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5 big moments from Trump’s State of the Union address

The greatest hits, a few petty fights, and some seriously scary stuff on North Korea.

Emily Stewart covers business and economics for Vox and writes the newsletter The Big Squeeze, examining the ways ordinary people are being squeezed under capitalism. Before joining Vox, she worked for TheStreet.

President Donald Trump on Tuesday delivered his first State of the Union address. Spanning an hour and 20 minutes, it was the third-longest State of the Union delivered by any president ever (the first and second spots are held by President Bill Clinton). The speech was largely a list of Trump’s greatest hits — the economy, the stock market, immigration — with some ominous messaging and petty items (the NFL kneeling protests) peppered in. It offered little in the way of new proposals or ideas. It was, well, fine.

The internet is subsequently full of plenty of takes and headlines on what Trump’s State of the Union did or didn’t mean. An attempt to move past a tumultuous first year. A nod to a possible “new American moment.” An image of a man for whom the trappings of the presidency are too big.

The Washington Post’s initial headline for the speech, “A call for bipartisanship,” caused so much backlash online that the paper went ahead and changed it before going to print.

Here are five of the big moments from President Trump’s very first State of the Union you may have missed.

Trump delivered an emotional — and sinister — message on MS-13

Whatever conciliatory tone President Trump might have at least feigned to strike on immigration was largely overshadowed by his ominous warnings about MS-13, a gang network that originated in the United States but whose membership is largely composed of Central American immigrants, namely those from El Salvador. The Trump administration in January announced that it would strip more than 250,000 Salvadoran immigrations who’ve been in the United States since a 2001 earthquake of temporary legal status as of July 2019.

He introduced the parents of Kayla Cuevas and Nisa Mickens, two teenage girls who were slain by members of the gang in September 2016 in Long Island, New York, as well as a homeland security agent who was once targeted by the gang. “Many of these gang members took advantage of glaring loopholes in our laws to enter the country as illegal, unaccompanied alien minors, and wound up in Kayla and Nisa’s high school,” he said of the murdered girls as their parents, visibly upset, looked on.

He spoke of MS-13 before laying out his administration’s four-point framework for immigration reform. “We presented Congress with a detailed proposal that should be supported by both parties as a fair compromise, one where nobody gets everything they want but where our country gets the critical reforms it needs and must have,” he said.

Trump spoke about North Korea like Bush talked about Iraq

The most disturbing part of Trump’s State of the Union was, almost certainly, the section focused on North Korea. “North Korea’s reckless pursuit of nuclear missiles could very soon threaten our homeland,” he said. “We need only look at the depraved character of the North Korean regime to understand the nature of the nuclear threat it could pose to America and to our allies.”

He told the story of Ji Seong-ho, a North Korean defector who was tortured and starved by the country’s brutal government and who eventually escaped. He now lives in Seoul. “Seong-ho’s story is a testament to the yearning of every human soul to live in freedom,” Trump said. (As the American Civil Liberties Union noted on Twitter, North Korea was included in Trump’s refugee ban.)

What was unnerving about Trump’s North Korea rhetoric — beyond the ongoing threat of nuclear war — was, as Vox’s Zach Beauchamp noted, that it was reminiscent of George W. Bush’s 2002 “axis of evil” speech and his rhetoric on Iraq. Beauchamp explained:

Trump discussing North Korea in the same way that Bush discussed [former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein] is a troubling warning sign. This is how American presidents sell wars absent an imminent threat. They paint the prospective enemy as evil, an enemy of civilization, something that must be defeated both to preserve our own safety and to secure the future of humanity.

Trump gave a nod to the culture wars he loves

Peppered throughout Trump’s speech were references to some of his pettier battles and Twitter fights.

Trump again touted the unemployment rate among black Americans, which “stands at the lowest rate ever recorded.” Over the weekend, he took a swipe at rapper Jay-Z over the matter. While Trump is right that black unemployment is at a historic low, it’s been falling since the Great Recession, and the rate isn’t clearly attributable to him. The Congressional Black Caucus, well aware of that fact, was unimpressed, its members staring on without clapping as Trump spoke.

The president also took a swipe at the DREAMers, a generation of undocumented immigrants who came to the US as children and had been protected under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which he announced plans to end in September. “Americans are dreamers, too,” he declared — a line that echoed “All Lives Matter,” but for immigration.

Finally, Trump revived his critique of NFL players who kneel during the national anthem in protest of racial injustice and police brutality. Speaking about Preston Sharp, a 12-year-old California boy who organized a campaign to place flags on the graves of some 40,000 veterans, he said the young man’s “reverence for those who have served our nation reminds us why we salute our flag, why we put our hands on our hearts for the Pledge of Allegiance, and why we proudly stand for the national anthem.”

It was one of the biggest applause lines of the night.

“Remove federal employees who undermine the public trust”

“Tonight, I call on Congress to empower every Cabinet secretary with the authority to reward good workers and to remove federal employees who undermine the public trust or fail the American people,” Trump said on Tuesday.

A benign reading of the comment is that it was a reference to broad federal government reorganization. But it was an oddly pointed line, given that removing certain federal employees has been a source of scandal and intrigue in the Trump administration — most recently the report that Trump had considered firing special counsel Robert Mueller and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.

The New York Times reported last week and multiple outlets subsequently confirmed that Trump ordered Mueller’s firing last June. Top White House lawyer Don McGahn threatened to quit instead of going through with Trump’s order, which apparently put a stop to the move to ax Mueller. Andrew McCabe, the deputy director of the FBI and a longtime target of Trump’s ire, on Monday stepped down. The president, of course, fired FBI Director James Comey last year, according to his own public statements at least in part because of the Russia investigation.

And, of course, the greatest hits

What would a Donald Trump speech be without his greatest hits? Beyond the small-stakes jabs NFL protests and the DREAMers, Trump also brought out some of his favorite talking points on jobs, taxes, and the economy.

“Since the election, we have created 2.4 million new jobs, including 200,000 new jobs in manufacturing alone. Tremendous numbers,” he said. He added that unemployment is at a 45-year low and small-business confidence is at a high. He bragged about cutting Obamacare’s individual mandate (which, as Vox’s Dylan Scott notes, isn’t exactly a good thing) and slashing the corporate tax rate to 21 percent from 35 percent.

And, of course, Trump discussed what has become one of his favorite measures of success in his presidency: the stock market. “The stock market has smashed one record after another, gaining $8 trillion, and more, in value in such a short period of time,” he said. (The Dow Jones Industrial Average dropped more than 350 points ahead of Trump’s speech on Tuesday, exemplifying the risk Trump takes in tethering his performance as president to Wall Street.)

“This, in fact, is our new American moment,” Trump declared. “There has never been a better time to start living the American dream.”

It was a far cry from the “American carnage” he was seeing just a year ago.

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