US President Donald Trump delivered his third State of the Union address on Tuesday, the eve of his expected impeachment acquittal, in the US Senate.
The mood in the House of Representatives reflected the divisions running across the country. Republicans cheered as Trump was introduced, with some chanting “four more years” while Democrats stood silently.
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On the foreign policy front, Trump said the US is “working to end America’s wars in the Middle East”.
He boasted about his decision to order the killing of top Iranian Commander Qassem Soliemani. That decision escalated tensions between the US and Iran, with many fearing an outright war.
Iran retaliated by attacking two Iraqi military bases housing US troops. After Trump initially said no troops were injured, the Department of Defense announced dozens of US soldiers had been diagnosed with traumatic brain injuries.
President Donald Trump prepares to deliver his State of the Union address [Tom Brenner/Reuters]
Trump also reiterated his vow to withdraw US troops from Afghanistan. When he plans to do that, however, remains unclear.
US special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad told Afghan President Ashraf Ghani earlier this week that there has been no significant progress` in his talks with the Taliban. Khalilzad said he was hopeful of reaching an understanding with the group on reduction of hostilities, but did not offer any timeframe.
Trump also touted his newly-unveiled Middle East plan, which has been vehemently rejected by Palestinians.
And he received loud applause after reminding the country that ISIL (ISIS) leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was killed last year in a US military operation in Syria.
“Today, the ISIS territorial caliphate has been 100 percent destroyed, and the founder and leader of ISIS – the bloodthirsty killer al‑Baghdadi – is dead!” Trump said.
Trump spent much of his speech highlighting a strong economy, whose period of growth began under his predecessor, Barack Obama. He spoke of low unemployment, stressing how it has helped blue-collar workers and the middle class,
“In just three short years, we have shattered the mentality of American decline and we have rejected the downsizing of America’s destiny. We are moving forward at a pace that was unimaginable just a short time ago, and we are never going back!” Trump declared.
What Trump calls an unprecedented boom is, by many measures, not all that different from the solid economy he inherited from Obama. Economic growth was 2.3 percent in 2019, matching the average pace since the Great Recession ended a decade prior, in the first year of Obama’s eight-year presidency.
Trump stressed the new trade agreements he has negotiated, including a phase-one deal with China and the United States-Mexico-Canada agreement he signed last month.
Trump gestures near Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Vice President Mike Pence during his State of the Union address [Jonathan Ernst/Reuters]
Throughout his presidency, Trump has frequently touted his stewardship of the US economy. As recently as two weeks ago, he claimed it was in “a rather dismal state” until he and his administration turned it into a “roaring geyser of opportunity”.
But the numbers do not support the “geyser” narrative. There are signs the record US economic expansion – now in its 11th year – is getting long in the tooth.
Job creation is slowing. And the US economy’s modest 2.3 percent growth was well short of the 3 percent growth Trump had predicted following a $1.5 trillion tax cut package he and his fellow Republicans pushed through Congress in 2017.
Trump’s trade war with China weighed on US manufacturing last year as businesses held back on investment. And, while factory activity bounced back in January amid the signing of a phase-one trade deal between Washington and Beijing, US tariffs still remain in place on some $360bn worth of Chinese goods.
The coronavirus outbreak and the ongoing troubles for Boeing surrounding the 737 MAX could also present headwinds to growth, analysts say.
Awkward moment at awkward time
One of the big questions of the night was whether Trump would directly mention his impeachment.
He chose to stay away.
The House impeached the president at the end of last year for abuse of power related to his dealings with Ukraine and obstruction of Congress for refusing to participate in the impeachment inquiry.
The Senate started its trial more than two weeks ago and a final vote is scheduled for 4pm local time (21:00 GMT) on Wednesday.
Trump shared an awkward moment with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who kicked off the House’s impeachment inquiry in September following a whistle-blower complaint that centred on Trump’s efforts to get Ukraine to launch investigations into his political rival.
At the start of Trump’s speech on Tuesday night, Pelosi appeared to move to shake the president’s hand, a significant gesture amid the impeachment proceedings.
US Vice President Mike Pence and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi look on during Trump’s State of the Union Address [Doug Mills/Reuters]
The president was presenting folios to Pelosi and Vice President Mike Pence as he arrived for the evening speech when it appears she reached to shake his hand. At that moment, Trump turned away from her to face the audience of lawmakers gathered for the annual address.
Later on Twitter, Pelosi tweeted that “Democrats will never stop extending the hand of friendship to get the job done #ForThePeople. We will work to find common ground where we can, but will stand our ground where we cannot”.
Democrats will never stop extending the hand of friendship to get the job done #ForThePeople. We will work to find common ground where we can, but will stand our ground where we cannot. #SOTU pic.twitter.com/ELJqR9q4xD
— Nancy Pelosi (@SpeakerPelosi) February 5, 2020
After the address was over, Pelosi ripped up her copy of the speech – a move the White House criticised.
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi rips up US President Donald Trump’s speech following his State of the Union [Joshua Roberts/Reuters]