The president’s nearly 90-minute State of the Union address to Congress had all the trappings of Trumpism—dark riffs on crime along the U.S.-Mexico border, a shot at “ridiculous, partisan investigations” into his administration, and promises of robust new trade deals across the globe. Yet Donald Trump also used much of his speech to tout what he called the hottest economy in the world and a greatest-hits list of sorts from the past two years, focusing on legislative victories that transcended intra- and cross-party lines.
It was the kind of message discipline that Republicans craved, but never got, ahead of the 2018 midterm elections. As polls continued to show their majority status all but lost, GOP leaders begged Trump to talk up tax cuts in lieu of caravans. He found those talking points dry, though, and kept to his own strategy—his party losing the House in the process.
But now, with his own name on the ballot, he suddenly seems to be taking the advice seriously. Trump’s State of the Union address quashed any speculation that he may not run for reelection, signaling—at least for now—that his vision is 2020.
In the speech, Trump notably attempted to build a case for his tenure on the basis of policy wins, rather than on the verbal put-downs and cultural standoffs he tends to relish instead. This is not to say, of course, that Trump didn’t indulge in the loaded rhetoric that helped him clinch the Republican nomination in 2016. (“Wealthy politicians and donors,” he said, “push for open borders while living their lives behind walls and gates and guards.”) But his lengthy appraisal of bipartisan initiatives such as criminal-justice reform stemmed from a growing consensus inside the White House that messages tailored only to Trump’s base will not a two-term president make.
“He’s calling for cooperation and he’s calling for comity—c-o-m-i-t-y—and also compromise,” Kellyanne Conway emphasized on Tuesday, spelling out comity for emphasis.
For Trump, the joint session could not have come at a better time. The White House has struggled to sift through the political wreckage of the recent government shutdown, the longest in U.S. history. Polling showed that most Americans blamed the president for the 35-day debacle. His approval ratings continued to inch lower. Administration officials thus viewed the State of the Union address as an opportunity to focus the nation’s attention on the accomplishments that Trump, until Tuesday, had abysmally failed in selling.
He introduced Alice Johnson—sitting next to Jared Kushner—who in 1997 was sentenced to life in prison as a first-time, nonviolent drug offender. “Over the next 22 years, she became a prison minister, inspiring others to choose a better path,” Trump said, a story that “deeply moved” him and highlighted the “disparities and unfairness” in many sentencings. He commuted Johnson’s sentence in June.
Stories like Johnson’s, he said, inspired him to “work closely with members of both parties” to pass criminal-justice reform in December, with Kushner serving as his point man on Capitol Hill. Trump went on to introduce Matthew Charles, who in 1996 was sentenced to 35 years in prison for “selling drugs and related offenses.” Charles, he said, “completed more than 30 Bible studies” and became a law clerk over the next two decades. “Now Matthew is the very first person to be released from prison under the First Step Act.”
These stories generated some of the loudest applause of the evening from both sides of the chamber. Many Democratic women, clad in suffragette white, broke from their otherwise stony expressions to stand and cheer. The scene underscored just how unifying criminal-justice reform has been; until its passage, there had been no bipartisan accomplishment of this significance in the Trump era. But it also brought into sharp relief just how little Trump has spoken of it: It’s worth wondering how different January 2019 may have looked if the White House had focused on extolling the legislation’s almost immediate impact, rather than on stoking partisan rancor over a border wall.
Trump expressed hope that lawmakers could tackle similarly bipartisan initiatives in the next year. He called lowering the cost of health care and prescription drugs, for example, a “major priority.” “It is unacceptable that Americans pay vastly more than people in other countries for the exact same drugs, often made in the exact same place,” he said. “This is wrong, this is unfair, and together we will stop it.” He said he had requested that Congress pass legislation to deliver “fairness and price transparency” to American patients. In the next beat, he said he had asked Congress to “make the needed commitment” to eliminate HIV transmissions in the United States over the next 10 years. The pair of topics garnered hearty applause.
And yet, despite Trump’s more disciplined focus on compromise, the specter of the wall—and the bitter divide it has wrought—was ever present. It’s true that Trump will need to attract support from outside his base to compete in 2020. But after two years of failing to construct a border wall, Trump is aware that enthusiasm from his core supporters—which has helped buoy him through political tumult—may be waning. Which meant that sandwiched between soaring calls for unity were starkly partisan appeals for the wall. “As we speak, large organized caravans are on the march to the United States. We have just heard that Mexican cities, in order to remove the illegal immigrants from their communities, are getting trucks and buses to bring them up to our country in areas where there is little border protection,” Trump said. “This is a moral issue.” Democrats erupted in boos and groans.
The segment resonated with its intended audience, though. “He committed to build a wall,” Steve Bannon told me. “What’s not to like?” An administration official who had previously told me that the president’s lack of follow-through on immigration had caused him to rethink his support texted me that the speech was a “home run.” “Solid,” went the assessment of a former senior White House official. “Gave the base some hard-core immigration stuff.”
What was most striking, though, was that other than calls for a border wall, Trump’s riff on immigration included no concrete policy proposals. This was a decided difference from his address in 2018, when he outlined four “pillars” for reforming the nation’s immigration system: a path to citizenship for 1.8 million “Dreamers”; a $25 billion trust for a wall along the Mexican border; ending the visa lottery in favor of a merit-based immigration system; and limiting family reunification to sponsorships for spouses and minor children only. To review those proposals today is to understand just how little progress the president has made vis-à-vis his key campaign promises, even when his party controlled both chambers of Congress.
It was for that reason, perhaps, that the president’s immigration rhetoric on Tuesday felt plucked from a campaign rally: With Democrats now at the helm of the House, the chances of passing Trump’s favored reforms are all but gone. The president’s only recourse, then, is to conjure the fire-and-brimstone images that earned him votes along the trail in 2016. He thus seemed to speak into a kind of void on Tuesday evening, attempting to amp up his most ardent supporters with platitudes, knowing the days of specific immigration-policy proposals are likely over.
Whether that will be enough come 2020 remains to be seen. Ultimately, any votes gained through Trump’s appeals to bipartisanship will likely be meaningless, should loyalty from his base crumble. The coming days will present something of a dilemma for Trump in this respect, with government funding running out on February 15. The president will have to decide whether to commit to his call for a border wall—whether by declaring a national emergency or by catalyzing another disastrous shutdown—or to compromise with Democrats, keeping the government open but potentially alienating his supporters in the process.
In other words, Trump may have won plaudits on Tuesday from both sides for achievements such as criminal-justice reform. But a 2016 campaign message centered almost exclusively on the border wall continues to define him, for better or for worse. “We made clear in 2016 that nothing else mattered,” a source close to Trump’s reelection campaign told me. “So if we can’t say we followed through, I don’t think passing all the bipartisan bills in the world will save us.”