Trump said. “For as the Bible teaches us, there is no greater act of love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.
“Ryan laid down his life for his friends, for his country, and for our freedom – we will never forget Ryan,” Trump added.
The comments, which were received with protracted applause, come in the midst of a tense time for Trump. Owens died during a raid in Yemen that left him and civilians dead, prompting a series of investigations by the Defense Department.
Owens’ father, William Owens, has also spoken out against the raid, questioning why it was authorized so quickly after Trump came into office.
Trump defended the raid on Tuesday, saying that his Defense Secretary Jim Mattis recently told him that it was a “highly successful raid that generated large amounts of vital intelligence that will lead to many more victories in the future against our enemies.”
As Trump spoke, Owens’ late wife stood and wept openly as the room applauded her.
He began the night by strongly denouncing recent threats to Jewish community centers across the country and condemned a recent attack on Indian immigrants in Kansas.
“We are a country that stands united in condemning hate and evil in all its forms,” Trump said.
His speech quickly turned, however, as he declared that the “earth shifted beneath our feet” in 2016 as he took a victory lap over his election victory and nodded to his signature campaign themes.
“The chorus became an earthquake – and the people turned out by the tens of millions, and they were all united by one very simple, but crucial demand, that America must put its own citizens first,” said Trump.
Democrats, meanwhile, will use the address as an opportunity to take fresh aim at Trump’s agenda, which has stoked controversy and drawn fierce protests across the country.
Democratic leaders have selected former Kentucky governor Steve Beshear to deliver the official response to Trump’s speech. Supporters of the ACA have often pointed to Kentucky as a model for successful implementation of the law.
“So far, every Republican idea to ‘replace’ the Affordable Care Act would reduce the number of Americans covered, despite promises to the contrary,” Beshear plans to say, according to excerpts of his speech released Tuesday evening.
Astrid Silva, an immigration activist and a “dreamer,” will deliver the Spanish-language response to Trump’s speech.
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The Washington Post’s Mike DeBonis and Kelsey Snell contributed to this report.
President Trump addresses a joint session of Congress. Newly inaugurated presidents often deliver this type of speech instead of a formal State of the Union address. (The Washington Post)
President Trump said his administration is working on “historic tax reform” during his first joint address to Congress on Feb. 28. “It will be a big, big cut. At the same time, we will provide massive tax relief to the middle class,” he said. (The Washington Post)