- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Seeking to jump-start his legislative agenda, President Trump stood before a joint session of Congress on Tuesday night and demanded that lawmakers work with him to crack down on illegal immigration, increase economic growth and rebuild the U.S. military — sticking to the campaign promises that resonated with blue-collar Americans and put him in the White House.

Mr. Trump, who prides himself on being a masterful negotiator and salesman, labored to sell his vision to a deeply divided nation, bitterly split Congress and news media that he considers among of his most fervent adversaries.

He said that the country was witnessing “the renewal of the American spirit,” and he beckoned his opponents in Congress to partake.

“The time for small thinking is over. The time for trivial fights is behind us. We just need the courage to share the dreams that fill our hearts,” Mr. Trump said in the prime-time address.

“The bravery to express the hopes that stir our souls. And the confidence to turn those hopes and dreams to action. From now on, America will be empowered by our aspirations — not burdened by our fears,” the president said.

Mr. Trump repeatedly made appeals for unity and for partisans to put aside long-standing disputes to work toward a common goal of bettering the lives of Americans. He insisted that both sides of the aisle should support his “America First” agenda.

SEE ALSO: Trump: ‘Worst financial recovery in 65 years’

Despite the partisanship infecting Congress, the chamber gave Mr. Trump a warm welcome.

Nearly all lawmakers in both parties rose to give Mr. Trump a standing ovation as House Speaker Paul D. Ryan formally introduced him to the joint session.

First lady Melania Trump also got a rousing ovation when the president gestured to her in the balcony. Standing ovations, however, rarely occurred on either side of the aisle for the rest of the speech.

At the start of his remarks, Mr. Trump recognized Black History Month and addressed acts of anti-Semitism and a reported hate crime in Kansas, pushing back against accusations that he has fomented racism and bigotry in the country.

“We are a country that stands united in condemning hate and evil in all its ugly forms,” the president said.

As he spoke, however, the Democratic National Committee sent out an email to supporters declaring “Trump enables anti-Jewish hate crimes.”

On policy, Mr. Trump outlined goals he already had moved toward, including developing a plan to defeat the Islamic State, also known by the acronyms ISIS and ISIL, and he pushed big-ticket items for Congress, such as passing a major overhaul of the tax code.

“We will work with our allies, including our friends and allies in the Muslim world, to extinguish this vile enemy from our planet,” he said of the Islamic State. “But to accomplish our goals at home and abroad, we must restart the engine of the American economy — making it easier for companies to do business in the United States and much harder for companies to leave.”

Mr. Trump said his team was developing “historic tax reform that will reduce the tax rate on our companies so they can compete and thrive anywhere and with anyone.”

“At the same time, we will provide massive tax relief for the middle class,” said the president. “It will be a big, big cut.”

He justified the need for tax cuts by outlining the economic mess he inherited from former President Barack Obama.

“We must honestly acknowledge the circumstances we inherited,” he said. “Ninety-four million Americans are out of the labor force. Over 43 million people are now living in poverty, and over 43 million Americans are on food stamps. More than 1 in 5 people in their prime working years are not working.”

He summed it up: “We have the worst financial recovery in 65 years.”

Without mentioning Mr. Obama by name, Mr. Trump said “the past administration has put on more new debt than nearly all other presidents combined.” The total national debt rose from $10.6 trillion to nearly $20 trillion under Mr. Obama.

Mr. Trump also said his administration “inherited a series of tragic foreign policy disasters,” including trade deficits totaling nearly $800 billion annually. He said the U.S. must cut corporate tax rates and individual rates for the middle class to restore economic growth.

“To accomplish our goals at home and abroad, we must restart the engine of the American economy — making it easier for companies to do business in the United States and much harder for companies to leave,” he said.

Mr. Trump also sought to rally support behind his plans to repeal and replace Obamacare and remake education policy. Having retreated from promises to eliminate the Department of Education, Mr. Trump now plans to scale back the department by transferring more power back to state and local governments.

Facing opposition from both sides of the aisle on various aspects of health care and education reform, the president stressed his desire to improve the health care and school systems, expanding access to quality, affordable medical care and opportunities for education in every ZIP code of the country.

“Tonight, I am also calling on this Congress to repeal and replace Obamacare, with reforms that expand choice, increase access, lower costs and, at the same time, provide better health care,” he said.

“Our citizens deserve this, and so much more. So why not join forces to finally get it done?” said the president. “On this and so many other things, Democrats and Republicans should get together and unite for the good of our country and for the good of the American people.”

In addition to lawmakers and guests, gathered in the House chamber were Mr. Trump’s daughter Ivanka Trump, her husband and Trump top aide Jared Kushner, members of the president’s Cabinet and Supreme Court justices.

Dozens of Democratic women wore white outfits, paying tribute to the women’s suffrage movement, which adopted the color as its symbol.

Although his party holds majorities in the House and Senate, Mr. Trump faced a tough crowd in Congress.

Democrats, many still stinging from his upset victory in November, have steadfastly opposed nearly every item on his agenda.

“You started rolling back rules that provide oversight of the financial industry and safeguard us against another national economic meltdown. And you picked a Cabinet of billionaires and Wall Street insiders who want to eviscerate the protections that most Americans count on and that help level the playing field,” former Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear said in the Democratic response to the speech, according to excerpts provided beforehand.

“That’s not being our champion,” he said. “That’s being Wall Street’s champion.”

The head of the nation’s largest grassroots peace organization, Peace Action, blasted Mr. Trump’s “horrifying” address. 

“President Trump used his first address to Congress to double down on some of the most dangerous parts of his agenda,” said Peace Action executive director Jon Rainwater. “From his plan to escalate U.S. military involvement in the endless wars raging in the Middle East, to his plan to shut our doors to refugees fleeing those same conflicts, Trump’s speech underlined the heartless and profoundly counterproductive nature of his foreign policy.”

Before Mr. Trump uttered a word, Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, panned the speech.

“He talks like a populist but governs like a pro-corporate, pro-elite, hard-right ideologue,” he said. “Despite all his talk, he seems to be full steam ahead on a program to help big business, the special interests and Wall Street.”

Rep. Maxine Waters, California Democrat and the ranking member on the House Financial Services Committee, declared that she wouldn’t attend the president’s speech.

The protest from Democratic lawmakers was significantly reduced from the nearly 70 who boycotted Mr. Trump’s inauguration 40 days earlier.

Still, the resistance to the president was palpable.

Rep. Eliot L. Engel, another lawmaker from Mr. Trump’s home state of New York and the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, broke his long-standing tradition of staking out an aisle seat in the chamber to shake the president’s hand.

Mr. Engel said his silent protest was in response Mr. Trump’s plan to repeal Obamacare and allegations that members of his campaign had contact with Russian intelligence officials who were attempting to meddle in the election.

“This goes beyond ideological and political differences,” he said on the House floor. “I will listen to what he has to say today, but I will not greet him and shake his hand.”

The backlash from the opposition party is not surprising.

Most of the early successes of the Trump administration — the promises kept that the president touted in his speech — were executive orders that rolled back many of what Democrats considered to be major accomplishments under President Obama.

Mr. Trump’s immigration agenda remains a sore spot for many Democrats and liberal activists, who view his push to expel illegal immigrants who commit serious crimes as “mass deportation” and an affront to America’s immigrant communities.

But those plans, including building a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border, were a centerpiece of his campaign and continue to be a top priority for his administration.

“By finally enforcing our immigration laws, we will raise wages, help the unemployed, save billions of dollars and make our communities safer for everyone,” he told the chamber and the TV audience.

“To any in Congress who do not believe we should enforce our laws, 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?” said Mr. Trump. “Our obligation is to serve, protect and defend the citizens of the United states.”

However, Mr. Trump opened the door to comprehensive immigration reform that would provide illegal immigrants some sort of path to legal status — but he predicated the bargain on Democrats committing to a policy that puts Americans first.

“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,” said Mr. Trump. “If we are guided by the well-being of American citizens instead of the unusual special interests, then I believe Republicans and Democrats can work together to achieve an outcome that has eluded our country for decades.”

The offer did not receive loud applause from the Democratic side of chamber.

His announcement of the creation of a federal office to help victims of illegal immigrant crime, Victims Of Immigration Crime Engagement, or VOICE, elicited groans from Democratic lawmakers.

Mr. Trump also has started to unwind some of the Wall Street reforms, environmental regulations and trade policies that Democrats have embraced but which he blamed for strangling business growth and job creation.

With his sights set on undoing Obamacare, cutting taxes for businesses and individuals, and increasing Pentagon spending at the expense of domestic programs, Mr. Trump will battle fierce resistance from Democrats and brutal battles to push his agenda through the narrowly divided Senate.

Mr. Trump also must keep Republican lawmakers united. Fissures have developed for some of the president’s top priority, including the replacement of Obamacare, with deep divisions in the party over whether to reverse the expansion of Medicaid.

“Obamacare is collapsing, and we must act decisively to protect all Americans. Action is not a choice; it is a necessity,” said Mr. Trump. “So I am calling on all Democrats and Republicans in Congress to work with us to save Americans from this imploding Obamacare disaster.”

The top-line budget blueprint that forms the core of Mr. Trump’s agenda hit a snag with Republicans as soon as they saw it this week.

Mr. Trump’s budget envisions defense spending rising to $603 billion. Non-defense programs would fall by $54 billion to $462 billion, including deep cuts to the State Department, amounting to the largest proposed spending reduction since President Reagan.

The budget envisions economic growth in fiscal 2018 of 2.4 percent. Gross domestic product grew at a tepid 1.6 percent in 2016; it was 2.6 percent in 2015.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican who is a frequent critic of Mr. Trump, deemed the proposal “dead on arrival.”

“A budget this lean would put those who serve overseas for the State Department at risk,” he said on NBC News. “It’s not going to happen. It would be a disaster.”

The White House insisted there were deals to be made.

“This isn’t a final budget. It’s a draft. The idea is to receive feedback,” White House deputy press secretary Sarah Sanders said before the speech.

Stephen Dinan contributed to this report.

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