President Trump delivered his second State of the Union address on Tuesday, a week late because of the partial government shutdown and with a new Congress in attendance. At 82 minutes, it was one of the longest presidential speeches in modern history, and Mr. Trump discussed a flurry of topics, from the price of prescription drugs to the political crisis in Venezuela, though he characteristically devoted much of his time to what he called the “urgent national crisis” of illegal immigration and his widely disputed assertion that undocumented migrants are a threat to public safety. (“Year after year, countless Americans are murdered by criminal illegal aliens.”)
President Trump characteristically devoted much of his time to what he called the “urgent national crisis” of illegal immigration.
Mr. Trump did not acknowledge the results of last fall’s midterm election, in which his Republican Party lost control of the House of Representatives, and in contrast to President Obama in 2011, did not formally offer congratulations to the new Speaker of the House—in this case, Nancy Pelosi, who, in turn, was sparing with her applause. But in a nod to political changes since his election, he denounced “new calls to adopt socialism in our country,” presumably a reference to the recent election victories by candidates like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a congresswoman from New York and a rising star in the Democratic Party.
The speech covered several topics of particular interest to Catholic voters. Below are some of the most prominent.
Following moves in New York and other states to guarantee access to abortion even at the later stages of pregnancy (a reaction to a possible overturning of Roe v. Wade, thanks to Mr. Trump’s appointments to the Supreme Court), the president called on Congress to pass national legislation “to prevent late-term abortions of children who can feel pain in their mother’s womb.”
“Let us work together to build a culture that cherishes innocent life,” he said. “And let us reaffirm a fundamental truth: All children, born and unborn, are made in the holy image of God.”
“Let us work together to build a culture that cherishes innocent life.”
Criticizing Democratic governors and state legislators, he said: “Lawmakers in New York cheered with delight upon the passage of legislation that would allow a baby to be ripped from the mother’s womb moments before birth. These are living, feeling, beautiful babies who will never get the chance to share their love and dreams with the world. And then, we had the case of the governor of Virginia where he stated he would execute a baby after birth.” Ms. Pelosi, sitting behind the president, could be seen wincing at the last sentence.
While Mr. Trump struck a bipartisan tone in many sections of his address, he doubled down on demands for a border wall between the United States and Mexico. He blamed undocumented immigrants for reduced jobs and lower wages, a claim that clashed with his earlier assertions about the strength of the U.S. economy.
He also framed immigration as an issue pitting “America’s working class” against the “political class,” saying, “Wealthy politicians and donors push for open borders while living their lives behind walls and gates and guards”—though no prominent lawmakers of either party have called for “open borders.”
“I want people to come into our country in the largest numbers ever, but I want them to come legally,” Mr. Trump said, though his administration has implemented policies that curb both legal and illegal immigration. For example, the Department of Homeland Security has proposed measures that would make it harder for legal immigrants to receive green cards. The administration has also sharply reduced the number of refugees legally admitted to the United States.
He also framed immigration as an issue pitting the “America’s working class” against the “political class.”
The president alluded to an “onslaught” of caravans from Central America and cited the opioid epidemic and crime committed by undocumented immigrants as justifications for a border barrier. Most drugs that come across the border, however, come through points of entry and undocumented immigrants commit fewer crimes as a group than do U.S. citizens.
“Tolerance for illegal immigration is not compassion,” Mr. Trump said. “It is actually very cruel.”
Mr. Trump touted the First Step Act, a criminal justice reform law that Congress passed overwhelmingly late last year in a rare display of bipartisanship. Among other reforms, the measure reduces some mandatory minimum sentences in federal cases and gives judges more discretion in sentencing decisions; it increases support for vocational and education programs in federal prisons; and it retroactively applies the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, which reduced the disparity between the punishment for crack and powder cocaine offenses.
“The First Step Act gives nonviolent offenders the chance to re-enter society as productive, law-abiding citizens,” Mr. Trump said. “Now, states across the country are following our lead. America is a nation that believes in redemption.” The bill was sponsored by Senator Charles E. Grassley, a Republican from Iowa, and cosponsored by senators including Democrats Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Cory Booker of New Jersey, and Republican Ted Cruz of Texas.
Matthew Charles, one of the first inmates to be released from prison under the First Step Act, was in attendance, as was Alice Johnson, whose sentence Mr. Trump commuted last June.
Early in his speech, President Trump continued his years-long attack on the Affordable Care Act passed under the Obama administration, boasting that he and the Republican-led Congress had “eliminated the very unpopular Obamacare individual-mandate penalty.”
But later in his address, he called for new health care initiatives, including a new focus on “the fight against childhood cancer.” He also urged Congress to tackle the problem of high prescription drug costs, by passing “legislation that finally takes on the problem of global freeloading and delivers fairness and price transparency for American patients.” He added, “We should also require drug companies, insurance companies and hospitals to disclose real prices to foster competition and bring costs way down.”
The president also vowed, “Together we will defeat AIDS in America and beyond.” Maggie Haberman, the White House Correspondent for The New York Times, observed: “The AIDS epidemic defined the 1980s, when the president became a quantity separate from his father. It is the period in time that many of the president’s cultural touchstones stem from, still.”
As part of his argument that his administration has strengthened the national economy, Mr. Trump proclaimed, “Nearly five million Americans have been lifted off food stamps.” The Washington Post, however, reported that the figure is closer to 3.6 million and added: “Experts say the improvement in the economy may not be the only reason for the decline. Several states have rolled back recession-era waivers that allowed some adults to keep their benefits for longer periods of time without employment. Reports have also suggested immigrant families with citizen children have dropped out of the program, fearing the administration’s immigration policies.”
Last year the Republican-controlled House included tougher work requirements for food stamps in the latest farm bill, but those provisions were stripped out before final passage of the bill; many Catholic leaders, including representatives of Catholic Charities USA, had strongly opposed those provisions.
School choice and family leave
President Trump devoted little time to education in his speech but touched on a priority for Catholic schools when he said, “To help support working parents, the time has come to pass school choice for America’s children.” In a nod to the demands of new families, he said, “I am also proud to be the first president to include in my budget a plan for nationwide paid family leave, so that every new parent has the chance to bond with their newborn child.”
Family leave legislation, like immigration reform, has been a priority of presidents and congressional leaders for many years but has foundered because of a lack of bipartisan consensus on the specifics of legislation.