CEDAR CITY – Proclaiming a “new chapter of American greatness,” President Donald Trump issued a call for unity and strength Tuesday in his first address to a joint session of Congress since taking office in January.
“That torch is now in our hands,” Trump said. “And we will use it to light up the world. I am here tonight to deliver a message of unity and strength, and it is a message deeply delivered from my heart.”
Condemned by several civil rights groups who had accused him of being slow in denouncing the violent anti-Semitic acts sweeping the country, the president opened his remarks by denouncing the recent threats against the Jewish community and a fatal shooting in Kansas being investigated as a hate crime.
In an appeal to American optimism, Trump asked the country to “believe, once more, in America,” and declared, “The time for small thinking is over.”
He offered an upbeat vision for the future of the country, trading in a combative and hard-hitting attitude for a softer and more presidential tone.
“A new chapter of American greatness is now beginning. A new national pride is sweeping across our nation,” Trump said. “And a new surge of optimism is placing impossible dreams firmly within our grasp.”
Trump made economic recovery the focus of his address that lasted roughly an hour. He asked Congress to help him “restart the engine of the American economy” through tax cuts, better trade deals, immigration enforcement and a $1 trillion infrastructure program.
“Everything that is broken in our country can be fixed,” Trump said. “Every problem can be solved. And every hurting family can find healing, and hope.”
He called for a “national rebuilding,” urging Congress to give him legislation that will fulfill these goals.
Referring to a campaign promise that he has not yet fulfilled in his short five-week stint, Trump said his team is creating a “historic tax reform that will reduce the tax rate on our companies so they can compete and thrive anywhere and with anyone.” He committed to a “big, big cut” that includes a “massive tax relief for the middle class.”
Trump told Congress the U.S. must make it “easier for companies to do business in the United States, and much, much harder for companies to leave our country.”
Trump’s overall message on immigration, one of his signature campaign issues, was unexpectedly mixed. He said he believed that “real and positive immigration reform is possible” and had suggested to news anchors earlier that he was open to legislation that could provide a pathway to legal status for some of the millions of people living in the U.S. illegally.
Topping his list of campaign promises is undoing former President Barack Obama’s defining health care law and replacing it with better health care at a lower cost. Trump urged Congress to repeal and replace Obamacare “with reforms that expand choice” and increase access.
Making a direct appeal for bipartisanship, Trump turned to Democrats and said, “Why not join forces to finally get the job done and get it done right?”
But even as Trump asked congressional leaders to send him a comprehensive package, Democrats and Republicans remain divided in exactly how to deal with the issue and even some of his own GOP members are not fully on board with the idea.
The president was greeted by enthusiastic applause as he entered the House chamber, though it was filled with Democrats who vigorously oppose his policies and many Republicans who never expected him to be elected. Most Republican lawmakers have rallied around him since the election, hopeful that he will act on the domestic priorities they saw blocked during Obama’s eight years in office.
Democrats, now firmly ensconced in the minority, sat silently while Republicans stood and cheered. Some wore blue, pro-health care buttons that read “Protect our care,” and dozens of Democratic women wore white in honor of the women’s suffrage movement.
Delivering Democrats’ formal response after the speech, former Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear accused Trump of planning to “rip affordable health insurance” from Americans and being “Wall Street’s champion.”
First lady Melania Trump sat with special guests who were on hand to amplify the president’s agenda, including the family members of people killed by immigrants living in the U.S. illegally. The widow of former Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia also sat alongside Mrs. Trump, a reminder of the president’s well-received nomination of federal appellate Judge Neil Gorsuch to fill Scalia’s seat.
The majority of Trump’s address centered on the domestic, economic-focused issues that were at the center of his presidential campaign. His national security message centered largely on a call for significantly boosting military spending and taking strong but unspecified measures to protect the nation from “radical Islamic terrorism.”
Underscoring the human cost of those efforts, Trump honored Chief Special Warrant Officer William “Ryan” Owens, who was killed in a raid in Yemen during his first days in office. Owens’ widow, Carryn, sat in the guest box with tears streaming down her face as the crowd stood and applauded at length.
Owens’ death, as well as the killing of several civilians, have raised questions about the effectiveness of the raid. Owens’ father, Bill, has refused to meet with Trump and has called for an investigation into the raid’s planning, criticizing the administration for its timing.
Pushing back against the criticism, the president said Defense Secretary Jim Mattis had assured him that the operation generated “large amounts of vital intelligence that will lead to many more victories in the future against our enemies.”
Trump also voiced support for NATO but reiterated his call for partner countries to meet their financial obligations to the military alliance. Trump has previously called NATO “obsolete,” setting some allies on edge about his commitment to the partnership.
The Associated Press and AP writers Catherine Lucey and Vivian Salama contributed to this report.
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