What Trump Said and Didn’t Say

Tufts faculty weigh in on the State of the Union address and what lies ahead for America
February 6, 2019


The tone was one of both conciliation and confrontation as Donald Trump spoke at his third State of the Union address February 5. He called for greater unity in the government, but also focused on immigration, and in particular his desire for construction of a border wall.

Tufts Now asked faculty to give us their take on the speech, and what it means for the country going forward.

Jeffrey Berry, Skuse Professor of Political Science

This is all you need to know about State of the Union speeches: they’re of no consequence. Like all other presidential addresses, they don’t move the needle of public opinion and as a result, they’re stories that recede quickly from the news. Why is this? First, America is so polarized that most who are watching the speech are hardened Republicans or hardened Democrats.

Being a partisan represents more than a voting preference, but rather, it’s often part of our core identity. Identity is not changed by a president’s talk on national television. Second, those who are not high octane political participants pay only marginal attention to day-to-day politics. Last night’s talk clocked in at about an hour and a half—that’s a lot of time to pay attention to something one doesn’t find interesting. I think Donald Trump knows this down deep and his listless speech from the Oval Office a few weeks ago reflected the reality of its likely impact (which was zero).

As for the president’s speech last night, it was vintage Trump. He was at times gracious, conciliatory, and, well, presidential. But the central part of the speech was combative. He equated immigrants who cross the southern border with grotesque criminals engaged in a range of illegal enterprises, including sex trafficking. In this fifteen-minute segment, arguing emphatically for the need for a wall, Trump said this: “I will get it built.” Is that a signal that he’ll declare a national emergency if Congress does not give him the money he’s requested? Stay tuned, there may be another speech coming.

Signe Peterson Flieger, Tufts Health Plan Professor of Health Care Policy Research and Co-director of the Center for Health Systems and Policy

In last night’s State of the Union, President Trump proclaimed a vision for America with better health care: lower prescription drug prices, protecting patients with pre-existing conditions, the elimination of HIV, and tackling childhood cancer. These are all noble, bipartisan goals. It is worth noting that the Trump Administration has consistently supported policy decisions that directly undermine the Affordable Care Act’s protections for people with pre-existing conditions. However, if we are to assume for a moment that these stated policy goals are in fact genuine, viewers of the speech were still left with almost no details for how this ambitious health policy agenda would be approached.

Take prescription drugs. When we look at campaign proclamations, Administration white papers, and recent speeches by Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, a few more details start to emerge. Last May the Administration published a white paper on their proposed approach, but many experts noted that the proposal lacked substance, raising considerable doubt about the extent to which the Trump Administration will take real action on prescription drug costs.

In a speech just this week, Azar proposed creating “upfront discounts” for seniors, reforming the rebate system, and requiring drug companies to disclose list prices in advertising. The true impact of this kind of price transparency remains to be seen, yet we heard President Trump proclaim its value once again last night.

There are a number of proposals currently being floated by this Administration to address prescription drug costs. Meaningful change will require a multipronged approach, with real bipartisan support. Only time will tell if there is space in the current political climate to allow for President Trump to take Speaker Pelosi up on her offer to develop a bipartisan approach to tackle the persistent challenge of high and rising prescription drug costs in America. 

Gregory Gottlieb, Director of the Feinstein International Center and Irwin H. Rosenberg Professor in Nutrition and Human Security

Listen to Gregory Gottlieb talk about the State of the Union address. Video: Steffan Hacker

President Trump’s State of the Union address was important for what it did not say. The president’s address celebrated American strength and courage, our growing economy—and the need to close our southern border. As the director of the Feinstein International Center at Tufts and former senior officer for humanitarian and development assistance at USAID, I was looking for some indication of how the U.S., with growing wealth, projects its values and generosity to those in need around the globe with programs and assistance that meet urgent humanitarian and development needs.

The president said that we should create a “culture to cherish innocent life” as he discussed abortion, yet he did not utter a word about the lives of people who face disasters and extreme poverty outside the U.S. This lack of concern for people that the U.S. has had a long history of supporting is not surprising, since the Trump Administration has consistently attempted to cut funding for foreign assistance. 

He did not discuss implications for other cherished lives. His sharp cuts to family planning programs beyond the U.S. means that poor women in countries like Nigeria can no longer get the medical care that they need to keep their unborn babies safe. He did not mention the lives of children lost in the wars in Yemen, Syria, or South Sudan. The U.S. should be playing a key role in bringing safety for kids who are suffering in conflicts.

While the U.S. continues to fund humanitarian and development responses around the world, the president gave no indication that such assistance is of concern to his administration. The address left me with the sense that America may stop extending its hands to those who for so long have looked for our help.

Gilbert Metcalf, Professor of Economics and John DiBiaggio Professor of Citizenship and Public Service

President Trump’s State of the Union Address last night covered a wide-ranging set of topics, but was conspicuous in what it did not mention. Despite the recent record-breaking cold brought on, as many scientists believe, by warming Arctic oceans, and despite other extreme weather events, Trump had nothing to say about climate change.  This may actually be an improvement in rhetoric, given his usual derisive comments about the topic. Trump continues to ignore and undermine efforts to confront the climate change challenge.

Instead, he championed the surge in domestic energy production and the fact that we are the global leading producer of oil and natural gas. The U.S. surge in oil and gas production predates Trump’s election, and is the result of technological advances in hydraulic fracking and horizontal drilling techniques that made huge amounts of oil and gas trapped in tight rock formations available. 

Those technological advances were the result of research funded in large part by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). The irony is that Trump has repeatedly called for slashing DOE’s R&D spending as part of major budget cuts in the agency. It’s just one more example of his lack of understanding of the role that the U.S. government has played in bringing new technologies to market, a role that will be even more critical if we are to move to a zero-carbon economy over this century. 

Jeswald Salacuse, Henry J. Braker Professor of Law, The Fletcher School

Despite some touching moments when he celebrated American heroes, the president’s State of the Union address was not really directed to the entire nation, but rather to his usual base of political supporters. The topics he addressed were those his base cares most about, while the topics he ignored were those they prefer to ignore.

So, in an hour-and-half speech, which was too long by at least thirty minutes, the topics that he dwelled on the longest were immigration, the threat of illegal immigration to the safety of Americans, and of course the need for “the Wall.” On the other hand, he had nothing to say about how the fix our immigration system or what we should do about the “DACA dreamers,” the undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. as children.

While he promised to initiate and fund a battle to fight childhood cancer, he offered no hope for extending basic medical care to all Americans. In a gross distortion, he also took a swipe at those in this country who would advance socialist policies by pointing to the current political collapse in Venezuela as an illustration of where socialism leads, conveniently ignoring the more successful socialist examples in Europe.

As for climate change, economic inequality, racial injustice—forget about it.  There were also the usual distortions. For example, he made the new U.S.-Canada-Mexico Trade Agreement sound as it would create a new and better deal for the U.S., when in reality, it is just warmed-over NAFTA. In fact, because he has distorted facts so often in his other speeches, I had difficulty, without a fact checker, accepting many of the facts he cited in support of his claimed accomplishments.

A striking visual sign of skepticism in the House of Representative was the reaction to the speech of the many women members sitting together and dressed in white in memory of the suffragettes; they remained with their hands folded in their laps while enthusiastic white guys in dark suits nearby jumped to their feet to cheer Trump’s declarations.

Deborah Schildkraut, Professor of Political Science

State of the Union addresses are an opportunity for presidents to highlight their preferred policy agendas. But this year, the agenda had already been set before President Trump took to the podium, thanks to a looming funding deadline. On February 15, just nine days from now, several federal agencies will run out of funds if President Trump and Congress cannot come to an agreement on what to do about border security. Without an agreement, we will find ourselves with another partial government shutdown.

Going into last night’s address, President Trump had to do three things in his remarks on immigration, and it was not clear whether he would be able to do them all at the same time. First, he had to convince his base that he would build a wall along the nation’s southern border. Second, he had to assure Republicans in Congress, particularly in the Senate, that he would not declare a national emergency over this issue. If he does make such a declaration, several senators would view it as an attack on the separation of powers and their support for the president on this issue would be in doubt.

Third, he had to offer something to Democrats in the House so that they could begin to lay the groundwork for a compromise. At first, it seemed as if the president might try to thread this narrow needle, calling on lawmakers to break free from stalemate, find new solutions, and choose “greatness over gridlock.”

Ultimately, however, President Trump only did the first of these things. He used his remarks to conjure an image of lawlessness and degradation at the border. He made many inaccurate claims about the nature and impact of undocumented immigration on American society. Then he claimed, “I will get it built.” The president did not make any specific recommendations about how to bridge the divide between his desire for a wall and the Democrats’ desire for alternative approaches to border security. Nor did he say whether he would declare a national emergency if they failed to reach a deal.

Indeed, the address was indistinguishable from speeches he has been making about immigration since he declared his candidacy in 2015. It is thus perhaps fitting that his speech came on the heels of Groundhog Day. Just as Bill Murray had to relive the same day over and over in that classic film, it seems that we can expect a replay of the previous stalemate between Trump and Congress. The president gave no indication that we should expect otherwise.