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The White House plugged 'unity' ahead of the State of the Union. That's not what Trump delivered

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.
Image: Donald Trump State of the Union
President Donald Trump delivers the State of the Union address at the US Capitol in Washington on Feb. 5, 2019.Doug Mills / AFP - Getty Images

WASHINGTON — For all of the talk from White House aides about how President Trump’s State of the Union address would center on unity and finding common ground, the thrust of his speech Tuesday night was anything but.

Sure, there were niceties at the beginning. “I stand here ready to work with you to achieve historic breakthroughs for all Americans,” Trump remarked. “The agenda I will lay out this evening is not a Republican agenda or a Democrat agenda.”

But at its core, Trump’s speech was a full-throttled demand for his immigration policies and border wall – which precipitated the longest government shutdown in U.S. history. And while he avoided mentioning the past shutdown, he also offered no path forward to avoid the next looming one.

“No issue better illustrates the divide between America’s working class and America's political class than illegal immigration,” he said. “Wealthy politicians and donors push for open borders while living their lives behind walls and gates and guards.”

“Tolerance for illegal immigration is not compassionate — it is actually very cruel... Year after year, countless Americans are murdered by criminal illegal aliens.”

“In the past, most of the people in this room voted for a wall. But the proper wall was never built. I will get it built.”

And those weren’t the only points of the speech that aimed more to confront than unite:

  • Here’s what he had to say about abortion: “Lawmakers in New York cheered with delight upon the passage of legislation that would allow a baby to be ripped from the mother's womb moments from birth. These are living, feeling, beautiful, babies who will never get the chance to share their love and their dreams with the world. And then, we had the case of the Governor of Virginia where he stated he would execute a baby after birth.” (Um, that’s a statement that needs a fact check. More on that below.)
  • And he took an obvious dig at Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez with this riff on socialism:“Here, in the United States, we are alarmed by new calls to adopt socialism in our country. America was founded on liberty and independence — and not government coercion, domination and control. We are born free, and we will stay free. Tonight, we renew our resolve that America will never be a socialist country.”
  • And he dismissed the mushrooming investigations into his associates and the 2016 presidential election as mere partisan distractions: “The only thing that can stop [America's economic growth] are foolish wars, politics or ridiculous partisan investigations. If there is going to be peace and legislation, there cannot be war and investigation. It just doesn’t work that way!”

Overall, we’re not sure Trump’s collection of statements last night added up to a cohesive message at all. It felt mostly like a cleaned-up version of his Twitter feed.

Trump’s biggest whopper of the night: Crime fell in El Paso due to its border fence

In a night full of fact-checking (more on that below), President Trump committed arguably his biggest whopper of the night when he said this:

“The border city of El Paso, Texas, used to have extremely high rates of violent crime – one of the highest in the country, and considered one of our nation's most dangerous cities. Now, with a powerful barrier in place, El Paso is one of our safest cities. Simply put, walls work and walls save lives.”

In fact, violent crime in El Paso — one of America’s safest cities — declined BEFORE the border fence was built there in 2008-2009. And it rose AFTER its construction. Here’s the El Paso Times:

“Looking broadly at the last 30 years, the rate of violent crime reached its peak in 1993, when more than 6,500 violent crimes were recorded.

Between 1993 and 2006, the number of violent crimes fell by more than 34 percent and less than 2,700 violent crimes were reported.

The border fence was authorized by Bush in 2006, but construction did not start until 2008.

From 2006 to 2011 — two years before the fence was built to two years after — the violent crime rate in El Paso increased by 17 percent.”

Per NBC’s Anthony Terrell, El Paso Sheriff Richard Wiles released this statement: “While it is true that El Paso is one of the safest cities in the nation, it has never been ‘...considered one of our Nation’s most dangerous cities.’ And, El Paso was a safe city long before any wall was built. President Trump continues to give a false narrative about a great city that truly represents what this great Nation is all about.”

Fact-checking the rest of Trump’s speech

NBC’s Jane Timm and one of us fact-checked the entirety of the State of the Union, so you didn’t have to. Some of the highlights:


“Trump took office amid a booming economy, and he’s been taking credit for it since day one. But there’s no evidence he created this boom. Some economists argue he boosted growth with tax cuts — turbocharging an already booming economy — while others argue the government shutdown, tariffs, and trade war have slowed growth.”


“When unemployment ticked down to 3.7 percent in September 2018, that indeed marked the lowest jobless rate since December 1969, per the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But the jobless rate has since ticked back up to 4.0 In January, which is above the 3.8 percent achieved in the Clinton administration in April 2000.”


“Asked on a radio program what happens when a woman who is going into labor desires a third-trimester abortion, Northam noted that this kind of procedure only occurs in cases of severe deformities or a nonviable pregnancy. He said that in this scenario, ‘the infant would be resuscitated if that’s what the mother and the family desired, and then a discussion would ensue between the physicians and the mother.’”


“While Trump is correct that North Korea has not launched a missile in 15 months, there’s ample evidence that North Korea is seeking to retain and hide their nuclear capabilities — contradicting the president’s past claims that he’s made great progress in getting Pyongyang to give up their nuclear weapons.”


“This is correct, but it’s also true that those women are overwhelmingly Democrats. In fact, the share of Republican women in the House has gone DOWN since the last Congress. According to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, of the 127 female voting members of the House and Senate in the chamber last night, 106 were Democrats and just 21 were Republicans.”

Stacey Abrams takes aim at the shutdown in the Democratic response

While the president didn’t mention federal workers or the government shutdown at all, Stacey Abrams took direct aim at the shutdown mess, calling it “a stunt engineered by the President of the United States, one that defied every tenet of fairness and abandoned not just our people — but our values.”

And/but, she also had this message to the president “Even as I am very disappointed by the president’s approach to our problems, I still don’t want him to fail. But we need him to tell the truth, and to respect his duties and respect the extraordinary diversity that defines America.”

The Elizabeth Warren/Native American story keeps coming back

The Washington Post: “Sen. Elizabeth Warren said Tuesday that she was sorry that she identified herself as a Native American for almost two decades, reflecting her ongoing struggle to quiet a controversy that continues to haunt her as she prepares to formally announce a presidential bid… [A]s Warren undergoes increased scrutiny as a presidential candidate, additional documents could surface to keep the issue alive. Using an open records request during a general inquiry, for example, The Post obtained Warren’s registration card for the State Bar of Texas, providing a previously undisclosed example of Warren identifying as an ‘American Indian.’”

This is starting to feel like one of those stories that just won’t go away (and, of course, with Trump’s enthusiasm for seizing on this narrative, he’s sure to amplify it every time there’s a new element.)

Here’s a look back at how Warren’s explanations have shifted over time.

  • May 2012: “These are my family stories. This is what my brothers and I were told by my mom and my dad, my mammaw and my pappaw. This is our lives. And I'm very proud of it.”
  • September 2012: “Let me be clear. I never asked for, never got any benefit because of my heritage. The people who hired me have all said they didn't even know about it … As a kid, I never asked my mom for documentation when she talked about our Native American Heritage. What kid would? But I knew my father’s family didn’t like that she was part Cherokee and part Delaware. So my parents had to elope.”
  • February 2018: “I understand that tribal membership is determined by tribes — and only by tribes. I never used my family tree to get a break or get ahead. I never used it to advance my career.”
  • October 2018: Warren releases DNA test finding that concludes there is “"strong evidence" that Warren's "DNA sample of primarily European descent also contains Native American ancestry from an ancestor in the sample's pedigree 6-10 generations ago.”
  • January 2019: "I am not a person of color. I am not a citizen of a tribe. Tribal citizenship is very different from ancestry. Tribes -- and only tribes -- determine tribal citizenship, and I respect that difference."
  • February 1, 2019: Per the Cherokee Nation, Warren reaches out to the tribe to apologize. “We are encouraged by this dialogue and understanding that being a Cherokee Nation tribal citizen is rooted in centuries of culture and laws not through DNA tests,” leaders of the Cherokee Nation said.
  • February 5, 2019: Warren expands that apology: “I can’t go back,” Warren said in an interview with The Washington Post. “But I am sorry for furthering confusion on tribal sovereignty and tribal citizenship and harm that resulted.”

Yes, having this story break on the night of the State of the Union blunted its immediate impact, but this still isn’t going away anytime soon. The question is whether she can convince voters to not care about it. While it may not be disqualifying for her individually, in a crowded presidential field, troubling issues can become more problematic since there are so many choices for Democratic primary voters.

Warren has to hope this doesn’t turn off enough activists that it slows her ability to maintain a frontrunner profile. But make no mistake, she still owes voters a longer and more complete explanation for how we got here.

Klobuchar says she’ll make 2020 announcement on Sunday in Minnesota

Speaking to MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow after last night’s State of the Union address, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., said she would be making her announcement on a possible White House bid – at an event in Minnesota.

“Okay, so Sunday, come to Boom Island, Minneapolis,” she said. “It's going to be a little cold, 20 degrees. Wear warm clothes. Maybe have, you know, a little heat warmers with you, but then you'll find out my decision.”

That doesn’t sound like someone who’s declining a 2020 run.

Beto O’Rourke to decide on 2020 by the end of the month

Speaking to Oprah Winfrey in New York yesterday, per NBC’s Beth Fouhy, former Texas Congressman Beto O’Rourke, D-Texas, said that he was definitely thinking about running for president in 2020, and that he would decide by the end of the month.

“O’Rourke said his main consideration was whether his wife and their three children, ages 12, 10 and 8, were "all good" with the decision,” Fouhy adds.

Poll: It’s close in MS-GOV

A new Mason-Dixon poll shows a close hypothetical general-election contest in this year’s gubernatorial race in Mississippi, with Democrat Jim Hood getting support from 44 percent of registered voters and Republican Tate Reeves getting 42 percent. Fourteen percent are undecided.

The poll was conducted January 30-February 1 of 625 registered voters, and it has a margin of error of plus-minus 4.0 percentage points.

The MS-GOV primary is August 6, and the general election is November 5.

On the 2020 trail, per NBC’s Kyle Stewart

Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper hits South Carolina, speaking to the South Carolina Hospital Association annual meeting in Columbia.