WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump on Tuesday delivered a message of bipartisan unity in his first address to Congress in the new era of divided government, but any hope of harmony was dispelled long before he arrive at the Capitol.
Trump, who has warred with Democrats for weeks over his plan to build a wall along the nation’s southwestern border, sought to use the nationally televised speech to present himself as a leader who can work across party lines even as he continued to press lawmakers to give him money for the barrier.
“Together, we can break decades of political stalemate,” Trump told lawmakers from the rostrum of the House of Representatives. “We can bridge old divisions, heal old wounds, build new coalitions, forge new solutions and unlock the extraordinary promise of America’s future. The decision is ours to make.”
He called on Washington to reject ‘‘the politics of revenge, resistance, and retribution.’’
Yet he signaled that he will not back off his hardline immigration policies that have polarized the country. “No issue better illustrates the divide between America’s working class and America’s political class than illegal immigration,” he said. “Wealthy politicians and donors push for open borders while living their lives behind walls and gates and guards.”
He issued a warning, saying: “An economic miracle is taking place in the United States and the only thing that can stop it are foolish wars, politics or ridiculous partisan investigations.”
The speech came at a pivotal moment halfway through the president’s term as he seeks to regain momentum following the midterm election defeat that handed control of the House to Democrats and his failed effort to use a partial government shutdown to extract money for the wall. Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic leader who has blocked his efforts to build the border barrier, sat behind him for the first time on the House rostrum.
The change in the Capitol was on display as Pelosi and scores of House Democratic women wore white, the color of the suffrage movement, reflecting the fact that 131 women were sworn into the new Congress, the most in American history.
The 72-year-old Trump harkened back to moments of American greatness, celebrating the moon landing as astronaut Buzz Aldrin looked on from the audience and heralding the liberation of Europe from the Nazis. He led the House chamber in singing happy birthday to a Holocaust survivor sitting with first lady Melania Trump.
‘‘Together, we represent the most extraordinary nation in all of history. What will we do with this moment? How will we be remembered?’’ Trump said.
The president ticked through a litany of issues with crossover appeal, including boosting infrastructure, lowering prescription drug costs, and combating childhood cancer. But he also appealed to his political base, both with his harsh rhetoric on immigration and a call for Congress to pass legislation to prohibit the ‘‘late-term abortion of children.’’
Trump, who fired his HIV/AIDS advisory council a year ago and has no one working in the White House Office of National AIDS Policy, pledged to direct fresh money and knowledge to eradicate the epidemic.
He announced a strategy to stop the spread of HIV by 2030 by concentrating as-yet unspecified resources on 48 counties and other ‘‘hot spots’’ where half the nation’s new infections occur.
‘‘Scientific breakthroughs have brought a once-distant dream within reach,’’ the president said in the latter part of his annual agenda-setting speech to both chambers of Congress. ‘‘Together, we will defeat AIDS in America and beyond.’’
The president did not identify how much additional money the government would devote to the effort, saying only that his budget ‘‘will ask Democrats and Republicans to make the needed commitment eliminate the HIV epidemic in the United States within 10 years.’’
Trump devoted much of his speech to foreign policy, another area where Republicans have increasingly distanced themselves from the White House. He announced details of a second meeting with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, outlining a Feb. 27-28 summit in Vietnam.
Trump and Kim’s first summit garnered only a vaguely worded commitment by the North to denuclearize. But the president said his outreach to Pyongyang had made the United States safer.
Democrats tapped Stacey Abrams, who lost a close race for governor of Georgia in November, to deliver the official response, but others sought to get in on the action as well. Senator Kamala Harris of California, who is running for president, delivered hers shortly before the speech while Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who may run too, planned to deliver his afterward.
Abrams identified Trump as architect of the 35-day partial government shutdown that ended last month, though a possible reprise looms in the coming weeks.
‘‘The shutdown was a stunt engineered by the president of the United States,’’ Abrams said, ‘‘one that defied every tenet of fairness and abandoned not just our people, but our values.’’
Stung by his retreat on the government shutdown, Trump has hardly been in the mood for collaboration with the other party. As he and his team have drafted his address in recent days, he has groused about the text, complaining that it is too gentle on Democrats, according to people briefed on the matter.
During an off-the-record lunch for television anchors before the speech, Trump offered scathing assessments of a number of leading Democrats, including some lining up to run against him next year.
He dismissed former vice president Joe Biden as “dumb,” called Senator Chuck Schumer of New York a “nasty son of a bitch,” and mocked Governor Ralph Northam of Virginia for “choking like a dog” at a news conference where he tried to explain a racist yearbook photo, according to multiple people in the room.
Trump arrived at this point in his presidency with the approval of just 37 percent of the public, according to Gallup. In the past four decades, the only times a president headed into a State of the Union address with as little or less support were in 1983 when Ronald Reagan was struggling with a painful recession and in 2007 and 2008 when George W. Bush was trying to turn around the Iraq war.
After presidents suffer setbacks in midterm elections, they often reach out to the victorious opposition with words of conciliation, however artificial or short-lived they may be. In Trump’s case, he opened this period of partisan power sharing with a relentless confrontation over his proposed border wall, resulting in the partial government shutdown.
That impasse nearly cost Trump his opportunity to deliver his State of the Union address, as Pelosi refused to let him come to the House chamber as long as federal agencies were closed and workers unpaid. Trump backed down and accepted a measure reopening the government for three weeks, but negotiations in the interim have made no more progress toward winning money for his wall — and the government could close again Feb. 15.
Given that, Trump’s calls for unity were almost surely destined to fall on deaf ears. Even Republicans have publicly rebuked him lately for his plans to withdraw troops from Syria and Afghanistan, and party leaders have pressed him not to declare a national emergency bypassing Congress to build the wall.
Drafts of the speech included a portrait of menacing immigrants endangering Americans and a sharp challenge to Congress to build the wall. Among the guests invited to sit with the first lady during the speech were three family members of a couple killed last month in their home in Reno, Nevada, allegedly by an immigrant in the US illegally.
In his speech, the president spoke of his goal of bringing an end to the “endless wars” in places like Syria and Afghanistan, the threat he sees from Iran,his efforts to negotiate with North Korea and his bid to force President Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela to step down, according to aides.
While the president’s speech was drafted with a message of unity, that did not mean florid language about a lasting political peace, so much as pointing to areas of common cause that the White House can forge with Democrats, according to one official familiar with the discussions.
“Over the last two years,” he said, “my administration has moved with urgency and historic speed to confront problems neglected by leaders of both parties over many decades.”Material from the Associated Press and Washington Post was used in this report.