Trump’s Message to Feds: 'A New American Moment' and Tougher Accountability

President Donald Trump gestures as delivers his first State of the Union address. President Donald Trump gestures as delivers his first State of the Union address. Win McNamee/Pool via AP

In his first State of the Union address, President Trump on Tuesday night declared “a new American moment” in a call for unity that also pushed for greater authority to fire federal employees who “fail the American people.”

He combined his review of first-year economic accomplishments, which he called record-breaking, with praise for deregulation and a promise for a bipartisan effort to rebuild crumbling infrastructure. While he called out members of the military, law enforcement and veterans for special recognition, he made few references to the work of other federal employees.

“All Americans deserve accountability and respect—and that is what we are giving them,” Trump said to applause. “So tonight, I call on the 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.”

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Trump cited the Veterans Affairs Department and the 2017 VA Accountability Act as his model. “Since its passage, my administration has already removed more than 1,500 VA employees who failed to give our veterans the care they deserve—and we are hiring talented people who love our vets as much as we do,” he said.

In the regulatory arena, Trump also invoked new Washington accountability. “We have eliminated more regulations in our first year than any administration in history,” he declared, alluding to major changes in direction at the Environmental Protection Agency and the Energy Department. “We have ended the war on American energy and we have ended the war on beautiful clean coal. We are now an exporter of energy to the world.”

To rebuild roads, bridges, highways, railways and waterways, Trump asked Congress “to produce a bill that generates at least $1.5 trillion for the new infrastructure investment we need. Every federal dollar should be leveraged by partnering with State and local governments and, where appropriate, tapping into private sector investment to permanently fix the infrastructure deficit,” he said. “Any bill must also streamline the permitting and approval process, getting it down to no more than two years, and perhaps even one.”

Trump repeated a familiar complaint that the permit approval for “a simple road” takes 10 years, while the Empire State Building was built in only a year. An earlier leaked version and past rhetoric suggested an infrastructure plan that relies heavily on incentivizing private investment.

While Trump’s speech to a joint session of Congress last February promised to shrink government, this year he called upon “all of us to set aside our differences, to seek out common ground, and to summon the unity we need to deliver for the people we were elected to serve.”

In mentioning last year’s natural disasters, he namechecked all the regions, saying, “To everyone still recovering in Texas, Florida, Louisiana, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, California, and everywhere else, we are with you, we love you, and we will pull through together.”

In lauding the major tax cut bill enacted late last year, Trump noted that “this April will be the last time you ever file under the old broken system, and millions of Americans will have more take-home pay starting next month.”

He praised a variety of groups who are part of the movement for “rediscovering the American way,” including police, military, veterans, the border patrol and medics.

“For the last year we have sought to restore the bonds of trust between our citizens and their government,” Trump said, mentioning his judicial appointments, Second Amendment rights and religious freedom.

In health care, he celebrated the tax cut bill’s elimination of the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate. And he lauded changes at the Food and Drug Administration. “To speed access to breakthrough cures and affordable generic drugs, last year the FDA approved more new and generic drugs and medical devices than ever before in our history. We also believe that patients with terminal conditions should have access to experimental treatments that could potentially save their lives.”

In pushing for his toughened immigration policies (“Americans are dreamers too”) Trump singled out a family victimized by the violent MS-13 gang. “We have proposed new legislation that will fix our immigration laws, and support our ICE and Border Patrol Agents, so that this cannot ever happen again,” he said.

Repeating his familiar call for a southern border wall, Trump also introduced Homeland Security Investigations Special Agent Celestino Martinez who with ICE spent the last 15 years fighting gang violence. Some of Trump’s proposals on immigration reform drew boos.

In the defense realm, Trump called for Congress to “end the dangerous defense sequester and to fully fund our great military,” including modernizing and rebuilding the nuclear arsenal. He did not mention the spending caps on civilian agencies.

Trump contrasted his administration’s approach with that of President Obama. “Our warriors in Afghanistan also have new rules of engagement,” he said. “Along with their heroic Afghan partners, our military is no longer undermined by artificial timelines, and we no longer tell our enemies our plans.”

In foreign policy, he blasted the Iran nuclear deal and singled out a defector from North Korea for his bravery and perseverance. He also asked Congress to pass legislation to help ensure American foreign-assistance dollars always serve American interests, and only go to America's friends.”

Trump’s honored guests looking on from the gallery also included Coast Guard aviation electronics technician Ashlee Leppert, who performed heroics in Texas following Hurricane Harvey, and Army Staff Sergeant Justin Peck who helped battle ISIS.

As Trump spoke for nearly 90 minutes, the White House released agency-specific detail lauding the past year’s push for reorganization of agencies, “along with a budget blueprint, which will eliminate outdated, unnecessary, or dysfunctional programs across the government.” The White House release also touted “draining the swamp,” saying the president “has imposed higher ethical standards on his administration than those imposed in past administrations, including a five-year lobbying ban for administration employees at their agencies of prior employment and a permanent ban on lobbying for foreign countries.”

The designated absent Cabinet member Tuesday night was Agriculture Secretary Sonny Purdue.

The Democratic response was delivered by Rep. Joe Kennedy III, D-Mass., who said, according to an advance copy, “We choose pensions that are solvent, trade pacts that are fair, roads and bridges that won’t rust away, and good education you can afford. We choose a health care system that offers mercy, whether you suffer from cancer or depression or addiction.  We choose an economy strong enough to boast record stock prices and brave enough to admit that top CEOs making 300 times the average worker is not right.”

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