A SLAVE TO HIS BASE

President Trump spoke almost exclusively to his Republican supporters during his latest State of the Union speech; Democrat Stacey Abrams blasts Trump and the GOP in response.

President
OLIVIER DOULIERY/ABACA PRESS/TNS
Democratic women in the U.S. House of Representatives dressed in white for President Trump’s State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday.

COMPILED FROM WIRE AND STAFF REPORTS

WASHINGTON ‒ President Donald Trump’s 2019 State of the Union speech, delivered Tuesday night, following a government shutdown that left many people irreparably damaged, was taken in stride by African-Americans and Democratic leaders who express little hope for change.

“We meet tonight at a moment of unlimited potential. As we begin a new Congress, I stand here ready to work with you to achieve historic breakthroughs for all Americans,” Trump said in the speech in which he never mentioned the hardships of the historic shutdown which, for weeks, put thousands of Americans either out of work or caused them to work without pay.

‘One nation’

“Millions of our fellow citizens are watching us now, gathered in this great chamber, hoping that we will govern not as two parties but as one nation. The agenda I will lay out this evening is not a Republican agenda or a Democrat agenda. It is the agenda of the American people.”

The lofty words of the president resonated little with Democrats and Black leaders as he ignored the pain of the shutdown for which he initially claimed credit. Besides that, America had heard it all before. Even during his inaugural address, he promised to be president for all the people ‒ after which his administration has become one of the most racially and culturally divisive in history.

Trump’s speech got intense applause from Republicans, especially as he mentioned his quest for a “border wall” which has become widely known as a dog-whistle to his base and a core race issue. As he pushed the need for the wall in the speech, he never mentioned his campaign promise that “Mexico will pay” for the wall.

“In the past, most of the people in this room voted for a wall, but the proper wall never got built.  I’ll get it built,” he said.

Democrats respond

Stacey Abrams used the Democratic State of the Union response Tuesday to blast President Donald Trump for the 35day partial government shutdown, calling it a stunt that “defied every tenet of fairness and abandoned not just our people ‒ but our lives.”

Abrams, who narrowly lost a bitter contest last year for governor of Georgia, used the nationally televised address to not only criticize Trump and his policies, but to jab Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell for his recent verbal assaults on a House Democratic voting rights and election bill that he has labeled a Democratic “power grab.”

“This is the next battle for our democracy, one where all eligible citizens can have their say about the vision we want for our country,” Abrams said. “We must reject the cynicism that says allowing every eligible vote to be cast and counted is a ‘power grab.”

McConnell, R-Ky., has led the charge against the Democratic House bill that seeks to repair the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act that the Supreme Court fractured in 2013. The bill would also make Election Day a federal holiday, require presidents and vice presidents to release their tax returns, and restore voting rights to certain felons who have served their time.

‘Threat to democracy’

“Let’s be clear: voter suppression is real,” Abrams said. “From making it harder to register and stay on the rolls to moving and closing polling places to rejecting lawful ballots, we can no longer ignore these threats to democracy.”

To Democrats, Abrams represents both a dream deferred and a rising star. To Republicans, she is a vanquished foe whose political moment has passed ‒ even if she refuses to recognize it.

Abrams was aiming to take a step to further stardom Tuesday night in delivering the Democratic response. The Yale-educated lawyer and former Georgia state House Democratic leader was the first African-American woman and non-sitting public official to deliver a rebuttal to a presidential address.

Voting rights focus

She used the moment to reintroduce herself to a nation that watched the hotly contested and racially charged election in red state Georgia between her and eventual winner Republican Brian Kemp. The Mississippi-born daughter of United Methodist ministers told her family story Tuesday and returned to one of her signature political themes: Voting rights.

Abrams, who sought last year to become the nation’s first African-American female governor, turned most of her attention to Trump. She described how, during the shutdown, she volunteered to distribute meals to furloughed federal workers while “they waited in line for a box of food and a sliver of hope since they hadn’t received a paycheck in weeks.”

“Making their livelihoods a pawn for political games is a disgrace,” Abrams said with a multiracial, multicultural crowd of people standing in the background.

“The shutdown was a stunt engineered by the president of the United States, one that defied every tenet of fairness and abandoned not just our people ‒ but our values,” she said.

Tough election

In the nearly three months since she lost to Kemp, Abrams has become a very public reminder of the battle over voting rights and voter fraud that surfaced during the bitterly fought campaign.

Georgia became the epicenter of the skirmish with many Democrats and other Abrams supporters claiming that Kemp stole the election as he purged hundreds of thousands of mostly minority voters from the rolls while Georgia’s secretary of state. The office oversees elections.

Republicans call Democrats’ stolen-election claim sour grapes and brand Abrams a sore loser for refusing to recognize Kemp’s win as legitimate.

Trump laid out some key bipartisan goals such as research to end childhood cancer and HIV/AIDS as well as successes, including economic gains, infrastructure, and criminal justice reform. Guests in the gallery included formerly incarcerated of fenders who he had pardoned under new bi-partisan criminal justice reform.

First released

Those guests included Alice Johnson, who had served nearly 22 years of a life sentence as a first-time drug offender and Matthew Charles, sentenced to 35 years for selling drugs now “the first person to be released from prison under the First Step Act,” Trump said.

Despite the bipartisan highlights in the speech, Black leaders note that his “racist” views and policy omissions far outweigh the positives.

“Once again the President used the State of the Union as an opportunity to spew the same racist rhetoric, that does nothing but bolster his detachment and disinterest towards the real issues that plague our nation,” NAACP President Derrick Johnson said in a statement.

“While President Trump rallied for a wall on the border and credited his presidency for lowering unemployment numbers, which he touted after the longest government shutdown in our nation’s history, he conveniently overlooked the voter suppression, over policing, gun violence, and detrimental and xenophobic immigration policies that his administration has instituted that disproportionately affect communities of color.”

Deeds, not words

Jim Clyburn, the most powerful Black member of Congress as House majority whip, pointed out that Democrats are ready to work with Trump.

“We welcome his words of comity and are hopeful there will be issues like infrastructure, prescription drug costs, and defeating the spread of HIV where we can find common ground. However, as House Democrats, we know the role we were elected to play and, as my faith teaches me, we know we will be judged on our deeds, not our words.”

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Hazel Trice Edney of the Trice Edney News Wire, and William Douglas and Julianna Rennie of McClatchy Washington Bureau / TNS all contributed to this report.

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