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Trump call for unity appears to do little to sway divided Congress

President Donald Trump used his first speech to a divided Congress Tuesday to call for unity, with a pledge to “work with you to achieve historic breakthroughs” and a plea to “govern not as two parties, but as one nation.”

“The agenda I lay out this evening is not a Republican agenda or a Democratic agenda,” Trump said at the outset of his State of the Union address. “It is the agenda of the American people.”

But while the speech included broad policy targets and applause lines that drew all members of Congress to their feet, there were also calls for an end to “ridiculous partisan investigations” of his administration and demands for a border wall that drew groans in the chamber. Some even laughed at Trump’s suggestion that if not for his election as president, the U.S. would be at war with North Korea by now.

The divide in the chamber could be seen in the white dresses worn by about 60 of the Democratic women to show solidarity with other women, and in the scores of standing ovations from the Republican side of the chamber as the Democrats sat.

And it was mirrored in Arizona’s congressional delegation, whose reactions largely followed party lines.

“If he wanted to unify the country, he would have given a different speech than he gave tonight,” said Rep. Greg Stanton, D-Phoenix. “He seemed intent on providing divisive rhetoric versus bipartisan solutions.”

But Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Prescott, said the speech “shows a compassionate America” that is badly in need of bipartisanship and a unifying message.

“We are in a civil war right now in this country. It’s just we haven’t fought that war with bullets yet,” Gosar said. “We are so divided, I see it in my own family. So what is it? Does the American public win … or do the parties lose?”

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The speech was the first since Democrats took control of the House and followed a bitter stalemate between the White House and Congress that led to a five-week partial shutdown of the government earlier this year.

It was also delivered a week later than originally scheduled, after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat, withdrew an invitation for Trump to speak while the government was shut down.

The speech, Trump’s third to a joint session of Congress, clocked in at close to 90 minutes, about twice as long as early reports suggested it might be. It was interrupted almost 100 times by applause, only about one-third of which included more than a handful of Democrats.

Trump said the state of the union is strong, and spent much of his speech touting what he called the achievements of his administration, including a strong economy, record-low unemployment rates for minorities, successful criminal justice reform and moves to extricate the U.S. from “endless wars” in the Middle East.

The only thing that can stop the “thriving” economy, Trump said, “are foolish wars, politics, or ridiculous partisan investigations.”

That sparked chants of “USA, USA” in the chamber, the first of three times the cheer interrupted the speech – including one time from Democrats, after Trump noted that more women are serving in Congress than ever before, and once by Republicans after Trump vowed the U.S. “will never be a socialist country.”

Trump also laid out an ambitious agenda, but one with few details. He called for greater investments in infrastructure and promised new programs to fight childhood cancer and to “eliminate the HIV epidemic in the United States within 10 years.” He promised to introduce legislation to lower prescription drug costs and to include “a plan for nationwide paid family leave” in his next budget.

But he also called on Congress to pass bills that are not likely to be as popular, including a ban on late-term abortions, and chided the Senate for its failure to approve all of his nominees.

What appeared to be the most divisive issue was Trump’s renewed call for a border wall as part of “a commonsense proposal to end the crisis on our southern border” that includes more officers, better drug detection and tighter laws.

“In the past, most of the people in this room voted for a wall – but the proper wall never got built,” Trump said. “I will get it built.”

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Trump dedicated more than two pages of his 11-page speech to the “very dangerous southern border,” which he portrayed as open to gangs, sexual abuse, drug smugglers and human traffickers. He drew groans when he said action was needed to stop “large, organized caravans … on the march to the United States.”

Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Tucson, whose district includes much of the border, accused Trump of “mischaracterizing, exaggerating and outright lying about the situation on the southern border.”

“The crisis we have at our border is manufactured, and manufactured by Trump and his administration,” said Grijalva, pointing to the former White House policy of separating children from parents at the border. “It was all about him repeating the same exaggerations and lies he’s been repeating.”

Trump reminded Congress that there are just 10 days left to pass a budget that includes border security funding he accepts, or the government could shut down again. But he did not threaten to declare a national emergency to fund a wall, even though he has insisted he has the authority to do so.

Gosar thinks Trump could take executive action to get his border wall if Congress will not fund it.

“They can challenge it all they want,” Gosar said of a likely Democratic challenge to any such action. “But there may be more consequences than they actually know.”

Despite the sometimes strident rhetoric, Trump began and ended the speech with an optimistic vision of an America that can “do the incredible … defy the impossible … conquer the unknown.”

“This is our future – our fate – and our choice to make. I am asking you to choose greatness,” he said. “No matter the trials we face, no matter the challenges to come, we must go forward together.”

Rep. Debbie Lesko, R-Peoria, said she thought the address was motivational for both sides of the aisle.

“Now it’s our turn,” she said. “It’s our time that members of Congress do the next great thing.”

Lesko also said she was glad the president spoke about the current state of the economy because “it really is good and we need to remind ourselves how great it’s going.”

Great, but not for everybody, said Navajo Nation Vice President Myron Lizer, who was at the speech as a guest of Rep. Tom O’Halleran, D-Sedona.

“There was just no depth in regard to assisting us in Indian Country,” Lizer said.

While Trump acknowledged lower unemployment rates among women, minorities and people with disabilities, the Native American unemployment rate hovers around 12 percent.

“With the new budget coming out to assist in providing more funding to Indian Country in terms of economic development, I think we can help bring jobs to Indian Country and drop those unemployment rates,” said Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez.

Both Nez and Lizer were interested in Trump’s call for greater investments in infrastructure, an action Trump said was, “not an option. This is a necessity.”

“When I heard maybe infrastructure stimulus, it made me think there was hope that we could give more funding resources to Indian Country,” Nez said.

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O’Halleran said it is easier to talk about bipartisanship than to practice it, particularly when it comes to controversial legislation. He would “rather see actions than talk.”

“But we have to do it in a way that’s not. ‘It’s my way or the highway,’ on either side,” O’Halleran said. “So we have to find that secret balance.”

– Cronkite News reporters Micah Alise Bledsoe and Luv Junious contributed to this report.


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Keerthi Vedantam/Cronkite News

Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Arizona, walks through the Capitol’s Statuary Hall on her way to the State of the Union address with Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Mississippi.