Donald Trump claimed “incredible results” in boosting the US economy in an often tense State of the Union address that highlighted the president’s bet that resilient job growth and a pair of trade deals can propel him to re-election this year.
Speaking to lawmakers on the floor of the House of Representatives where he was impeached less than two months ago, Mr Trump said the US was “thriving and highly respected again”, with booming employment, declining poverty and soaring confidence.
“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,” Mr Trump said.
The president spoke the day before the Republican-controlled Senate was expected to vote to acquit him on charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress levelled by House Democrats over his actions towards Ukraine.
Mr Trump avoided any mention of impeachment but his differences with Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic House speaker, were apparent. Before he spoke, Mr Trump failed to respond to her attempt at a handshake. Ms Pelosi frequently grimaced at his words and she ripped up a copy of his speech at its conclusion.
After the address, Ms Pelosi labelled Mr Trump’s remarks a “manifesto of mistruths”.
Mr Trump’s speech set the tone for his re-election campaign as he made little effort to persuade Congress to pass big new policy measures — a recognition that legislative activity will probably grind to a halt this year as the campaign heats up.
The president used much of his speech to outline his commitment to conservative causes popular with his political base, from gun rights to fighting crime committed by immigrants. He also awarded the presidential medal of freedom to Rush Limbaugh, the rightwing radio talk show host who was in the audience and was recently diagnosed with lung cancer.
Although the president faced the biggest foreign policy crisis of his term a month ago when military tensions rose with Iran, Mr Trump did not speak about relations with Tehran at length. Instead, he hewed to familiar themes of US military superiority.
“Our military is completely rebuilt with its power being unmatched anywhere in the world,” he said, celebrating the US missions that killed Isis leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and Iran’s top military commander Qassem Soleimani.
Mr Trump wondered aloud whether Iran was “too proud or too foolish” to fix its economy by negotiating a new deal to end tough US sanctions, and pointed to peace talks that might allow him to pull US troops out of Afghanistan, saying it was not America’s role “to serve other nations as law enforcement agencies”.
The president also hailed the presence in the gallery of Juan Guaidó, the Venezuelan politician recognised internationally as the country’s president.
“The United States is leading a 59-nation diplomatic coalition against the socialist dictator of Venezuela, Nicolás Maduro,” Mr Trump said, castigating him as “a tyrant who brutalises his people”.
Apart from a fleeting reference to Nato countries finally “paying their fair share” to maintain the military alliance, transatlantic relations, including America’s ties with the UK, did not feature in the speech.
With a US unemployment rate of 3.5 per cent, the lowest since 1969, the president took credit for what he called a “blue-collar boom” that has helped lift up lower-income Americans left behind in earlier stages of the country’s decade-old expansion.
A rare moment of bipartisan unity came when Mr Trump called for more infrastructure investment, though it is far from clear whether Republicans and Democrats can agree on concrete legislation.
Mr Trump expressed support for a drug pricing bill being promoted by Chuck Grassley, the Republican senator from Iowa, and Ron Wyden, the Democratic senator from Oregon. The measure would impose penalties on drug companies if their prices rise faster than inflation — something some Republicans view as akin to government price controls
Mr Trump also recently secured two milestones on trade, reaching a “phase one” deal to pause the nearly two-year-old trade war with China, and gaining the approval of Congress for USMCA, the revision of Nafta negotiated with Canada and Mexico.
“Many politicians came and went, pledging to change or replace Nafta — only to do absolutely nothing. But unlike so many who came before me, I keep my promises,” he said.
Despite Mr Trump’s claims of economic prowess, the Democratic response to the State of the Union attacked him for failing to live up to his promise to rejuvenate working America.
“It doesn’t matter what the president says about the stock market,” said Gretchen Whitmer, the Democratic governor of Michigan. “American workers are hurting . . . Wages have stagnated, while CEO pay has skyrocketed.”
Some Democrats, including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the leftwing Democratic lawmaker from New York, decided to boycott the speech altogether.
“After much deliberation, I have decided that I will not use my presence at a state ceremony to normalise Trump’s lawless conduct & subversion of the Constitution. None of this is normal, and I will not legitimise it,” Ms Ocasio-Cortez wrote on Twitter.