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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 22 June 2018

Trump declares 'new American moment' in State of the Union address

Unlike previous speeches, Mr Trump extended a hand to work with Democrats on infrastructure and immigration legislation

In his first State of the Union address, Donald Trump adopted a more presidential tone, avoiding his habit of attacking political opponents and instead extended a hand to work with Democrats on immigration and infrastructure plans.

Mr Trump spoke for 80 minutes on Tuesday night, declaring a "new American moment" lauding a "new tide of optimism... already sweeping across our land" a year since he took office. The speech highlighted US economic growth and falling unemployment claims, that he said are at a 45-year low.

But the response from the Congress seemed as polarised as the past year in American politics. While Republicans roared and cheered the president with standing ovations, Democrats remained seated for the most part, and the Black Caucus did not react to Mr Trump's statement that joblessness is at its lowest ever rate for African Americans.

The president, narrating the personal stories of invited guests, also stuck to the populist and nationalist message acclaimed for his rise from business and television stardom to the highest office in the land.

"America has also finally turned the page on decades of unfair trade deals that sacrificed our prosperity and shipped away our companies, our jobs, and our nation's wealth," he said, proclaiming that the “era of economic surrender is over".

Mr Trump then urged cooperation with Democrats on policies traditionally seen as bipartisan.

"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," he said.

"I am calling on the Congress to produce a bill that generates at least $1.5 trillion for the new infrastructure investment we need."

On immigration, Mr Trump proposed a four-pillar plan and a merit-based system for new entrants.

Courtesy WorldClouds.com
Courtesy WorldClouds.com

The first pillar "offers a path to citizenship for 1.8 million illegal immigrants who were brought here by their parents at a young age". The second was the much-touted building of a wall on the southern border with Mexico, the third calls for an end to the green card visa lottery programme, and the fourth involves an end to so-called chain migration in families.

While Democrats will be unlikely to agree to the proposed outline, the plan is critical to start negotiations ahead of another looming deadline to fund the US government on February 8.

Looking beyond America, Mr Trump focused on North Korea's nuclear threat, warning that the communist state would "very soon" threaten the US with missiles.

"We are waging a campaign of maximum pressure to prevent that from happening," he said, arguing that "no regime has oppressed its own citizens more totally or brutally" than Pyongyang.

But his biggest foreign policy announcement of the night concerned the Guantanamo Bay detention centre, which former president Barack Obama tried but failed to close. Reversing Mr Obama's policy, Mr Trump said he had signed an executive order on Tuesday directing the Pentagon to keep the prison open while re-examining the military's policy on detention.

On the Middle East, Mr Trump said he was determined to counter the terrorism of ISIL, support Israel, and he again criticised Iran.

"I am proud to report that the coalition to defeat ISIL has liberated almost 100 per cent of the territory once held by these killers in Iraq and Syria," he said.

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On Israel, the US president received a standing ovation when reiterating to Congress his decision last month to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

He also again threatened to cut funds to countries who voted against the US decision on Jerusalem at the United Nations.

On Iran, the US president returned to the recent protests in the country.

"When the people of Iran rose up against the crimes of their corrupt dictatorship, I did not stay silent. America stands with the people of Iran in their courageous struggle for freedom," he said, urging Congress to address fundamental flaws "in the terrible Iran nuclear deal", that the Obama administration agreed with Tehran, alongside five other leading nations.

Mr Trump, in a rare criticism of Russia, called both Moscow and China rivals that "challenge our interests, our economy, and our values". He did not mention Yemen, Syria's President Bashar Al Assad or the war in Libya in the speech.

A poll by CBS News showed that Mr Trump's unity message received a 97 per cent approval rate from Republicans, 43 per cent from Democrats and 72 per cent from Independents. All are higher numbers than Mr Trump's approval rating at 38 per cent, according to a Gallup poll.

The Democratic response was delivered by Joe Kennedy III, the great nephew of late president John Kennedy. The 37-year-old looked back on the past 12 months, drawing a parallel with Mr Trump's apparent desire to look forward, saying many Americans "have spent the past year anxious, angry, afraid".

“We all feel the fault lines of a fractured country," said Mr Kennedy. "We hear the voices of Americans who feel forgotten and forsaken."