Trump’s attacks undermine his call for unity in address

  • John Wagner, Sean Sullivan
  • The Washington Post
6:45 a.m. Wednesday, Feb. 7, 2018 Politics
Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post
President Trump delivers his State of the Union address on Jan. 30.

In the week since President Donald Trump made a plea for unity in his State of the Union address, his call for bipartisan cooperation on major legislative priorities has been undermined - on an almost daily basis - by Trump. 

Trump mocked the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee as "Little Adam B. Schiff." He called House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., "a rich woman" who "wants to give all of your money away." He accused Democrats of doing nothing to help young, undocumented immigrants known as "dreamers" and said Democrats do not care about violent MS-13 gang members "pouring into our country." 

And Trump's characterization Monday of Democrats who did not applaud during his address last week as "un-American" and "treasonous" continued to spark outrage Tuesday - with some lawmakers even taking to the House and Senate floors to denounce the president's comments. 

The president's insults - hurled on Twitter and in speeches to supportive audiences - come as he is seeking bipartisan support for some marquee initiatives, including immigration reform and a long-promised plan to pump more than $1.5 trillion dollars into the country's roads, bridges and other ailing infrastructure. 

To many Democrats and even some Republicans, what he's said in recent days isn't helping. 

On Capitol Hill on Tuesday, Democrats said that Trump's partisan attacks were undercutting sensitive negotiations on immigration, and more broadly the notes of unity he tried to hit during his State of the Union address a week ago. In particular, Democrats said they were perturbed by Trump calling them "treasonous" for not standing that night when he relayed that unemployment for blacks and Hispanics had hit record lows during his tenure. 

"It's a ridiculous statement," said Sen. Robert Casey, D-Pa., who faces reelection this year in a state Trump won. "I hope the president would try to unify the country instead of dividing it based on how many applause lines he gets." 

Trump also drew a rebuke Tuesday from a fellow Republican, Sen. Jeff Flake, Ariz., a frequent Trump critic who is retiring from Congress. Flake delivered a brief speech on the Senate floor taking the president to task for likening Democratic disapproval to treason - even if it was not meant to be taken literally. 

"Treason is not a punchline, Mr. President," said Flake, who wondered aloud why Trump would follow up a State of the Union address that seemed designed to foster unity with such a "divisive" comment. 

Trump aides and associates said that Democrats were overreacting and had misplayed the address by sitting silently during so many Trump applause lines. 

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Trump "was clearly joking" when in Monday's speech in Ohio he called Democrats "treasonous." She also said "it's un-American not to be excited" about progress being made on unemployment and other measures of economic strength. 

"Democrats are going to have to make a decision at some point really soon: Do they hate this president more than they love this country? And I hope the answer is no," she said. 

Other Trump associates said a call for unity in State of the Union addresses is standard-operating procedure for presidents of both parties, and that Trump's comments since marked a return to form for a president who does not hesitate to talk tough when attacked or when seeking to get the upper hand in negotiations. 

"I think Trump feels emboldened because his polling is now better, he received rave reviews for his State of the Union and he won the last government shutdown," said Ron Bonjean, a Republican consultant close to the White House, referring to the short-lived shutdown that ended when Democrats dropped a demand to protect immigrants in the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. 

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said Trump's call for unity in the State of the Union address and his insults of Democrats since then highlight what he called the "dichotomy" of "TelePrompTer Trump" and "Twitter Trump." 

Blumenthal said that he thinks Trump's recent rhetoric hurts efforts to strike bipartisan deals, but that his constantly shifting positions are even more problematic to getting things done. 

Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., who is at the center of negotiations on immigration, said that Trump's inconsistent behavior has made it difficult to negotiate with him. 

Trump has proposed legal residency to those enrolled in DACA in exchange for sharp cuts to legal immigration programs and $25 billion to expand the wall on the U.S.-Mexico border. 

"Depending on the day of the week and the issue involved he can take a much different approach," Durbin said. "It's hard to pin him down on anything." 

Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., an ally of the president, said in an interview that in private conversations, the president is more "sensitive" with his remarks than he is on social media or other public settings. 

"That's why you see these statements that he views as positioning himself in the position of strength," Cramer said. "He doesn't ever want to project weakness. And sometimes that can be perceived as not projecting humility. And maybe it is." 

On Twitter in recent days, Trump has needled Democratic leaders, saying they are the ones not committed to a deal on immigration. 

In one tweet, he noted that DACA would expire in early March and said: "Democrats are doing nothing about DACA. They Resist, Blame, Complain and Obstruct - and do nothing." 

The president further inflamed Democrats on Tuesday, saying at a White House event that he would "love to see a shutdown" if an immigration deal to his liking is not reached. 

Trump is also ramping up to push an initiative on infrastructure that was originally part of his agenda for his first 100 days in office but has gotten delayed amid bruising partisan battles over health care and tax cuts. Unlike in those fights, Trump will need Democratic votes for his plan. 

While some Democrats said that Trump's rhetoric over the past week has not improved prospects for cooperation, others said they have become so accustomed to his inflammatory comments that it doesn't change the calculus much. 

"Honestly, I don't pay much attention to what comes out of his mouth," said Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, whose once deep-blue district went only narrowly for Hillary Clinton in 2016. "It's baby talk. It's gibberish. I'd love to work with the administration on an infrastructure bill that's big and paid for and real. But as our leadership's already found out, it's hard to trust what he says." 

Flake's comments aside, Trump's latest outburst did not draw a broad public backlash from GOP lawmakers, and many were quiet on the "treasonous" remark. 

Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., brushed off the president's attacks, and said Trump was "very bipartisan" the night of his State of the Union speech "and got nothing in return." 

He added of the Democrats: "They've said some terrible things about him." 

In a Tuesday interview, Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., said what Trump said about him "would be funny if it wasn't so sad." 

In the same tweet in which Trump called him "Little Adam B. Schiff," Trump accused him of illegally leaking confidential information. 

Schiff quipped that being called "little" seemed like an improvement from "sleazy," a label Trump had previously applied to him. "Maybe he's warming up to me, I don't know," Schiff said. 

Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., an Army veteran who lost her legs after her helicopter was shot down in Iraq, tweeted a rebuke to Trump on Monday: "We don't live in a dictatorship or a monarchy. I swore an oath - in the military and in the Senate - to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States, not to mindlessly cater to the whims of Cadet Bone Spurs and clap when he demands I clap." 

Among the other Democrats who returned fire after Trump's charge of treason was Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., who wrote on Twitter on Monday that " 'treasonous' means betraying your country - like, say, if someone colluded with Russia to influence American elections. The freedom not to clap for ideas you disagree with is called the 1st Amendment." 

On Tuesday, Merkley sent out a fundraising solicitation highlighting Trump's comments.