WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump sought to infuse his maiden State of the Union address with an undercurrent of optimism, declaring Tuesday the nation was thriving a year after he took office.
“Let us begin tonight by recognizing that the state of our union is strong because our people are strong,” Trump said inside a crowded House chamber. “Together, we are building a safe, strong, and proud America.”
Arguing for bipartisan efforts while trumpeting the roaring stock market and low unemployment, Trump struck a unifying tone after a year of stoking divisions on race, politics and gender.
“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 we were elected to serve,” Trump said.
“We have gone forward with a clear vision and a righteous mission — to make America great again for all Americans,” he said.
Whether one hourlong address can achieve that goal remains to be seen. Trump remains deeply divisive, and Washington has fractured during his first year in office as controversies mount. Investigations into Russian election meddling are heating up as Trump prepares for a potential interview with special counsel Robert Mueller.
In his remarks, Trump heralded the large package of tax cuts he signed into law last year. He proclaimed that a regulatory rollback has allowed industries to thrive. And he insisted that his administration has “sought to restore the bonds of trust between our citizens and their government.”
Trump also advocated for an immigration proposal that would allow up to 1.8 undocumented immigrants to remain in the country while funding a border wall, ending the visa lottery system and reforming family immigration rules.
“I am extending an open hand to work with members of both parties — Democrats and Republicans — to protect our citizens of every background, color, religion, and creed,” Trump said. “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.
“Americans,” Trump said, “are dreamers too.”
At the same time, Trump did not avoid oblique references the divisive topics that have salted his first year in office, including the controversy over football players kneeling during the National Anthem.
Saluting a 12-year-old guest who spearheaded an effort to place flags on veterans’ gravestones, Trump said the student’s actions reminded all Americans of their “civic duty.”
“Preston’s reverence for those who have served our nation reminds us why we salute our flag, why we put our hands on our hearts for the pledge of allegiance, and why we proudly stand for the National Anthem,” he said, to applause from Republican lawmakers in the crowd.
A president’s State of the Union is typically his highest-profile platform of the year, and viewership is generally higher in the first part of a presidency. But television ratings for the speech have steadily fallen over the decades, and Trump has shown a penchant for bypassing traditional communication channels in favor of Twitter.
If the State of the Union has assumed a reduced importance, however, there were no signs the White House was taking it any less seriously. For months, Trump fed handwritten notes with lines for the speech to his team of speechwriters, a White House official said.
Trump practiced delivering the address from the Map Room on Monday, the official said. Trump’s predecessors also rehearsed their addresses from a mock podium and teleprompter set up in the White House basement room.
Among the items Trump raised in his remarks: a trillion-dollar infrastructure plan, paid for by federal, state and private dollars; the sweeping tax cuts he signed into law late last year; and foreign policy matters, including “eye-opening” remarks on North Korea, according to a person familiar with the remarks.
A team of speechwriters and top policy aides helped Trump craft his address, White House officials said. They included National Economic Council director Gary Cohn, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, senior policy adviser Stephen Miller and staff secretary Rob Porter.
Trump first reviewed a draft of his State of the Union address in December, and has made handwritten edits in recent days with black felt tip pens. In the last several weeks, Trump has workshopped ideas for the speech or edited certain sections while in the residence at night, handing over his changes to staffers the next day.
Trump told a gathering of TV news anchors Tuesday ahead of his address that he would like to see the country “united” and hopes to help rally the country around a sense of national unity.
The President said he would consider unifying the country a great achievement and that he would like to achieve national unity without a “major event,” such as a national tragedy or major terrorist attack.
While Trump acknowledged that the country is currently very divided, he also said he believes the country was more divided during the Bill Clinton impeachment, citing a conversation he had with a Democratic lawmaker.
The speech is not likely to touch on the Russia matter, people familiar with it said, opting instead to focus on policy. Trump hopes a serious-minded message can help improve his standing in the polls.
The President’s approval rating stood at 40% in CNN’s last survey, his highest mark since last September, but still the lowest for any elected president at the one-year mark since modern public opinion polling began.
Democrats selected Rep. Joe Kennedy of Massachusetts, a grandson of Robert F. Kennedy, to deliver the traditional response to the President’s speech. A number of other responses are also planned, including by Sen. Bernie Sanders, the independent Vermont senator who ran for President in 2016. A number of Democrats have planned to boycott the speech.
The White House announced on Monday that 15 guests would sit above the House floor in the first lady’s box, a tradition that past presidents have used to illustrate their successes. This year’s guests include a firefighter who helped battle blazes in California and the parents of children killed by the MS-13 gang.
The first lady herself also plans to attend the speech. Ordinarily, Melania Trump’s presence at the State of the Union would not be notable — but she hasn’t appeared in public with her husband since reports emerged last week that Trump allegedly had an affair with a porn star.
Melania Trump arrived at the Capitol separately from her husband so she could meet one-on-one with the invited guests. Presidents and first ladies typically travel to the speech together.
CNN’s Jim Acosta, Kaitlan Collins, and Jeremy Diamond contributed to this report.