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Trump and Democrats remain worlds apart on immigration

The rhetoric from last night didn’t make an immigration deal easier. In fact, it probably made it harder.
Image: Trump delivers the State of the Union address
President Donald Trump delivers the State of the Union address at the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Jan. 30, 2018.Saul Loeb / AFP - Getty Images

First Read is your briefing from Meet the Press and the NBC Political Unit on the day's most important political stories and why they matter.

WASHINGTON — Given the White House’s insistence that President Trump’s first State of the Union address would emphasize bipartisanship and unity, what was striking about the speech last night was how much it underscored how far apart Trump and Democrats are on immigration — at least on the rhetoric.

Trump tied immigration to crime and violence, mentioning the MS-13 gang five times (compared with six ISIS references and one Al Qaeda reference). He said he prioritized American citizens over immigrants — whether they’re legal or illegal. "My duty, and the sacred duty of every elected official in this chamber, is to defend Americans — to protect their safety, their families, their communities, and their right to the American Dream. Because Americans are dreamers, too."

And when he offered a path to citizenship for DACA recipients and other Dreamers, he tied it to reducing legal immigration. "These four pillars represent a down-the-middle compromise," he said, when one pillar was citizenship for the Dreamers and the other three were items he wants — increased border security, ending the visa lottery and limiting family reunification. (Is that really down the middle?)

On the other hand, here was the immigration rhetoric from Rep. Joe Kennedy, D-Mass., who delivered the official Democratic response: “To all the Dreamers watching tonight, let me be clear: Ustedes son parte de nuestra historia. Vamos a luchar por ustedes y no nos vamos alejar.” Translation: “You are a part of our story. We will fight for you. We will not walk away.

And Kennedy stressed that ALL people in this country — citizen or immigrant — is worth protecting. “This administration isn’t just targeting the laws that protect us – they are targeting the very idea that we are all worthy of protection,” he said. “For them, dignity isn’t something you’re born with but something you measure. By your net worth, your celebrity, your headlines, your crowd size. Not to mention, the gender of your spouse. The country of your birth. The color of your skin. The God of your prayers.”

Now, when you mute the rhetoric, you see that a deal is still possible. Trump says he wants to protect the Dreamers; Democrats do, too. Democrats say they’re willing to spend more on border security, which Trump wants. And it’s worth noting that some Senate Republicans (Lindsey Graham, Jeff Flake, Susan Collins, Lamar Alexander, Cory Gardner, Mike Rounds, Lisa Murkowski) already agree with the Democrats.

But the rhetoric from last night didn’t make a deal easier. In fact, it probably made it harder.

Trump’s bellicose rhetoric on North Korea

The other State of the Union headline last night came on North Korea — especially with publication of a Washington Post op-ed from the man who was supposed to be the Trump administration’s ambassador to South Korea, but who was nixed for the job after disagreeing with the administration’s option for a “bloody nose” strike.

“Some may argue that U.S. casualties and even a wider war on the Korean Peninsula are risks worth taking, given what is at stake. But a strike (even a large one) would only delay North Korea’s missile-building and nuclear programs, which are buried in deep, unknown places impenetrable to bunker-busting bombs,” Victor Cha writes. “A strike also would not stem the threat of proliferation but rather exacerbate it.”

Given that backdrop, it was striking to hear Trump’s rhetoric on North Korea. "No regime has oppressed its own citizens more totally or brutally than the cruel dictatorship in North Korea,” he said. “Past experience has taught us that complacency and concessions only invite aggression and provocation. I will not repeat the mistakes of past administrations that got us into this very dangerous position,” he added.

And then there was this: “Tonight, we pledge to honor [Otto Warmbier's] memory with total American resolve,” Trump said after recognizing Warmbier’s parents.

Trump: I want to empower every Cabinet secretary “to remove federal employees who undermine the public trust or fail the American people”

Here was another Trump line from last night that struck us: “So 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.”

Is he talking about changing the civil service laws? If so, how? Was this somehow a reference to Robert Mueller? Inquiring minds want to know…

Unlike past presidents, Trump isn’t the hitting the road to sell his State of the Union

Meanwhile, it’s notable that Trump is NOT hitting the road to sell his State of the Union — or the tax law — as other presidents have done. He’s getting stuck in Washington, which is never good for a president, especially one who vowed to clean up Washington’s “swamp.”

Democrats didn’t hide their dislike of Trump

As for the Democrats, it was noteworthy last night how much they don’t like President Trump — and how they don’t hide it. Sure, there was “You lie” and visible GOP opposition to Barack Obama. But the disdain coming from Democrats was noticeable.

Fact-checking Trump

Can immigrants bring in “unlimited” and “distant” relatives, as Trump claimed? The answer is no: Last night, Trump said: “Under the current broken system, a single immigrant can bring in virtually unlimited numbers of distant relatives. Under our plan, we focus on the immediate family by limiting sponsorships to spouses and minor children. This vital reform is necessary, not just for our economy, but for our security, and our future.”

Per NBC’s Jane Timm, that’s false. “Legal immigrants can sponsor their spouses, children, parents, and siblings — but distant relatives, like cousins, cannot be sponsored for residency. The family reunification visa process takes years or even more than a decade, preventing "chains" from forming the way Trump suggests, as Politico reported in detail. What's more, there are only so many family visas that can be granted. The numbers are capped by the U.S. government.”

For more fact-checks from last night, check out NBC’s State of the Union blog.

NYT: The real aim of the Nunes memo is the Mueller investigation

“When House Speaker Paul D. Ryan said on Tuesday that he wanted Americans to see a secret memo that portrays the early stages of the Trump-Russia investigation as scandalous, he also said he cautioned his Republican colleagues not to use it to impugn Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel running the inquiry," the New York Times writes. "But as a matter of political reality, the memo — written by Republican staffers for Representative Devin Nunes of California, the House Intelligence Committee chairman — has everything to do with defending President Trump from Mr. Mueller’s investigation."

Hillary Clinton regrets handling of staffer’s sexual-harassment claim from ’08 campaign

“If I had it to do again, I wouldn’t”: Finally, don't miss Hillary Clinton's lengthy statement — dropped shortly before last night’s State of the Union speech — about her decision not to fire a staffer accused of sexual harassment during the 2008 campaign.

“I very much understand the question I’m being asked as to why I let an employee on my 2008 campaign keep his job despite his inappropriate workplace behavior,” Clinton said in the post. “The short answer is this: If I had it to do again, I wouldn’t.”