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Trump's State Of The Union: Unifying Or Divisive?


President Trump delivered his first official State of the Union address last night in front of a divided Congress and what many see as a divided nation.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Tonight, I call upon all of us to set aside our differences, to seek out common ground and to summon the unity we need to deliver for the people. This is really the key. These are the people we were elected to serve.

MARTIN: So the big question - how far will the president's speech go in bringing the country together, in bringing the two political parties together? NPR congressional correspondent Scott Detrow is here along with NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Good morning to you both.



MARTIN: All right. So, Scott, when I was watching this, there were a lot of stone-cold faces on the Democratic side of the aisle last night. Was there anything in the president's speech that made you think, OK, yeah, yeah, maybe he can bring people together?

DETROW: I think probably not. You know, President Trump did talk a lot about bringing the country together last night, about unity. But that's hard to square with the way he's carried himself day in and day out - picking fights, framing policy debates with personal insults, supporting a lot of policies that passed with not any Democratic support or just a handful of Democratic support. And I think it's hard to see one speech changing that, especially when, even though Trump did talk a lot about unity, he also referenced lots of things that are base politics like a vague mention to the controversy over NFL players kneeling during the national anthem in protest.

MARTIN: Right. OK. I want to play a bit of the president's speech that stood out to me last night. This is him talking about how he sees his job. Let's listen.


TRUMP: My duty and the sacred duty of every elected official in this chamber is to defend Americans, to protect their safety, their families, their communities and their right to the American dream because Americans are dreamers too.

MARTIN: So I can just imagine, Mara, Democrats listening to that. And for the first three-quarters of that clip, they're like, yes, yes, yes - and then the last line - oh, no.

LIASSON: (Laughter).

MARTIN: I mean, that was not exactly an olive branch to Democrats when it comes to immigration.

LIASSON: No. They didn't appreciate that diss about the DREAMers. But that was the great paradox of the speech - a lot of talk about bipartisan common ground, offering an olive branch but still the same divisive rhetoric on immigration, which is the president's top priority for the year. And this has been a constant theme with him ever since he announced his candidacy by talking about Mexico sending rapists.

Last night, he talked about the MS-13 gang. He singled out parents of two girls who allegedly were killed by these gang members. The message seemed to be immigrants are coming here to kill us, and Democrats didn't like it. And Dick Durbin, who's the key negotiator for the Democrats on immigration, is reported to have said that Trump's comments about MS-13 were inflammatory. He didn't like the fact that Trump conflated DREAMers with gang members.


LIASSON: So this is not helpful.

MARTIN: So not exactly a sign that things are coming together when it comes to the immigration debate.


MARTIN: No. All right. Let's talk about what the president wanted to discuss last night, Scott. I mean, usually these addresses are used to kind of give a laundry list of everything that has gone right. So the president talked about tax cuts and how well the economy is doing. Let's listen.


TRUMP: Small business confidence is at an all-time high. The stock market has smashed one record after another, gaining $8 trillion and more in value.

MARTIN: So describe how important it is for Republicans to coalesce around this message this year.

DETROW: They would love nothing more to talk about that and nothing else for the rest of the year and run on that. You know, the economy does continue to make steady progress. Republicans want to run a midterm campaign pointing out that, pointing out their tax cut bill that just passed.

They've been promoting the fact that a lot of big corporations have been handing out bonuses or announcing investments and saying that's because of the tax cut. But, of course, we've been talking about many other things. The news has focused on many other things, often negative for Republicans. And that's by and large regularly because that's what President Trump chooses to talk about, to tweet about, to focus on.

MARTIN: Right. We should just note - no mention of Robert Mueller last night, no mention of the Russian investigation, something that has plagued his first year.

DETROW: But a lot on his Twitter feed.

MARTIN: A lot on his Twitter feed, indeed. So, Mara, after the big - the main event, the State of the Union, this is the moment that then the opposition party gets to respond. And Democrats chose Congressman Joe Kennedy - a familiar name, a familiar family - of Massachusetts to give the official response. Let's listen to a clip of this.


JOE KENNEDY: Bullies may lend a punch. They may leave a mark. But they have never, not once in the history of our United States, managed to match the strength and spirit of a people united in defense of their future.

MARTIN: Now, Joe Kennedy was the official response. But, Mara, there were - by my count - I mean, there were four others, right? I mean, is it dangerous for Democrats to look fractured in this moment?

LIASSON: I don't think it matters how many Democrats gave a response to the State of the Union. Joe Kennedy was the official response. And, you know, Republicans started this. They - in the era of the Tea Party, they used to have multiple responses to Obama's State of the Unions. I think the time for Democrats to be united is in 2020. Right now, they're just trying to win a lot of congressional races.

But Joe Kennedy tried to make the argument against Donald Trump, without mentioning his name, based on values and morals. He tried to get away from identity politics. He was speaking in front of a group of white working-class students at a vocational technical college.

MARTIN: No flub-ups? I mean, people can flub these things. He did OK?

LIASSON: Oh, there's always flub-ups. This is a cursed exercise. And, of course, he sounded pretty good on the radio. On television, there were a lot of snarky comments about whether he was wearing too much ChapStick...

MARTIN: Oh, come on.

LIASSON: ...Or drooling.

MARTIN: Tough crowd. NPR's Mara Liasson and Scott Detrow, thanks.

LIASSON: Thank you.

DETROW: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.