President Trump pushed the reset button after a rocky first month in office, delivering an on-message joint address to Congress that outlined his vision for America.
“I am here tonight to deliver a message of unity and strength, and it is a message deeply delivered from my heart,” Trump said at the outset, declaring that “the torch of truth, liberty and justice … is now in our hands. And we will use it to light up the world.”
It was a remarkably different tone than the president’s usual speeches, including his inaugural address when he promised to stop “American carnage” and painted a gloomy view of the country. There were no campaign-like riffs, no boasting of his electoral victory, no bashing of the media or taunts or jeers at his opponents.
“The time for trivial fights is behind us,” Trump declared at the end of his speech — a somewhat ironic statement given his proclivity for picking Twitter fights and zeroing in on petty things like disputes over the size of his inauguration crowd.
But throughout the more than hourlong address, Trump heeded that call, as he himself implored the country to “embrace this renewal of the American spirit.”
“From now on, America will be empowered by our aspirations, not burdened by our fears — inspired by the future, not bound by the failures of the past — and guided by our vision, not blinded by our doubts,” the president ended by saying.
Trump began the speech by touting the accomplishments he has already checked off in office — including withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, ordering construction of the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines he argued would create jobs, and nominating conservative Judge Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court.
But on what he would still do in office, Trump was often short on specifics and instead spoke in his usual broad generalities.
On national security, the president said he had directed the Pentagon to “develop a plan to demolish and destroy ISIS,” while promising to “work with our allies, including our friends and allies in the Muslim world, to extinguish this vile enemy from our planet.”
Trump redoubled on Republicans’ longtime campaign promise to repeal and replace Obamacare, even as the GOP has had difficulty coalescing around one replacement.
“Tonight, I am also calling on this Congress to repeal and replace Obamacare with reforms that expand choice, increase access, lower costs, and at the same time, provide better health care,” the president said.
Trump said he still wants to ensure that Americans with pre-existing conditions are covered and also said he supports letting people purchase plans “through the use of tax credits and expanded health savings accounts” and “to give Americans the freedom to purchase health insurance across state lines.”
There were also some head fakes from the administration. While Trump told news anchors in a lunch meeting earlier Tuesday he was open to bipartisan immigration overhaul, that never made it into his speech.
Instead, Trump continued to hew to hard-line rhetoric on immigration, recognizing families he invited to the speech who had lost loved ones to crimes committed by unauthorized immigrants. He announced he had ordered the Department of Homeland Security to create a new office called “VOICE” — Victims Of Immigration Crime Engagement — that would provide “a voice to those who have been ignored by our media, and silenced by special interests.”
He still stood behind his call for “the construction of a great wall along our Southern border” to curb unauthorized immigrants, though he omitted a line from his prepared remarks that promised it would start ahead of schedule.
Trump didn’t offer a specific defense of his controversial travel ban that affected seven Muslim-majority countries and was later halted by a federal court. The administration is expected to issue a new executive order this week.
But he did offer a broader, more muted than usual, pushback to the order’s critics, saying that “it is not compassionate, but reckless, to allow uncontrolled entry from places where proper vetting cannot occur. Those given the high honor of admission to the United States should support this country and love its people and its values.”
Some of the president’s bullet points were apostasies of traditional GOP orthodoxy. His call for more than $1 trillion in new infrastructure spending “financed through both public and private capital” could belie fiscal discipline the GOP has preached for years, though it is an area where he could find bipartisan support from Democrats.
He also called for more military spending, as he had outlined in his budget proposal this week, and reiterated his call to “make child care accessible and affordable” and “to help ensure new parents have paid family leave.”
Trump still did have some of his usual bombast, though it was far more muted. Instead of boasting about how the political pundits had underestimated him and crowing about his electoral win, the president instead sought to harness the movement that had surprisingly thrust him into office.
“The rebellion started as a quiet protest, spoken by families of all colors and creeds — families who just wanted a fair shot for their children, and a fair hearing for their concerns,” Trump said. “But then the quiet voices became a loud chorus — as thousands of citizens now spoke out together, from cities small and large, all across our country.
“Finally, the chorus became an earthquake — and the people turned out by the tens of millions, and they were all united by one very simple, but crucial demand, that America must put its own citizens first — because only then, can we truly Make America Great Again,” the president said, echoing his campaign slogan and striking familiar populist chords.
There was no more emotional moment during the speech, though, than when Trump recognized Carryn Owens, the widow of Navy SEAL William “Ryan” Owens, who was killed during a ground mission in Yemen during Trump’s first days in office. There has been much controversy surrounding the raid, which killed civilians, and Owens’ father had harsh words for Trump amid reports that the operation didn’t yield any valuable intelligence.
But Trump looked to silence any criticism by putting the spotlight solely on the deeply emotional widow. Owens received a sustained standing ovation from across the chamber, her eyes looking toward the sky and arms stretched upward as tears rolled across her grief-stricken face.
Trump praised her late husband as someone who “died as he lived: a warrior, and a hero” and said that Defense Secretary James Mattis had assured him that “Ryan was a part of a highly successful raid that generated large amounts of vital intelligence that will lead to many more victories in the future against our enemies.
“Ryan’s legacy is etched into eternity,” the president said.
It was that action that had even some of Trump’s fiercest critics praising him after the speech, showing why it could be one of the most enduring moments from the critical address.
“There are a lot of people who have a lot of reason to be frustrated with him, fearful of him, mad at him,” liberal CNN commentator Van Jones said afterward. “But that was one of the most extraordinary moments you have ever seen in American politics, period.”
“He became president of the United States in that moment. Period,” Jones added.
But other than that bipartisan moment, there were few instances where legislators in the chamber seemed anything other than deeply divided. Democrats sat stoically as Republicans repeatedly rose to their feet to applaud, with the occasional red-state Democratic senator, like North Dakota’s Heidi Heitkamp or West Virginia’s Joe Manchin (both up for re-election in 2018) joining them.
Most Democrats, however, had marked down their resistance early on. Democratic women wore white to the speech, a symbol of the early suffragettes.
Their choice to give the response to Trump’s speech was former Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear. While the 72-year-old who doesn’t currently hold elective office isn’t exactly a fresh face for the party, he did check off some of the boxes Democrats had last cycle with winning over rural voters.
Perhaps most important, Beshear was able to speak to the issue that’s generating the most enthusiasm among the party’s grass roots right now — saving Obamacare. As governor of the conservative Bluegrass State for two terms, Beshear oversaw the state’s Medicaid expansion and widely praised health care exchange, which resulted in a drastic drop in the state’s uninsured.
“Does the Affordable Care Act need some repairs? Sure, it does,” Beshear said, speaking from a diner in Lexington. “But so far, every Republican idea to ‘replace’ the Affordable Care Act would reduce the number of Americans covered, despite your promises to the contrary.”
“Mr. President, folks here in Kentucky expect you to keep your word,” Beshear continued. “Because this isn’t a game. It’s life and death for people.”