WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump called for unity Tuesday night, offering a State of the Union message that stood in stark contrast to both a deeply divided Washington and the rhetoric that he himself has engaged in since assuming office.
“We must choose between greatness or gridlock, results or resistance, vision or vengeance, incredible progress or pointless destruction,” Trump said. “Tonight, I ask you to choose greatness.”
The remarks came days after the federal government emerged from the longest shutdown in American history and with what will surely be a bruising presidential campaign on the horizon.
They also marked the first time Trump has addressed Congress since November’s midterm elections gave Democrats control of the House, a point punctuated by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s skeptical presence behind him.
While Trump frequently rallies against the opposition party, the president cast the power shift as one that brings “unlimited potential.”
“As we begin a new Congress, I stand here ready to work with you to achieve historic breakthroughs for all Americans,” Trump said.
In this vein, Trump made a number of overtures toward bipartisanship.
The president touted criminal justice reform, pointing to Alice Johnson, a 63-year-old woman black woman who faced a life sentence for a non-violent drug offense.
Trump commuted her sentence last year, a decision he tied to his administration’s successful push for the First Step Act, a law aimed at reforming the prison system and aiding former inmates’ reentry into society.
In an attempt to present a common goal, Trump reached back to the country’s previous victories, giving a nod to Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin, the second man to walk on the moon.
“This year, American astronauts will go back to space on American rockets,” Trump pledged.
He also set new ambitions.
“My budget will ask Democrats and Republicans to make the needed commitment to eliminate the HIV epidemic in the United States within 10 years,” Trump said. “Together, we will defeat AIDS in America.”
For all of the sanguine language, however, Trump nevertheless gave significant time to his most controversial agenda item: a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.
“This is a smart, strategic, see-through steel barrier, not just a simple concrete wall,” Trump argued. “It will be deployed in the areas identified by border agents as having the greatest need, and as these agents will tell you, where walls go up, illegal crossings go way down.”
Trump used the proposed wall to paint his opponents as hypocrites.
“No issue better illustrates the divide between America’s working class and America’s political class than illegal immigration,” Trump said. “Wealthy politicians and donors push for open borders while living their lives behind walls and gates and guards.”
Striking a similarly controversial tone, the president took a veiled swipe at Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller’s probe into potential collusion between Russia and the Trump 2016 campaign.
“If there is going to be peace and legislation, there cannot be war and investigation,” Trump said, warning that the probe could ultimately harm the economic gains his administration has achieved. “It just doesn’t work that way!”
Overall, lawmakers’ responses to the speech generally fell upon partisan lines.
A call for a partial-birth abortion ban was met with applause from Republicans, but stone faces from the Democrats in the House chamber, as was a plea for the Senate to approve his nominees.
Listen: Lawmakers react to SOTU
Some reactions appeared to pleasantly surprise the president.
When Trump acknowledged that a record number of women are serving in Congress, a slate of female Democrats — many dressed in white in honor of the suffragist movement — stood up to applaud.
“You’re not supposed to do that,” Trump exclaimed teasingly.
Later, as he recognized Judah Samet, a Holocaust survivor who lived through last October’s deadly attack on a Pittsburgh synagogue, Trump remarked that it was his guest’s 81st birthday.
Samet was met with an impromptu rendition of “Happy Birthday.”
“They wouldn’t do that for me, Judah,” the president quipped.