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Trump Discusses Trade, Other Issues in State of the Union Address

In one of the longest State of the Union addresses ever delivered, lasting a total of 82 minutes, President Donald Trump focused on many of his traditional talking points even while repeatedly calling for bi-partisanship in the newly divided U.S. Congress. Mid-way through the speech, Trump drew applause from all sides when he noted that more American women are working than ever before and that this Congress has the most women ever serving. Trump described some of the legislation passed during his administration, including criminal justice reform, as bi-partisan successes.

Much of the speech did not receive bi-partisan applause, however. Trump gave an extended justification for a wall on the U.S. border with Mexico and also insisted on the need to change U.S. trade policies. “To build on our incredible economic success, one priority is paramount: reversing decades of calamitous trade policies,” he asserted. Trump said he will continue to press mainland China to make “real, structural change to end unfair trade practices” in addition to ending a “chronic” trade deficit, as a 1 March deadline approaches for reaching an agreement with Beijing.

The president continued to refrain from criticising mainland Chinese President Xi Jinping, for whom he has “great respect,” and instead blasted “our leaders and representatives for allowing this travesty to happen.” He said that “billions of dollars” are going to the U.S. Treasury without noting that it is U.S. importers and their customers who pay for the tariffs. Trump also pressed for passage of the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement and concluded the international trade section of his speech by asking Congress to pass the United States Reciprocal Trade Act “so that if another country places an unfair tariff on an American product, we can charge them the exact same tariff on the exact same product that they sell to us.”

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (Republican-Iowa) has already announced his opposition to the U.S. Reciprocal Trade Act, however. Grassley is now reviewing two bills to limit uni-lateral presidential tariff authority under Section 232 of the Trade Expansion Act of 1962: (i) the Trade Security Act re-introduced on 6 February by Republican Senator Rob Portman of Ohio, former U.S. trade representative in the George W. Bush administration; and (ii) the Bicameral Congressional Trade Authority Act introduced by Republican Senator Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania. “Members of the Finance Committee, myself included, are reviewing presidential authorities on tariffs and exploring legislation to return some of the powers ceded to the executive branch back to Congress,” Grassley said in a statement.

Trump’s speech also focused on his particular approach to foreign policy and addressed perennial Republican concerns such as abortion and an insistence that America never adopt socialism. Trump decried what he called “ridiculous partisan investigations” of his administration, saying that “if there is going to be peace and legislation, there cannot be war and investigation,” which led to a response on 6 February from Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi that this was “an all-out threat.” The president never referenced the partial government shutdown that delayed delivery of the State of the Union address but the Democratic response delivered by former Democratic nominee for governor of Georgia Stacey Abrams called it a “stunt, engineered by the President” that “defied every tenet of fairness and abandoned not just our people but our values.”

Abrams also discussed gun violence and gun control in the United States, climate change and other Democratic priorities. Her only reference to trade policy was to say that “farmers caught in a trade war” are among those who “keep our economy running” and deserve more attention from policymakers. She objected to Trump’s immigration policies, noting that “compassionate treatment at the border is not the same as open borders.” She said that presidents Reagan and Obama both understood this, as do most Americans. Abrams remarked that “Democrats stand ready to effectively secure our ports and borders, but we must all embrace that from agriculture to health care. . . America is stronger with immigrants, not walls.”

By contrast, Trump said that he has sent Congress “a common-sense proposal to end the crisis on the southern border.” By referencing a “crisis,” Trump may be establishing the basis to use “emergency powers” to build a wall if Congress does not come up with an acceptable plan, something he has repeatedly threatened to do. In the official Spanish language response for Spanish television stations, California Attorney General and former U.S. representative Xavier Becerra said in regard to the potential use of emergency powers to build a wall that “not only is it immoral, it’s illegal” and “we are prepared to reject this foolish proposal.”

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