Trump Opens First Address to Congress With Condemnation of Attacks on U.S. Jewish Community

'While we may be a nation divided on policies, we are a country that stands united in condemning hate and evil in all its forms,' says the U.S. president.

U.S. President Donald Trump addresses the joint houses of Congress in Washington, February 28, 2017.
JIM LO SCALZO/AFP

U.S. President Donald Trump began his first speech before a joint session of Congress on Tuesday night by referring to the recent wave of anti-Semitic incidents across the United States, just hours after it was reported that he hinted at a possibility that these incidents were not in fact a result of anti-Semitism.

"Tonight, as we mark the conclusion of our celebration of Black History Month, we are reminded of our nation's path toward civil rights and the work that still remains. Recent threats targeting Jewish community centers and vandalism of Jewish cemeteries, as well as last week's shooting in Kansas City, remind us that while we may be a nation divided on policies, we are a country that stands united in condemning hate and evil in all its forms," Trump said.

This sentence was the second one in his speech, coming right after his acknowledgement of the vice president, the members of Congress in attendance, the first lady and the citizens watching the speech. Trump then went over a long list of his policy decisions in the first month of his presidency, focusing on the economy, the job market, national security, energy policy and border protection. 

The first foreign leader mentioned by Trump in the speech was Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Trump said that "With the help of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, we have formed a council with our neighbors in Canada to help ensure that women entrepreneurs have access to the networks, markets and capital they need to start a business and live out their financial dreams."

Trump mentioned Israel once, mid-way through the speech, when he said: "I have also imposed new sanctions on entities and individuals who support Iran's ballistic missile program, and reaffirmed our unbreakable alliance with the State of Israel."

Trump also said that "We want peace, wherever peace can be found.  America is friends today with former enemies.  Some of our closest allies, decades ago, fought on the opposite side of these World Wars. This history should give us all faith in the possibilities for a better world." 

Prior to Trump's speech, there were reports that his new national security adviser, General H.R. McMaster, advised the president not to associate the entire Muslim world and Muslim religion with terrorism and extremism, and also to avoid using the term "radical Islamic terrorism," which Trump criticized the Obama administration for avoiding to use.

In the speech, Trump did use that phrase once. He did emphasize, however, that ISIS - which he promised to "extinct from our planet" - had murdered many Muslims, and said the United States will "work with our allies, including our friends and allies in the Muslim world" toward that end. 

On another foreign policy front, Trump said that "We strongly support NATO, an alliance forged through the bonds of two World Wars that dethroned fascism, and a Cold War that defeated Communism. But our partners must meet their financial obligations. And now, based on our very strong and frank discussions, they are beginning to do just that." 

China was mentioned once in the speech, when Trump said - "We've lost more than one-fourth of our manufacturing jobs since NAFTA was approved, and we've lost 60,000 factories since China joined the World Trade Organization in 2001." Russia, a country that has been at the center of many controversies surrounding Trump and his senior advisers in recent months, was not mentioned in the speech.

One unusual political moment came midway through the speech when Trump called for enacting paid family leave in the United States. This is a policy that for years has been pushed by progressives on the Democratic side of the aisle, and opposed by Republicans who say it will hurt companies and cost a lot of taxpayer money. Trump's statement caused even some of his greatest critics on the Democratic side, who sat during most of the speech, to rise up from their seats in support.

Former Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear responded to Trump's speech on behalf of the Democratic Party.

"President Trump also needs to understand that people may disagree with him from time to time, but that doesn't make them his enemies," he said.

"When the president attacks the loyalty and credibility of our intelligence agencies, the court system, the military, the free press, individual Americans, simply because he doesn't like what they say, he’s eroding our democracy and that’s reckless. Real leaders don't spread derision and division. Real leaders strengthen."