WASHINGTON - President Trump used his first address to Congress on Tuesday to proclaim American greatness and push an ambitious agenda of economic nationalism, declaring, "The time for small thinking is over. The time for trivial fights is behind us."
In a speech that combined his "America First" campaign themes with the first outlines of a legislative program, Trump opened the possibility of comprehensive immigration deal, pitched $1 trillion in "Buy American, Hire American" infrastructure spending, and touted historic tax cuts.
But first, he recounted his 2016 election victory, describing it as a "quiet protest" that "became an earthquake" in the 2016 election. "People turned out by the tens of millions, and they were all united by one very simple, but crucial demand, that America must put its own citizens first, because only then, can we truly 'Make America Great Again.'"
Immigration has dominated Trump's turbulent five-and-a-half weeks in the White House, and Trump touted his plans to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border and ban travel from seven Muslim majority nations. Trump is expected to issue an update of the travel ban order Wednesday.
"It is not compassionate, but reckless, to allow uncontrolled entry from places where proper vetting cannot occur," Trump said. "We cannot allow a beachhead of terrorism to form inside America — we cannot allow our nation to become a sanctuary for extremists."
But for the first time, Trump also opened a crack in the window to comprehensive immigration reform — a goal that has bedeviled the past two presidents — calling for an Australian-style "merit-based immigration system" that would favor middle-class immigrants to the country."I believe that real and positive immigration reform is possible, as long as we focus on the following goals: to improve jobs and wages for Americans, to strengthen our nation’s security, and to restore respect for our laws," he said. "If we are guided by the well-being of American citizens then I believe Republicans and Democrats can work together to achieve an outcome that has eluded our country for decades."
In previewing his remarks, Trump told a group of television news anchors that he might pursue a compromise immigration bill with Congress, possibly one with a path to legalization for migrants who are in the country illegally but otherwise have no criminal records.
"The time is right for an immigration bill as long as there is compromise on both sides," Trump said.
In recent years, congressional efforts to forge a new immigration regime have foundered partly because of objections to a path to legal status by many Republicans — and by many voters who supported Trump in last year's presidential election.
The speech emphasized what Trump says are the economic benefits of strict immigration enforcement: "By finally enforcing our immigration laws, we will raise wages, help the unemployed, save billions of dollars, and make our communities safer for everyone,"
The president's first speech to Congress also includes a laundry list of policy proposals. Among the issues on Trump's list:
► Health care: "Mandating every American to buy government approved health insurance was never the right solution for America. The way to make health insurance available to everyone is to lower the costs of health insurance and that is what we will do. Tonight, I am also calling on this Congress to repeal and replace Obamacare, with reforms that expand choice, increase access, lower costs, and at the same time, provide better health care. Obamacare is collapsing— and we must act decisively to protect all Americans. Action is not a choice – it is a necessity."
► Taxes: "My economic team is developing historic tax reform that will reduce the tax rate on our companies so they can compete and thrive anywhere and with anyone. At the same time, we will provide massive tax relief for the middle class."
► Child care: "My administration wants to work with members in both parties to make child care accessible and affordable to help ensure new parents have paid family leave, to invest in women's health, and to promote clean air and clean water and rebuild our military infrastructure."
► Defense: "I am sending Congress a budget that rebuilds the military, eliminates the defense sequester, and calls for one of the largest increases in national defense spending in American history. My budget will also increase funding for our veterans. Our veterans have delivered for this nation — and now we must deliver or them."
Trump also used the speech to condemn recent hate incidents, including vandalism at Jewish cemeteries and bomb threats against Jewish community centers, as well as last week's shooting of two Indian men in Kansas. "While we may be a nation divided on policies, we are a country that stands united in condemning hate and evil in all its forms," Trump said.
The address comes a day after Trump's team proposed a $54 billion boost in the defense budget, a 10% increase that would be financed by an equal amount of still-undefined cuts in other government programs. In an interview on Fox & Friends Tuesday morning, Trump also touted an aggressive deportation program focused on migrants with criminal records.
Asked about financing his plans, Trump said, "I think the money is going to come from a revved up economy," thanks to reduced regulations on businesses.
In any event, Congress will have to sign off on many of Trump's tax cut and spending hike plans.
Trump's trip to Capitol Hill caps a heated start to his presidency. While facing mass protests and lawsuits over his travel ban and deportation policies, Trump has also used Twitter and the presidential bully pulpit to attack political opponents and the media. The friction often deals with ongoing investigations into possible contacts between Trump's team and Russians during last year's presidential election.
Polls put Trump's approval ratings below 50%, unusually low for this early in a presidency.
Hours before the event, Democrats and other critics were already attacking many of Trump's proposals, saying they will benefit the wealthy at the expense of working people he claimed to represent during his campaign.
Such speeches are often visible reminders of the partisan divisions in Congress, as Republicans stood and cheered while Democrats mostly sat mute. Democratic women wore white in honor of the women's suffrage movement. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., was the only Democrat to stand when Trump uttered his slogan "make America great again." Many Democrats laughed audibly when Trump said he has begun "to drain the swamp."
Former Kentucky governor Steve Beshear, delivering the Democratic response, accused Trump of picking "a cabinet of billionaires and Wall Street insiders who want to eviscerate the protections that most Americans count on and that help level the playing field."
"That’s not being our champion," he said, in remarks released in advance. "That’s being Wall Street’s champion."
As with previous presidential addresses before Congress, members of both parties will bring guests who can help illustrate their political agendas.
Trump's guest list includes people who have had relatives killed by migrants who were in the country illegally. Also in the presidential box: The widow of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, who died a year ago. Trump has nominated appeals court judge Neil Gorsuch to replace Scalia.
Guests of Democratic lawmakers include migrants brought to the United States illegally by their parents, and now at risk of deportation. Democrats have also invited Muslims and refugees who could be affected by Trump's proposed travel policies, currently the subjects of challenges in courts.
Contributing: Erin Kelly in Washington and Alan Gomez in Miami.