President Donald Trump’s attempt to call for unity in the State of the Union address fell flat with Nevada Democrats who oppose the president’s call to build a wall on the Mexican border and questioned his sincerity on protecting coverage for pre-existing conditions.
“It rings hollow and that is the unfortunate part of this because many of us want to work together in a bipartisan way,” said Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto after the speech, citing, among other things, the president’s rhetoric, which is designed to “incite fear.”
Rep. Dina Titus called the speech “long on promises and short on substance.”
She echoed Democratic hopes of bipartisan compromise, on issues like lowering prescription drug prices and revamping the nation’s crumbling infrastructure, but also reflected Democratic skepticism that it would come to pass.
“I’m hopeful that we can find common ground on reducing drug prices and making investments in infrastructure, but the past two years have taught me that Trump’s promises are likely just smoke and mirrors,” Titus said.
Democrats also took issue with Trump using the recent murder of two people in Reno that authorities have alleged were killed by an undocumented Salvadoran immigrant as a way to bolster the argument for his wall.
“I was disappointed that he is choosing to politicize a horrible, personal tragedy,” said Sen. Jacky Rosen after the speech.
Among the president’s guests at the address were Debra Bissell, Heather Armstrong and Madison Armstrong, the daughter, granddaughter and great-granddaughter, respectively, of Gerald and Sharon David, who were murdered in a Reno home last month.
“Simply put, walls work and walls save lives,” Trump said.
Wilber Ernesto Martinez Guzman, a Salvadoran immigrant, has been charged with the crime and with the deaths of two others in Gardnerville. He has also been charged with entering the country illegally. Martinez Guzman worked for a landscaping company used by the Davids.
“They were in their eighties and are survived by four children, 11 grandchildren, and 20 great-grandchildren,” Trump said as he introduced them during the speech. “To Debra, Heather, Madison, please stand: few can understand your pain. But I will never forget, and I will fight for the memory of Gerald and Sharon, that it should never happen again. Not one more American life should be lost because our nation failed to control its very dangerous border.”
Cortez Masto said that the decision to invite the Reno family was typical Trump, who has striven to make the case that illegal immigrants commit a disproportionate amount of crime. “That’s actually not true, but he uses it all the time to inflame his base, to incite fear, to gain support for a wall that I think, and I think many others, would be a waste of resources,” she said.
The move also didn’t go over well among attendees at a speech watch party hosted by the group Mi Familia Vota at its Las Vegas headquarters. Real estate agent Luis Alvarez, 57, questioned why Trump singled out the family and a Latino perpetrator over crimes committed by anyone else. Jessica Yanez, who works for the organization, said it “reinforces the stigma of people who are undocumented.”
“He kept referring to immigration as to ‘doing it the right way’ and so I feel like it was very manipulative of him to bring this family who was still mourning,” said Yanez, 34. “I think it was a very self-serving agenda.”
Their comments come as Congress faces the possibility of another government shutdown in nine days. Congress and Trump recently agreed to reopen the federal government after a 35-day shutdown, the longest in U.S. history. At issue was Trump’s request for $5.7 billion to build a wall on the Mexican border, which he believes will help control illegal immigration and crime. But Democrats in Congress rebuffed the request, arguing that a wall would be ineffective, a waste of money and immoral. Some have reminded him that when he campaigned in 2016 he said that Mexico would pay for the wall.
The shutdown prevented 800,000 federal workers from getting paid, including 3,500 in Nevada.
The impasse over the wall remains as a group of nine Democrats and eight Republicans are currently trying to negotiate a compromise to keep the government from shutting down again when the temporary stopgap spending bill expires at midnight Feb. 15.
“I know they are working hard in a bipartisan way,” said Cortez Masto of the negotiators, adding “if he doesn’t get his wall, we’ll see. I don’t know where we are going to be at the end of the day.”
Trump has threatened to declare a national emergency, which would allow him to use already appropriated disaster funding to construct the wall. But he did not mention that on Tuesday. Some Republicans, including Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, don’t want him to go down that path because they say it would set a bad precedent and drain funds needed to recover from existing emergencies.
In his remarks, Trump asked for Democrats and Republicans to put aside their differences to come together to work on “the agenda of the American people.”
“[W]e must reject the politics of revenge, resistance, and retribution — and embrace the boundless potential of cooperation, compromise, and the common good,” Trump said. “Together, we can break decades of political stalemate. We can bridge old divisions, heal old wounds, build new coalitions, forge new solutions, and unlock the extraordinary promise of America’s future. The decision is ours to make.”
But Democrats were skeptical of his bipartisan overtures citing as an example the debate over pre-existing conditions and the Department of Justice’s refusal to defend the Affordable Care Act (ACA) in a Texas lawsuit. Enacted in 2010 with no Republican votes, the health-care law forbids insurers from denying coverage to those with pre-existing conditions and caps how much they can be charged.
In the speech, Trump celebrated the repeal of the ACA’s individual mandate to buy health insurance as part of a GOP-authored tax reform package enacted in 2017. A judge recently ruled in favor of 20 Republican attorneys general who are challenging the ACA’s constitutionality in a lawsuit after Congress removed the tax penalty associated with the law’s mandate to buy health insurance. The case, which threatens the protections for pre-existing conditions, is being appealed.
“He said he wants to protect pre-existing conditions, [but] he continues to sabotage them every single day,” Rosen said when asked about Trump’s bipartisanship rhetoric.
Rep. Susie Lee, who is in her first term, said she was hopeful that bipartisanship was possible, but noted that pre-existing conditions remains an issue of disagreement for her and the White House.
“We are in a divided Congress. If we are going to get anything done, we need bipartisan solutions,” Lee said. “He brought infrastructure, he brought up taking up childhood cancer, finally solving HIV and AIDS. Those are all issues I’d love to work together on.”
In a statement she added that “I will continue to oppose any measures that would weaken protections for patients with pre-existing conditions or otherwise harm Southern Nevada families.”
Rep. Steven Horsford cited the Trump administration’s policy of family separation as what gives him pause about Trump’s bipartisan olive branch.
“It’s difficult to believe the President is committed to unity when he refuses to unite hundreds of children separated from their families,” Horsford said. “I’m open to finding common ground with the President and my congressional Republican colleagues. Let’s start by agreeing that separating children from their parents, initiating shutdowns that hurt our federal workers and our economy, and creating divisions based on race and religion is no way to lead our country.”
The family separation issue started in April, when the White House announced that it would prosecute all people who entered the country illegally, including those seeking asylum, in what the administration called a “zero tolerance” policy. The move resulted in children being separated from their parents in order to comply with a 1997 court ruling known as the Flores settlement that bars the government from jailing migrant children for more than 20 days.
The policy was ended by an executive order in June. But a report from the Office of Inspector General at the Department of Health and Human Services said that “thousands” more children were separated than initially reported by the government.
Other elements of Trump’s speech garnered kudos from some viewers in Nevada. Odalis Escalante, a mother of two who watched Trump’s speech at Mi Familia Vota headquarters, appreciated his call for a ban on late-term abortion.
“A third trimester baby, those babies move, feel. Especially women that haven’t had children — they’re not going to understand that. I have two of my own, and my kids started moving from when I was four months pregnant, and to me it’s a big concern,” said Escalante, 29, who opposes abortion but supports exceptions for victims of rape. “I don’t care who the president is. In the end of the day it’s not right, and I agree with him.”
Brenda Guigui, 25, a community organizer with Mi Familia Vota, applauded Trump for voicing support for paid family leave.
“We are excited that he acknowledges it and that he mentioned it,” said Guigui, “and that he actually brought it to life and that it’s just not something that is being talked about in the background and the president is finally realizing it’s needed.”