President Donald Trump sat in the White House Map Room Tuesday with a coterie of advisers, a black Sharpie, stacks of paper and a teleprompter. Beside him much of the day — the 40th day of his presidency — were Stephen Bannon and Stephen Miller. Other aides frequently circled in, from Gary Cohn to Reince Priebus to Kellyanne Conway to Jared Kushner to Sean Spicer to Hope Hicks, suggesting language and offering advice.
He remained unhappy with parts of the speech, scribbling notes on printed drafts for aides to incorporate and bring back. He practiced twice on the teleprompter, timing the cadence for specific lines. He continued to pepper his team with questions.
The president spent the day of his first address to a joint session of Congress, according to multiple White House officials, much as presidents have before him: revising, reworking and rehearsing. The attention to detail was somewhat unusual for a president who often seems to wing it.
On Tuesday morning he had “marked up from front to back” 17 or 18 pages, one White House official said. He edited again at 3 in the afternoon. The first paragraph was edited as late as 5.
Around 6:15, he was convinced the speech had come together. Most in the White House never saw the remarks before he delivered them, with aides conscientious about leaks. He kept practicing in the presidential limo on the way over.
What emerged was a presidential address carrying little of the jarring tone and “American carnage” of his previous speeches, a similar message but a far lighter tone. It heartened his Republican allies and soothed some worried Democrats. While some Democrats criticized the speech, amid lingering questions about whether he could follow through, for one night it seemed Trump had done what his Republican allies wanted him to do: seem presidential and deliver a message that hewed to the party line.
“The delivery was solid. It had true moments of emotion,” said presidential historian Douglas Brinkley. “It was the moment he went from being a partisan figure to trying to be a uniting figure. For the first time, he seemed like a president. He seemed to have the aura. It was the high-water mark of his presidency.”
One senior administration official said Trump was “very pleased” afterward. Back at the White House, he huddled with senior staff in the residence to ask them what they’d heard about the speech and thank them, said several people present. He told aides that members of Congress had given him rave reviews.
The senior White House official said Vince Haley, another Trump speechwriter, had come up with the idea of framing the speech around the upcoming 250th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence.
Allies say Trump still needs to focus on the details, and that it will take more than one speech to advance his legislative agenda. And Democrats said to not read too much into the speech, questioning some of his facts and ability to fulfill his promises.
“The speech and reality have never been more detached,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York.
Brinkley said that most Americans don’t remember a speech and that Trump will still have to deliver. “He made a lot of promises he doesn’t have to fulfill,” he said. “You can say you’re going to Mars, you can say you’re going to build that, you can say there are all these problems that you didn’t create.”
Trump, senior White House officials say, took an active role in crafting parts of the speech. He was convinced it needed a far less aggressive tone since he was speaking in the U.S. Capitol and that his message had been getting mischaracterized.
He sought advice from allies and aides and New York friends. He was convinced to “get the part right,” one top adviser said. “The guy knows the crowd. He understands delivery.”
Rep. Chris Collins, a New York Republican, said “I think Democrats were even more surprised than the Republicans. I’m not going to question who was able to emphasize the tone, delivery and substance, but I thought it was great for the joint session.”
There were last-minute decisions and reversals. At 6:30 a.m. Tuesday, aides were in Miller’s office, homing in on their Obamacare specifics.
“We decided last night that it needed to be rewritten,” one administration official said.
Then, in a meeting with TV anchors Tuesday, Trump seemed to indicate major movement on immigration policy — a call for a bipartisan bill to come to his desk. He didn’t emphasize that in his remarks, leaving everyone guessing whether he changed his mind, whether it was a trial balloon or whether he never intended to do it.
On Monday afternoon, Trump told Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan he would include a promise of tax credits for health care, one person briefed on the conversation said.
While aides did some of the heavy lifting in drafting part of the speech — the framework was provided by Stephen Miller and Bannon — they said Trump was interested in every paragraph and wanted nearly daily updates.
He often gave aides and advisers broad ideas and told them to add paragraphs or do research. He sometimes called speechwriters several times in an afternoon.
He wanted to reference anti-Semitic attacks and Black history month near the top because he felt he was being unfairly attacked and “wanted to set the tone,” one senior official said.
After he promised aides he’d stick to the script, he kept his word. The president largely hewed to the teleprompter — though with some Trumpian flourishes.
Instead of a “great wall,” Trump said “great, great wall.” Instead of “billions of dollars,” he said “billions and billions of dollars.” He said money “poured in very much,” which wasn’t in the teleprompter. He talked about declining a Harley-Davidson ride.
But most of his remarks were read straight from the teleprompter, a tool he had spent years deriding other politicians for using.
His team also showed more tactical touches than normal.
On taxes, Trump’s team was determined to give some support to Paul Ryan’s border tax while not “alienating senators,” one person said.
Aides had bowled in the White House alley with their Capitol Hill colleagues last week. They had surrogates prepared on Capitol Hill to send tweets and go on TV. White House press secretary Sean Spicer made an unusual trip to the Hill Tuesday and fielded questions from staff.
While friends worried he might grow tired in a long and structured speech, the delivery showed remarkable discipline for a man who likes to riff wildly, ignore the teleprompter, bash the media and fire up a room.
“I think he can weave his agenda with an optimistic message,” longtime adviser Roger Stone said. “He is more than capable of that. We have to give him a chance to do that.”
Chris Ruddy, a friend who often talks to Trump, said “if he keeps the positive tone, he can get legislation through and he will get a bump in his approval ratings.”
“The question is how he carries the football after this,” he said.
Shane Goldmacher contributed to this report.