6 Feb 2019

Trump State of the Union speech: 'Walls save lives'

5:15 pm on 6 February 2019

President Donald Trump vowed in his State of the Union speech to build a border wall that is a source of a deep partisan divide and said Democratic attempts at "ridiculous partisan investigations" could damage US prosperity.

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US President Donald Trump delivers the State of the Union address at the US Capitol in Washington, DC. Photo: AFP

Mr Trump spoke in the chamber of the House of Representatives facing political discord over his demands that Democrats end their opposition to funding for a border wall he says is needed to stem illegal immigration and smuggled drugs.

He called illegal immigration "an urgent national crisis," but stopped short of declaring a border emergency that would allow him to bypass Congress for wall funding. Instead, he urged Democrats and Republicans to find a compromise by a 15 February deadline.

"In the past, most of the people in this room voted for a wall, but the proper wall never got built. I will get it built," Mr Trump said in the highly anticipated speech before a joint session of the US Congress, with his main Democratic adversary, new House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi, watching over his shoulder.

Democrats call the wall a waste of money and ineffective.

At the same time, Mr Trump warned that Democratic efforts to investigate his administration, along with the possibility of US involvement in wars abroad, would endanger the US economy.

"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," he said.

His remarks came as Democrats, who now control the House, planned a series of probes into the Trump administration and a special prosecutor investigates Russian meddling into the 2016 presidential election and possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Moscow. Russia denies meddling and Mr Trump has said there was no collusion.

Apart from lauding economic accomplishments - unemployment near a five-decade low and manufacturing job growth among them - Mr Trump's speech was light on new initiatives to further stoke growth in an economy seen as losing momentum as it began 2019. A Reuters poll last month forecast economic growth would slow to 2.1 percent this year after likely averaging around 3 percent in 2018.

Two sides at odds

Ms Pelosi, who wore white like many Democratic lawmakers to celebrate the 100th anniversary of American women gaining the right to vote, applauded half-heartedly at times and frequently sat stony-faced through Mr Trump's address.

She has shown no sign of budging from her opposition to Mr Trump's wall-funding demand. That has led Mr Trump to contemplate declaring a national emergency, which he says would let him reallocate funding from elsewhere without congressional action.

Some of Trump's fellow conservatives have urged him not to declare an emergency. Such a move would "upend" the balance of powers between the White House and Congress, Republican Senator Susan Collins told reporters on Tuesday.

Mr Trump used part of his speech to offer a spirit of compromise, particularly in areas such as lowering the price of prescription drugs and funding a $1 trillion ($NZ1.45b) upgrade in US roads, bridges and other infrastructure.

But whether Mr Trump and his opponents would follow through was far from clear, with both sides entrenched in long-held positions and girding for 2020 elections, reluctant to give the other side a political victory.

The Republican president appeared in the House chamber just weeks after his demand for $5.7 billion ($NZ8.3b) in funding for a US-Mexico border wall triggered a historic 35-day partial government shutdown that more than half of Americans blamed him for, according to Reuters/Ipsos polling.

The nationally televised address gave Mr Trump his biggest opportunity to date to explain why he believes a barrier is needed on the U.S. southern border with Mexico. The speech was delayed for a week because of the shutdown, which ended on 25 January.

"Simply put, walls work and walls save lives. So let's work together, compromise, and reach a deal that will truly make America safe," Mr Trump said.

Mr Trump also called attention to his efforts to rewrite trade deals with China and other nations to make the terms more favourable to the United States.

As his economic advisers work to complete a trade deal with China, Mr Trump said any agreement "must include real, structural change to end unfair trade practices, reduce our chronic trade deficit, and protect American jobs."

He also called out Iran for threats against Israel.

"We will not avert our eyes from a regime that chants Death to America and threatens genocide against the Jewish people," he will say.

Mr Trump also addressed foreign policy, including support for an effort to coax Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro into leaving power and declaring the Islamic State militant group all but defeated. He also announced he would hold a second nuclear summit with North Korea's leader this month.

"Much work remains to be done, but my relationship with Kim Jong-un is a good one," Mr Trump said.

- Reuters

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