Democrats were infuriated by President Donald Trump’s first State of the Union speech, claiming the president put an immigration deal even further out of reach with what they called bigoted remarks during the 80-minute address.
After Trump and his White House team teased a bipartisan theme, the minority party was waiting to hear something conciliatory about how to protect hundreds of thousands of young immigrants facing deportation. Instead, Democrats booed Trump’s reference to “chain migration” and fumed afterward that his remarks conflated immigrants with gang members and did little to give so-called Dreamers any reassurance at all.
“The tone was of a divider-in-chief,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said in an interview. “It was a red-meat appeal to the anti-immigrant base of his party, not the unifying, coming-together appeal that we all know is necessary.”
Trump reiterated his proposal to offer 1.8 million undocumented immigrants a pathway to citizenship, dramatically scale back legal immigration and spend billions on a border wall. His only explicit reference to Dreamers, however, was his line that, “Americans are dreamers, too.”
Democrats called it a nativist appeal that belittled a cause — extending protections provided by the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program — that is supported by both parties.
“He’s laying out pillars that are not going to get him a deal from Democrats. A lot of empty rhetoric,” said Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.). “Those words were not helpful.”
“Nothing about the Dreamers,” said Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio). “He had opportunities to heal. I’ve never seen a president that cares nothing about reaching out to people that didn’t vote for him.”
But Trump’s Republican allies pushed back on Democrats’ complaints. Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn of Texas said it was a “good speech” that was “consistent with everything I’ve heard from him.”
“If Democrats don’t figure out a way to negotiate, then the DACA program will end and that’s not an outcome I think anybody would like,” Cornyn said. “But they will be responsible for it. I think they need a little reality check.”
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) had urged her members to resist jeering Trump during his speech. But a smattering of boos was heard in the House chamber after Trump said that “a single immigrant can bring in virtually unlimited numbers of distant relatives.”
Rep. Pete Aguilar (D-Calif.), who has a bipartisan DACA-border security bill in the House, tilted his head back and laughed when Trump called his immigration proposal a “down-the-middle compromise.”
But it was Trump’s “Americans are dreamers, too” remark that rankled Democrats most.
“Really stoking the fires, from my perspective, of bigotry,” said Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.).
Rep. Joe Crowley (D-N.Y.) said after hearing Trump’s speech “you would think coming out of this that every undocumented alien is actually a member of MS-13.” That was a reference to Trump’s repeated mentions of the violent gang in the context of his desire to reform immigration policy.
“That is not reflective of the overall immigrant community and I think that was disgusting that he continued to make reference to them as if every immigrant was a member of the gang,” Crowley said.
Trump’s chilly reception seemed like a foregone conclusion. As he walked into the House chamber, the line of members waiting to shake the president’s hand consisted almost solely of Republicans.
One exception was Sen. Dick Durbin, the No. 2 Senate Democrat who’s been working behind the scenes to try to reach a deal to shield 700,000 Dreamers from deportation. The Illinois Democrat appeared to strategically position himself near the aisle and grab Trump’s hand as he walked by, perhaps angling for a future deal on DACA.
But that prospect seemed far off after Trump’s speech. Durbin called Trump’s references to MS-13 “inflammatory.”
“No one in the world defends them,” Durbin said of MS-13. “We’re talking about DACA and Dreamers, for goodness’ sakes. It’s two different worlds, and he just seems to conflate both.”
Republicans close to Trump smarted over the Democratic reaction to his remarks on immigration. Many Democrats sat expressionless and still during Trump’s remarks, which also heavily focused on the president’s new tax law and on the swelling economy.
“If he drove them further apart, that may mean they don’t want to solve the problem. They want to keep the issue for the campaign,” said Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.).
And the boos were too much for some in the GOP to take.
“They’re trying to make chain migration into a racist issue.” said Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.) of the Democrats. “And it’s just not.”
One exception to the poor Democratic reviews was West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin. The conservative Democrat was often alone in applauding Trump’s remarks and said afterward that the president had offered Democrats an “olive branch.”
“It’s not the way I was raised,” Manchin said of his angry colleagues. “I show respect. Civility and respect.”
Some Republicans were uneasy, too. Conservatives such as Rep. Jody Hice (R-Ga.), who asked Trump after the speech to autograph his “Make America Great Again” hat, remained in his seat when Trump talked about citizenship for some undocumented immigrants. Rep. Mark Sanford (R-S.C.), a member of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, said he saw evidence of the lingering internal divide over immigration in the changing pattern of Republicans rising and sitting as Trump talked about the issue.
“You could tell by the number of sit-ups and sit-downs that went with different portions of the immigration portion of the speech that there’s still strong division,” Sanford said in an interview, adding that the deal Trump wants is “going to take some time and some old-fashioned politicking.”
Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), who is working with a large bipartisan group of senators to try and get an immigration deal to the president’s desk, praised Trump for restating his goal to create a pathway to citizenship for nearly 2 million young immigrants.
But the tone of Trump’s immigration remarks, particularly his emphasis on crime and gang activity, was “kind of back to [an] American carnage” theme, Flake said in an interview.
When Trump referred to Dreamers as “illegal,” Flake said, “You could feel the groan from a lot of people, including me.”