ADDS IMMIGRATION GROUP COMMENTS
By Michael Hernandez
WASHINGTON (AA) - President Donald Trump urged unity Tuesday in his first State of the Union address following a year of divisive rhetoric and policies.
"This in fact is our new American Moment. There has never been a better time to start living the American dream," Trump declared before a joint session of Congress, using a phrase coined by his Democratic rival in the 2016 presidental election, Hillary Clinton. "We want every American to know the dignity of a hard day’s work; we want every child to be safe in their home at night, and we want every citizen to be proud of this land that we all love."
Throughout his first year in office, Trump has struck a markedly different tone in words and policy.
In addition to lambasting opponents with pejorative rhetoric, Trump has worked to halt immigration from Muslim-majority countries, removed protected status for immigrants who would otherwise have to return to dangerous or impoverished conditions, and ended a program intended to shield from deportation those brought to the U.S. illegally as children.
Trump has since proposed a renewal of the protections as well as a pathway to citizenship for "Dreamers" -- in exchange for a raft of immigration overhauls he has been seeking, including funding for his wall along the U.S.'s southern border with Mexico, which he maintains will be paid for by Mexico.
Trump said the reforms he is seeking "represent a down-the-middle compromise, and one that will create a safe, modern and lawful immigration system".
Janet Murguia, the head of UnidosUS, the nation’s largest Latino advocacy organization, said the president's "call for unity in his first State of the Union is belied by everything he has said since he began his campaign for president and everything his administration has done in the last year.
"President Trump has only spoken of Latinos and other communities of color to insult, demonize or make them targets of his draconian, bigoted policies. No president in the last 100 years has done more to divide Americans than President Trump," she said.
During his address, Trump urged congressional Democrats and Republicans "to come together to give us safe, fast, reliable, and modern infrastructure that our economy needs and our people deserve".
The appeal for bipartisan unity may fall on deaf ears for some who the president had previously taken swipes at, regardless of party. Just last week Trump called Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer "Cryin' Chuck", and has repeatedly called Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren "Pocahontas".
Moreover, officials had indicated Trump would lay out details of his infrastructure plan, but what he presented Tuesday night was short on anything other than its whopping $1.5 trillion price tag.
Wont to tout his accomplishments, Trump highlighted the tax reform package he helped pushed through Congress, again calling it the "biggest tax cuts and reforms in American history" despite it barely ranking in the top three based upon some estimates.
"Since we passed tax cuts, roughly 3 million workers have already gotten tax cut bonuses -- many of them thousands and thousands of dollars per worker," Trump said. "Our massive tax cuts provide tremendous relief for the middle class and small business."
Despite mantras consistently proclaimed by Republicans and Trump, analyses of the tax reform package generally agree the main beneficiaries of the overhaul are the extremely wealthy.
The nonpartisan Tax Policy Center said in December that "higher income households receive larger average tax cuts as a percentage of after-tax income", with the largest effects being felt by the 95th and 99th percentile.
Uniquely hanging over his speech, however, are multiple ongoing investigations into the Trump campaign and its possible collusion with Russia's alleged interference in the 2016 presidential election that officials have said was aimed at undercutting Clinton.
No president has faced such a threat to his future in office so early in his presidency. In addition, Trump’s approval ratings are at historic lows for any president at this stage in office.
"For the last year we have sought to restore the bonds of trust between our citizens and their government," he said. "All Americans deserve accountability and respect -- and that is what we are giving them."
Turning to foreign policy, Trump urged Congress to approve funding to modernize America's nuclear arsenal to deter potential attacks on the homeland, he said.
"Perhaps someday in the future there will be a magical moment when the countries of the world will get together to eliminate their nuclear weapons. Unfortunately, we are not there yet," he said.
"We need only look at the depraved character of the North Korean regime to understand the nature of the nuclear threat it could pose to America and our allies," he said.
As he was preparing to head to the Capitol, Trump's former pick to head diplomacy in South Korea, Victor Cha, wrote a scathing Washington Post op-ed in which he took aim at a proposed limited "bloody nose" strike being mulled within the Trump administration to deter Pyongyang's nuclear and ballistic missile program.
"The president would be putting at risk an American population the size of a medium-size U.S. city — Pittsburgh, say, or Cincinnati — on the assumption that a crazy and undeterrable dictator will be rationally cowed by a demonstration of U.S. kinetic power," he said, pointing to U.S. citizens in South Korea. "A strike also would not stem the threat of proliferation but rather exacerbate it, turning what might be a North Korean moneymaking endeavor into a vengeful effort intended to equip other bad actors against us."
The administration is likely to release its nuclear posture review Friday, and Mark Perry, an independent defense analyst, said it will include funding requests for the development and deployment of low-yield nuclear weapons.
"Many senior military officers believe the expenditures might be better spent on resolving readiness shortfalls," Perry told Anadolu Agency, noting that Pentagon sources have said it will cost about $1.2 trillion to modernize U.S. nuclear forces over a 30-year span.
Trump said he signed an executive order directing Secretary of Defense James Mattis to "reexamine our military detention policy" and keep the controversial military prison at Guantanamo Bay open.
About 800 inmates have been sent to the prison since it opened in 2002. That number is down to just 41 after former President Barack Obama sought to close the facility but failed to accomplish that goal during his eight years in office, largely due to congressionally-imposed hurdles.
And on Iran, a frequent target of criticism for the Trump administration, the president pointed to recent mass demonstrations there, saying the U.S. "stands with the people of Iran in their courageous struggle for freedom.”
Those comments are unlikely to sway Iranians who Trump has barred from coming to the U.S., said Ervand Abrahamian, noted professor of Middle East history at the City University of New York's Baruch College.
"Most Iranians know that he prevents 80 year old grandmothers from visiting their grandchildren because Iranians have been categorized as 'terrorists,'" Abrahamian said. "Now they have been transformed into 'courageous' fighters for 'freedom,’” he added, noting the irony.
Trump further pledged to continue the fight against Daesh until it "is defeated".
"I am proud to report that the coalition to defeat ISIS has liberated very close to 100 percent of the territory just recently held by these killers in Iraq and in Syria and in other locations, as well. But there is much more work to be done," he said.