Donald Trump reaches across the aisle at the State of the Union, but not for long

While he initially spoke of bipartisanship the US president soon reverted to familiar themes, writes The National's Chief Diplomatic Correspondent Arthur MacMillan

FEBRUARY 5, 2019 - WASHINGTON, DC: President Donald Trump before delivering the State of the Union address, with Vice President Mike Pence and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, at the Capitol in Washington, DC on February 5, 2019. Doug Mills/The New York Times/Pool via REUTERS     TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
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There were nods to bipartisanship. And then there were partisan shots. Both came from Donald Trump.

Such were the contradictions of Tuesday's State of the Union address. A day-by-day contest is going on in Washington that will last until there is a clear winner, or more likely someone concedes the fight.

On one side is the president and his administration. On the other is an opposition that left the Capitol building last night much as they arrived – at odds with what Mr Trump stands for, let alone what his plans are.

But it had started better than that.

There was talk of unlimited potential and historic breakthroughs. The White House's agenda was not Mr Trump's agenda, he said, but the agenda of the American people.

The areas where there could be common ground between Republicans and Democrats were listed: infrastructure, healthcare. America should be aiming for a new standard of living, Mr Trump called for all members of Congress to work together.

And then, 15 minutes after he started, the atmosphere in the room changed in the space of one sentence as Mr Trump's customary hyperbole came to the fore.

“An economic miracle is taking place in the United States – and the only thing that can stop it are foolish wars, politics or ridiculous partisan investigations.”

Television cameras immediately panned to Adam Schiff, the Democratic congressman who as chair of the House Intelligence Committee has pledged to probe Mr Trump's finances and his alleged ties to Russia. But that was just the start. Immigration was the meat of the evening.

“Organised caravans are on the march to the United States,” the president said of migrants from Central America, drawing hisses from the audience.

Mr Trump's planned wall on the Mexico border took up almost one-third of the 85 minutes he was at the lectern. His assembled military chiefs sat stone-faced as the president said he had sent American troops to the southern border to avert a crisis that has caused US workers' wages to fall. Again, people shifted uncomfortably. They were sat together but the gaps between Republicans and Democrats were opening up.

And then came the kicker. The president said the wall would be a “smart, strategic steel see-through barrier in areas where there is the most urgent need” on the border. Such a security barrier would represent a departure but be better from the concrete wall he has long called for $5.7 billion from Congress to build. With a deadline of February 15 for Republicans and Democrats to come up with a new spending bill that will give Mr Trump the money – or cause another government shutdown, as he has threatened. We will know soon if his challenge was persuasive.

The bigger test perhaps is whether he sticks to Tuesday's script, which appeared to mark a climb-down in both structure and scale of the wall, a subject he returned to several times throughout the speech. He called it a crisis, but stopped short of declaring a national emergency as some had feared.

Mr Trump's delivery was more about salesmanship – his own – than anything else.

There were lots of mentions of what “my administration” has done. Current US economic growth – 3 per cent last year – is unprecedented and the biggest anywhere in the world, Mr Trump said. It is not. China grew 6.4 per cent last year. US growth is also forecast to slow to 2.3 per cent this year.

Wages are growing faster than in decades, ushering in greater prosperity. This statement was almost true. US Labor Department figures for December showed pay had increased at the fastest rate since 2009. However, inflation over the same period has wiped out any benefit for the same workers, according to the Pew Research Center.

Then came more talk about healing wounds and choosing “greatness over gridlock”.

Infrastructure was mentioned as an area Republicans and Democrats agree on, but if that remains the case it may not make any difference in the current environment. Mr Trump sought $1.5 trillion for such projects last year and he didn't get it despite Republicans then controlling both the Senate and the House of Representatives.

There was unease when Mr Trump launched into a defence of his trade policy and reiterated that tariffs would be at the heart of it. As he did so, Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic speaker of the House, shook her head, which in fairness appeared an isolated case of visible rejection of Mr Trump, whom she gracefully applauded much of the evening.

There were the customary supporting acts for a State of the Union address; the World War Two veterans; a policeman who survived being shot seven times at a synagogue in Pittsburgh to save others; a drug convict made good and a child cancer survivor.

But the human interest tales did not quite overcome the coldness of a meeting of political opposites.

Dozens of Democratic Congresswomen, dressed in white in honour of suffragettes, and others recoiled as Mr Trump announced plans for legislation to make late-term abortions illegal. Illustrating the divide, Republicans cheered.

Foreign policy was relegated to a bit part player among a chorus of declarations of American greatness. But there will be a second summit with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, in Vietnam on February 27 and 28. “My relationship with Kim Jong-un is a good one,” Mr Trump said.

The same cannot be said for Europe or Nato. “The US was being treated very unfairly by friends of ours,” was his opinion on who paid what for the Cold War military alliance. $100 billion more is being paid by other people, thanks to Mr Trump, he said. Venezuela's crisis was extolled as an example of why America “will never be a socialist country”.

Israel was cited because of the moving of the US embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv. One can only wonder what Palestinians thought as Jared Kushner, the president's son-in-law and Middle East peace adviser, stood up and applauded after Mr Trump described Jerusalem as “the true capital of Israel”.

American involvement in the Middle East is ending in Syria, with ISIS almost eliminated, as well as in Afghanistan, after almost 19 years, the president said. It would be hard to argue that the latter will be done after much achievement, but the Taliban want peace also, he added.

But with the president stopping short of again claiming that ISIS had been defeated, perhaps the clear message sent by Defence Secretary Jim Mattis and the US's top envoy to the coalition against the extremists, Brett McGurk, quitting and the outrage from US allies in the fight against the militants has started to sink in. He did not detail a timeline for Syria withdrawal either.

Iran was again designated “the world's leading state sponsor of terror”, a radical regime whom the US will “never avert its gaze” as long as its leaders chant “Death to America”. Mr Trump's withdrawal from the nuclear deal was the reason Iran will never gain a nuclear weapon, he said. The other parties, who remain in the agreement, say the opposite.

A familiar refrain would be Mr Trump's sign off moment.

“We must keep America first in our hearts,” he said. For that was the mood of the night. America leads and others follow.

In Washington, however, the political reality is different and the speech showed it.

There is no united desire to follow Mr Trump, as the loss of the House of Representatives in the midterm elections illustrated. Democrats effectively have a veto over any legislation he proposes and can turn off the financial tap that his plans need, as well as investigate him. Such a scenario calls for political persuasion. Tuesday's speech indicated that is not on the table. As Mr Trump enters the second half of his first term in office the battle between him and his opponents is only beginning.