WASHINGTON — Addressing a deeply divided nation, President Donald Trump called for a “new American moment” of unity Tuesday night and challenged lawmakers to make good on long-standing promises to fix a dangerously fractured immigration system, warning of evil outside forces seeking to undermine the nation’s way of life.
Trump’s State of the Union address blended self-congratulation and calls for optimism amid a growing economy with dark warnings about deadly gangs, the scourge of drugs and violent immigrants living in the United States illegally. He cast the debate over immigration — an issue that has long animated his most ardent supporters — as a battle between heroes and villains, praising the work of an immigration agent who arrested more than 100 gang members and saluting the families of two alleged gang victims.
He also spoke forebodingly of catastrophic dangers from abroad, warning that North Korea would “very soon” threaten the United States with nuclear-tipped missiles.
“The United States is a compassionate nation. We are proud that we do more than any other country to help the needy, the struggling and the underprivileged all over the world,” Trump said. “But as president of the United States, my highest loyalty, my greatest compassion, and my constant concern is for America’s children, America’s struggling workers and America’s forgotten communities.”
Trump spoke with tensions running high on Capitol Hill. An impasse over immigration prompted a three-day government shutdown earlier this year, and lawmakers appear no closer to resolving the status of the “Dreamers” — young people living in the U.S. illegally ahead of a new Feb. 8 deadline for funding operations. The parties have also clashed this week over the plans of Republicans on the House intelligence committee to release a classified memo on the Russia investigation involving Trump’s presidential campaign — a decision the White House backs but the Justice Department is fighting.
The controversies that have dogged Trump — and the ones he has created— have overshadowed strong economic gains during his first year in office. His approval ratings have hovered in the 30s for much of his presidency, and just 3 in 10 Americans said the United States was heading in the right direction, according to a poll by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. In the same survey, 67 percent of Americans said the country was more divided because of Trump.
At times, Trump’s address appeared to be aimed more at validating his first year in office than setting the course for his second. He devoted significant time to touting the tax overhaul he signed at the end of last year, promising the plan will “provide tremendous relief for the middle class and small businesses.” He also highlighted the decision made early in his first year to withdraw the U.S. from a sweeping Asia-Pacific trade pact, declaring: “The era of economic surrender is totally over.”
He spoke about potential agenda items for 2018 in broad terms, including a call for $1.5 trillion in new infrastructure spending and partnerships with states and the private sector. He touched only briefly on issues like health care that have been at the center of the Republican Party’s policy agenda for years.
Tackling the sensitive immigration debate that has roiled Washington, Trump redoubled his recent pledge to offer a path to citizenship for 1.8 million young immigrants — but only as part of a package that would also require increased funding for border security, including a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, ending the nation’s visa lottery method and revamping the current legal immigration system. Some Republicans are wary of the hardline elements of Trump’s plan and it’s unclear whether his blueprint could pass Congress.
Trump played to the culture wars, alluding to his public spat with professional athletes who led protests against racial injustice by kneeling during the national anthem, declaring that paying tribute to the flag is a “civic duty.”
Republicans led multiple rounds of enthusiastic applause during the speech, but for the opposition party it was a more somber affair. Democrats provided a short spurt of polite applause for Trump as he entered the chamber, but offered muted reactions throughout the speech. A cluster of about two dozen Democrats, including members of the Congressional Black Caucus, remained planted firmly in their seats, staring sternly at the president and withholding applause.
After devastating defeats in 2016, Democrats are hopeful that Trump’s sagging popularity can help the party rebound in November’s midterm elections. In a post-speech rebuttal, Massachusetts Rep. Joe Kennedy, the grandson of Robert F. Kennedy, was seeking to undercut Trump’s optimistic tone and remind voters of the personal insults and attacks often leveled by the president.
“Bullies may land a punch,” Kennedy said, according to excerpts from his remarks. “They might leave a mark. But they have never, not once, in the history of our United States, managed to match the strength and spirit of a people united in defense of their future.”
On international affairs, Trump warned of the dangers from “rogue regimes,” like Iran and North Korea, terrorist groups, like the Islamic State, and “rivals” like China and Russia “that challenge our interests, our economy and our values.” Calling on Congress to lift budgetary caps and boost spending on the military, Trump said that “unmatched power is the surest means of our defense.”
The president also announced that he had signed an executive order directing the Department of Defense to keep open the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay. The order reverses the Obama-era policy of the executive branch, long stymied by Congress, to close the prison.
First lady Melania Trump, who has largely stayed out of the spotlight following the latest allegations of Trump infidelity, arrived at the capitol ahead of her husband to attend a reception with guests of the White House. Those sitting alongside the first lady included an Ohio welder who the White House says will benefit from the new tax law and the parents of two Long Island teenagers who were believed to have been killed by MS-13 gang members.
McLennan County is moving to expand the life of its pauper cemetery by requiring cremation for most people who die poor in the county.
The county-owned Restland Cemetery on South Fourth Street is the final resting ground for people who die in the county with less than $2,000.
Under the county’s policy updated Tuesday, bodies of everyone who meets the requirements for a pauper burial or cremation will be cremated, except unclaimed bodies for which no person entitled to control has been located, unidentified bodies, infants, morbidly obese bodies, and bodies needed for criminal or civil litigation. There is also an exception to cremation if the county health services director is concerned that efforts to contact family have not been sufficient.
The county’s old policy did not require cremation. Along with the new requirement, some exceptions to cremation were added at the request of Lakeshore Funeral Home, which handles the county’s pauper burials and cremations, said Eva Cruz-Hamby, the county’s health services director.
Veterans are buried at Central Texas State Veterans Cemetery in Killeen, a policy the county adopted in 2011.
County Judge Scott Felton said the life of the Restland Cemetery will be expanded by decreasing the number of burials, which take more space than cremations.
Cruz-Hamby said there are about 100 burial plots left, though she is unsure of the exact number. Remains from six cremations could fit in the space one burial would take, though the county only puts four in that space, she said.
The county averages 10 cremations a month, she said.
“It’s really gone up,” she said. “I have no idea why it’s increasing.”
A cremation costs the county $763.23, while a burial runs $1,014, she said.
Cruz-Hamby told commissioners the county provides a permanent stone marker with the name of the deceased, year of birth and death for each site. While no other markers are permitted, individuals still put them out. Only two small floral arrangements are allowed, but the rule is difficult if not impossible to enforce, she said.
Added decorations make maintenance more difficult at the cemetery, which has a sign reminding guests not to leave decorations, she said.
“We let them know they can’t do that and if they do we can remove them,” Cruz-Hamby said. “We want to make it look really nice but it’s hard.”
Also at Tuesday’s meeting, commissioners asked Montgomery Construction to hold onto the original Themis statue for at least another week as officials search for a location to store it. County leaders have not decided yet what to do with the 18-foot Greek goddess of divine law.
Montgomery Construction installed a duplicate statute on top of the McLennan County Courthouse Jan. 6. Montgomery Construction general manager Mike Anderson presented commissioners with a “birth certificate” of the statute on Tuesday and said the original is in an 8-foot by 20-foot crate under a shelter in a safe location.
Precinct 1 Commissioner Kelly Snell said he will look for a location to keep the statue safe until the court decides where to display the historical figure.
Anderson said the company would also like to add a time capsule under the new Themis to be opened Jan. 6, 2218. The 16-inch by 6-inch capsule will include pictures, video and other details outlining the statue’s history.
“I think that’s a great idea,” Felton said.
The original Themis was duplicated and replaced because of its age and fragility.
Clifton Independent School District is canceling classes for the rest of the week because of health concerns and an increase in student absences, the district announced Tuesday.
Clifton Elementary School, Clifton Middle School and Clifton High School will be closed from Wednesday through Friday, the announcement states. The district has not specified the nature of the health concerns, but the flu has been widespread this season locally and statewide.
Statewide, flu-related deaths more than doubled recently, jumping to 2,300 by Saturday from 1,100 two weeks earlier, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services.
Officials with Clifton ISD, a Bosque County district with about 900 students, did not return calls Tuesday.
In McLennan County, reported cases of the flu and flu-like illnesses are down slightly from a peak in mid-January. Still, since the last week of 2017, confirmed weekly flu cases have been the highest of any of the past five seasons.
Two people in the county had died of the flu as of early January, and no more flu-related deaths have been reported, said Kelly Craine, spokeswoman for the Waco-McLennan County Public Health District.
“Plenty of people still have it, which means exposure is widespread and so there are still plenty of opportunities to get it,” Craine said.
The flu shot is still the best protection against the virus, officials have said. Anyone who thinks they are sick should see a doctor and stay home otherwise, Craine said.
“If you’re not sure, think about whether you have a fever,” she said. “A fever is a good sign it’s the flu or something very serious.”
Shortly before Christmas, West ISD officials closed their elementary school a day early for winter break because of flu and other seasonal illnesses. The absentee rate was close to 20 percent, officials said at the time.
McLennan County’s two largest districts are taking precautions to combat a steady stream of flu cases, but they have not seen enough cases to hamper operations overall.
Waco ISD nurses have reported sending home a couple students each day with the flu or flu-like symptoms, Waco ISD spokesman Kyle DeBeer said.
The district serves about 15,000 students. Officials have encouraged flu vaccinations and provided a link to a list of locations offering the service, he said.
Educators are also reinforcing hand washing and cough hygiene, and the custodial staff is remaining active to keep facilities clean and disinfected, DeBeer said.
Midway ISD reported more than 200 cases last week, but with a student population of more than 8,000, the impact has not hampered operations there either, said Cindy Milligan, executive secretary to the superintendent.
“Our custodial staff has been doing extra cleaning around the campuses,” Milligan said. “The absentee rate hasn’t been high. We’re seeing some, but it’s not been a high impact.”
The district has also sent letters home to remind families what symptoms to watch for, she said.
U.S. Rep. Bill Flores, R-Bryan, said President Donald Trump should allow the release of a classified memo Flores says outlines questionable surveillance tactics by the Department of Justice and the FBI.
The House intelligence committee voted along party lines Monday night to release the memo, which was written by Republicans on the committee. Trump has five days to review the memo and decide whether to release it, though he has signaled he wants it published, according to The Associated Press.
Flores, the four-term congressman who represents Waco, said a large number of his constituents have called his office advocating for the memo’s release.
“The FBI and the Department of Justice have a lot of really hardworking people that are committed to doing the right thing for all Americans, and that includes following the law and following the Constitution,” Flores said. “The reason it’s important to release the memo is because there were a few bad actors at the Department of Justice and at the FBI who broke the law and failed to adhere to the Constitution, and the American people have the right to see what happened because if these things aren’t transparent, it could happen again. It could happen to any unsuspecting American if we don’t stop these types of activities and stop them now.”
Flores does not sit on the intelligence committee, but the memo was distributed for all members of Congress to read.
“I was sick to my stomach,” Flores said. “I could not believe what I read actually happened in the highest levels of the United States government. I was really shocked because the law clearly said that these types of activities should not happen, and Americans are protected by the Fourth Amendment.”
Flores said there are “legitimate questions” about whether civil liberties were violated under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.
An implicit Republican goal of the committee vote is to undermine, or at least raise concerns into, the investigation into Russian interference and the Trump campaign led by special counsel Robert Mueller, said Patrick Flavin, an associate professor of political science at Baylor University.
“It’s sort of an atmosphere where there’s a good portion of the Republican congressional caucus that’s very wary or concerned about the objectivity of the investigation. … I don’t think many members of Congress would come right out and say that, but I certainly think that’s the reading between the lines of what’s going on here,” Flavin said.
Flores insisted the allegations in the memo and the Republican push to publicize them are unrelated to Mueller’s investigation. He said “you’ll find some common names” in the memo tied to Mueller.
“The majority of folks at the FBI do great work,” he said. “We just want to make sure that those that violate the law are held accountable.”
The Justice Department has said releasing the memo would be “extraordinarily reckless,” and the committee’s leading Democrat said Republicans voted “to politicize the intelligence process,” The New York Times reported.
On Tuesday, ahead of Trump’s first State of the Union address, the White House said it will review legal and national security implications before deciding whether to release the memo, according to the AP.
Trump has publicly decried the Justice Department and its top officials, and he has called the Russia investigation a “witch hunt.”
The intelligence committee also voted to release a Democratic response to the memo to all House members but not to make it public.
“Usually, a committee will sort of jointly put together a report based on feedback from both the majority and minority parties,” Flavin said. “It’s rare that they have separate reports.”
He said political partisanship building for 20 to 30 years has accelerated both parties’ concerns about the Russia investigations.
“This is uncharted territory that it’s become so hyperpartisan, that it really calls into question who would be viewed as objective by either side really, that we would trust to carry out the investigation with no political or partisan bias,” Flavin said.
A federal judge has dismissed claims from two federal death row inmates who questioned the fitness of former U.S. District Judge Walter S. Smith Jr. to preside over their 2000 trial in Waco. The judge also scheduled a re-sentencing hearing for one of the pair’s co-defendants who is serving a life term.
U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel threw out a motion from Brandon Bernard and Christopher Vialva to vacate, set aside or correct their death penalties on allegations that Smith was “not functional” because of drinking and “unfit” to preside over their trials.
Bernard, who was 19 at the time, and Vialva, who was 20, were convicted in Waco’s federal court in June 2000 and sentenced to death in the murders of Todd and Stacie Bagley, of Ottumwa, Iowa.
Bernard was sentenced to death only in Stacie Bagley’s death, while Vialva was sentenced to death in the murder of both the Bagleys, who were church youth ministers in Iowa.
Bernard, Vialva and four Killeen teenagers were charged in the June 1999 carjacking of the Bagleys outside a Killeen convenience store. Two of the teens testified against Bernard and Vialva that they plotted to kidnap the couple and drove them around in the trunk of their car while trying to use their ATM cards.
Trial testimony showed that Stacie Bagley read the Bible to her captors as she and her husband pleaded for their lives. Vialva shot them both and set the car on fire while Stacie Bagley was still alive, according to trial testimony.
Yeakel scheduled a sentencing hearing to start Feb. 5 in Austin for Tony Sparks, one of the four co-defendants in the case who went to trial with Bernard and Vialva and who was given a mandatory life sentence.
In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that federal juvenile offenders could not be subjected to mandatory life terms. Four years later, the court made its ruling retroactive to those already serving time, paving the way for the new sentencing hearing for Sparks.
Yeakel has set aside three days for the hearing, court officials said.
Sparks, who was 16 at the time and certified to stand trial as an adult, pleaded guilty to aiding and abetting carjacking resulting in death. A 15-year-old who was also certified to stand trial as an adult was sentenced to 5 years, and two 17-year-olds were sentenced to 20 years each.
Sparks’ attorney, David Sergi, of San Marcos, said Sparks is a German citizen and he will ask the judge to give him “an appropriate” sentence so he can serve his time and move back to Germany, where his father is in the military.
He said Sparks is serving his sentence in a maximum-security prison in Colorado known as “supermax.”
“This is one of those really unusual cases where going to supermax helped save his life,” Sergi said. “He needed to get away from all the noise going on in prison so he could focus on himself.”
Sparks earned his GED in prison and has taken courses in psychology and the Peloponnesian war, Sergi said.
The 32-page motion from Bernard and Vialva asked Yeakel to vacate the death sentences or to order a hearing “so that evidence may be presented concerning former Judge Smith’s unfitness, and how it affected all his decisions respecting” Bernard and Vialva.
Smith retired under a cloud in September 2016, ending his 32-year tenure as Waco’s federal judge. He was stripped of hearing new cases for a year and required to go to counseling after the Judicial Council of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found he made “inappropriate and unwanted physical and nonphysical advances” toward a female courthouse staff member in his court chambers in 1998 and lied to investigators about the incident.
In a sworn statement given to investigators, a former clerk said Smith smelled of alcohol and had the appearance of someone who had been drinking.
The judicial council renewed its investigation into Smith after complaints surfaced that at least two more women had been subjected to Smith’s unwanted advances in his chambers. His retirement ended the investigation.