Updated at 10:28 a.m. ET
Donald Trump’s first speech to a joint session of Congress on Tuesday night was the occasion for his most presidential performance to date, balancing a reprise of his angry campaign themes with a recitation of hopes and dreams for the nation.
It was his most successful, if not his first, effort at assuming the public persona and personal demeanor associated with his new office. He stuck to the script on his teleprompter, spoke graciously to individuals in the audience and refrained from attacks on critics, rivals or adversaries.
Toward the beginning and again at the end of his 72-minute speech (the longest presidential address to Congress of any kind in 35 years), Trump asked what the nation would look like in 2026 — the 250th anniversary of its founding.
“Hopefully,” he said, “the 250th year for America will see a world that is more peaceful, more just and more free.”
The president began with words of condemnation for the hate crimes lately unleashed on religious and ethnic minorities around the country, including the fatal shooting of an immigrant from India in a suburb of Kansas City.
“Recent threats targeting Jewish Community Centers and vandalism of Jewish cemeteries, as well as last week’s shooting in Kansas City, remind us that while we may be a nation divided on policies, we are a country that stands united in condemning hate and evil in all its forms.”
The president, however, did not respond to critics who say these recent acts have been encouraged by some of his own rhetoric or apparent signs of disrespect for targeted groups. Rather, he turned to strikingly poetic sentiments.
“Each American generation passes the torch of truth, liberty and justice — in an unbroken chain all the way down to the present,” he said.
“That torch is now in our hands,” the president said. “And we will use it to light up the world. I am here tonight to deliver a message of unity and strength, and it is a message deeply delivered from my heart.”
These words early in the speech quickly confirmed the expectation of a softened tone and more inclusive mood. The White House communications staff had promised a speech far more upbeat than any he has delivered in his campaign or in the months since Election Day. The contrast with his “American carnage” jeremiad on Inauguration Day was unmistakable and clearly intentional.
The success of the big speech strategy seemed immediately apparent. Media coverage was largely positive, even laudatory. Snap polls showed big majorities found the speech optimistic and uplifting. The president’s approval rating, which had been at historic lows for a president in his first month in office, is expected to pop back up in the next few soundings.
Still, the new president is nothing if not unpredictable. In fact, being unpredictable was a trait mentioned often by candidate Trump, indicating that previous presidents and others negotiating for U.S. interests were too easy to read and counter.
So, while he projected a sunnier outlook than he had in other major addresses or in his campaign rallies, he also reiterated the “America first” theme several times, including near the top and the end of his remarks.
“America must put its own citizens first,” the president said, “because only then can we truly make America great again.”
Trump made it clear he was talking about trade policy, citing the withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership as one example of his desire for better deals around the globe. But he also returned repeatedly to the topic of immigration. He renewed his pledge to construct “a great wall on the southern border” to counter “lawless chaos” in that region.
He also vowed to create a new agency called VOICE — for Victims of Immigration Crime Engagement. And it was widely noted that of the first six guests announced to share the first lady’s box in the gallery, three had lost immediate family members to violent criminals in the country illegally.
“We are providing a voice to those who have been ignored by our media, and silenced by special interests,” Trump said.
There had been talk throughout Tuesday of a drastic shift in White House policy regarding those in the country illegally. The president had indicated to a luncheon group (of anchors and correspondents from TV news operations) that he might be open to compromise on a path to citizenship, perhaps for those “dreamers” who were brought to the U.S. as children by parents entering the country illegally.
But in the speech, there was no such talk. All mention of reform was focused on border security, stricter enforcement and economic security for Americans.
On domestic policy, the president did stun many in the audience when he said he wanted “paid family leave” and an infrastructure package worth $1 trillion. These are both ideas long espoused by the Democratic Party but resisted for decades by business groups and Republicans generally.
Few would expect either of these ideas to become law anytime soon. But the president seemed to relish proposing something the Democrats might cheer about, even if they seemed remarkably reluctant to do so.
The president also said he wanted to repeal and replace Obamacare, but said the replacement would still cover people with pre-existing conditions. There was no explanation of how that would square with a repeal of the individual mandate by which everyone has to obtain insurance up to minimum government standards. The latter provision is what enables insurers to handle policyholders with expensive conditions.
Trump also stated his preference for keeping the tax credits in Obamacare that enable lower income people to afford insurance. That is also a favorite idea of Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., who sat through the speech grinning like a schoolboy. But it is stoutly resisted by both the hard-line House Freedom Caucus and the more mainstream conservative Republican Study Committee. Both see “a new entitlement” coming into being if the tax subsidies are made refundable to those with no federal income tax bill (because their income is too low).
Nonetheless, Trump and Republican leaders spent the evening acting as though their plan for replacing Obamacare was all but complete and ready for votes. Most observers, though, think the House is a long way from agreement among its own Republican factions.
The outlook for Medicaid programs that were expanded as part of Obamacare is typically clouded because some members think it’s imperative to replace Obamacare with something new and different immediately. Others are willing to see it done before the end of April or even later, so long as people do not lose coverage en masse.
The Tuesday night event was not long on military or foreign policy. The president said he supported “direct, robust and meaningful engagement with the world” and wanted to stay in NATO. He also asserted that certain NATO nations had begun spending more on their own defense, responding to his threats and prodding. It was not immediately clear what basis he had for this.
Trump did reiterate U.S. support for Israel and opposition to ISIS. He did not mention North Korea, Iran or Russia. The latter country has been much in the news because U.S. intelligence has described its efforts to meddle in last year’s presidential election.
Lately, stories based on anonymous sources have said Russian officials had regular and extensive contacts with Trump supporters during the election cycle. Democrats in Congress have been seeking either an independent prosecutor to pursue the case or a special committee of both the House and Senate. Republican leaders have said there is no evidence to justify such efforts. But soon after Trump’s inauguration, the intelligence committees in both the House and the Senate began their own respective inquiries.
The president also produced the most emotionally powerful moment of the evening when he introduced the widow of William “Ryan” Owens, a Navy SEAL killed in a special operations raid against a terrorist site in Yemen just days after Trump took office.
Carryn Owens was honored by a standing ovation by everyone visible in the vast House chamber, regardless of party or position. She wept openly, clasped her hands and looked upward as the ovation continued for several minutes. When it finally subsided, the president said, “Ryan is looking down right now and he’s happy because I think you broke a record.”
The Yemeni raid remains controversial, and Owens’ father had refused to meet with Trump when he came to greet the returning remains at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware. The father said he wanted an investigation to find out why the raid had been conducted, why his son and nearly 30 civilians had died and what the raid had accomplished. After Owens’ father raised questions about the raid, NBC News reported that the operation “has so far yielded no significant intelligence.”
Contradicting that report, Trump said Tuesday night he had been assured by Secretary of Defense James Mattis that the raid was a success and that it captured intelligence that will be of value for a long time — and Vice President Pence told CBS News on Wednesday morning that the NBC report was “wrong.”