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Trump border wall overshadows pitch for unity in State of the Union address

Doug Mills / Pool / AFP | US President Donald Trump delivers the State of the Union address at the US Capitol in Washington, DC, on February 5, 2019.

Donald Trump called for renewed unity in his State of the Union address Tuesday, but the stark divisions within US politics were on view as he vowed to build a border wall and blasted federal investigations into his administration.

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"I will get it built!" Trump declared before members of the US Congress on Capitol Hill, referring to the controversial wall along the US border with Mexico that has become the defining battle of his first two years in office.

While Republican members cheered and applauded, Democrats sat firmly rooted to their seats.

Moments earlier, Trump had opened his second State of the Union address by making an appeal for unity between the country's two major parties.

"We must reject the politics of revenge, resistance, and retribution -- and embrace the boundless potential of cooperation, compromise, and the common good," Trump told Congress and a huge television audience.

"We must choose between greatness or gridlock, results or resistance, vision or vengeance, incredible progress or pointless destruction," Trump said in the speech, which was littered with soaring rhetoric and interrupted continuously by applause from his camp.

If the words sounded familiar, it was because Trump had employed much of the same rhetoric a year ago when he stood before the then Republican-controlled House of Representatives to deliver his first State of the Union speech.

'Walls work'

But whereas it had been Republican Paul Ryan seated behind Trump back then, it was Democrat Nancy Pelosi who now flanked the president on Tuesday night in her recently restored role of Speaker of the House.

Her presence was a reminder that in the past 12 months the divide in US politics has shown no sign of narrowing. It had been Pelosi who had forced Trump to delay his speech, much to the president's chagrin, amid a partial government shutdown that was largely a result of Democrats' refusal to grant funding for Trump's border wall.

With a return to shutdown possible once temporary legislation to reopen government expires on February 15th, Trump showed no signs of backing down over the wall issue - though he did stop short of declaring a national emergency that would allow him to bypass Congress to secure funding for the barrier.

"Walls work and walls save lives," he said, as he outlined plans for what he said would be a "smart, strategic see-through steel barrier".

He struck a familiar tone as he evoked the threat of "large, organised caravans .. on the march to US" and "savage" criminal gangs of illegal immigrants.

Trump seemed to be appealing for unity, but strictly on his own terms.

In the Democratic response to Trump's speech, Stacey Abrams, who lost a race for governor of Georgia last November, said that while Democrats stood ready to secure the country's ports and borders, "America is made stronger by the presence of immigrants - not walls."

Responses from Democrats appeared on Twitter during Trump’s 82-minute speech. Representative Pramila Jayapal tweeted her opposition to the wall, noting, "The border is more secure than ever. Enough."

'Ridiculous investigations'

The president also addressed head-on the other major controversy that has dogged his time in office: the ongoing investigation into Trump's links with Russia and its meddling in the election that brought him to power.

"An economic miracle is taking place in the US," he said as he lauded the country's declining unemployment and growing economy. "and the only thing that can stop it is 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. We must be united at home to defeat our enemies abroad."

But with Democrats now in control of the House and readying a slew of investigations into a range of aspects of Trump's administration, that appeal was likely to fall on deaf ears.

Trump-Kim meeting

Turning to foreign policy, Trump repeated his pledge to end direct US involvement in long-running wars in Afghanistan and Syria - policies that have irked many in his own party let alone across the aisle.

"Great nations do not fight endless wars," he said.

Trump said that the US working to "destroy the remnants" of the Islamic State group and that "Constructive" talks with the Taliban in Afghanistan have "accelerated".

He also announced long-awaited details of a second summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un following their historic meeting in Singapore last week.

The two leaders will meet in Vietnam over February 27 and 28, Trump said.

There was also pledges to advance policy that is likely to gain bipartisan support, most notably launching a campaign to end the HIV epidemic in the US by 2030.

But despite all the appeals for unity, it was the divisions on show, particularly when Trump was speaking about immigration, for which Tuesday's speech will likely be remembered.

While Republicans erupted into standing ovations throughout Trump's address and occasional chants of "USA! USA!", the Democrats stayed mostly silent and stony faced.

The one exception came when a group of female Democratic lawmakers, dressed in white to celebrate the 100th anniversary of American women gaining the right to vote, leapt to their feet to cheer when Trump noted there are "more women in the workforce than ever before".

"You weren't supposed to do that," a surprised Trump responded.

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