President Donald Trump’s first address to Congress was remarkable for how unremarkable it was.
Stately, scripted and subdued, Trump delivered perhaps the most traditional speech of his political career on Tuesday night. Sounding much like so many of the other presidents who have preceded him, he drew on history and the personal narratives of his hand-selected guests as he recited a prosaic laundry list of policy proposals, interrupted with spurts of soaring rhetoric and paeans to American exceptionalism.
“A new chapter of American greatness is now beginning,” Trump declared.
He honored the widow of the late Antonin Scalia. He paid homage to Abraham Lincoln. He spoke about “the hopes that stir our souls.”
In an unusually trim-fitting suit, Trump arrived on Capitol Hill only hours after he had given himself a rare poor review on anything, a grade of “C or a C-plus” for messaging early in his presidency. And from the earliest moments of his speech, when Trump invoked “civil rights” fights that remain unfinished and condemned “hate and evil in all its forms” after recent threats and attacks on Jewish cemeteries and community centers, it was clear that Trump had undergone, at least for one night, a messaging makeover.
Trump traded the language of “American carnage” that defined his darker inaugural address for softer rhetoric, declaring that “a new surge of optimism is placing impossible dreams firmly within our grasp.”
The words were conciliatory instead of combative. Some had been virtually unheard from him during the 20 months since he launched his political career: “true love,” “common ground,” and “the common good,” “cooperate.” Indeed, as Trump prepared to depart the White House, he could be seen seated in the backseat of his limo amid a drizzling rain, mouthing his lines.
The practice showed. On the big stage, Trump appeared at ease in a setting that Republicans were worried about, especially as the easily-baited commander-in-chief was looking out on an audience of hostile Democrats, many of whom wore white in symbolic protest.
If Trump’s tone was new, his themes weren’t necessarily. He talked of drugs pouring in, jobs fleeing, food stamps exploding, poverty rampant and terrorists threatening, piles of debt. It was just presented with the rougher edges shaved off and polished up.
“Everything that is broken in our country can be fixed. Every problem can be solved,” Trump said. “And every hurting family can find healing, and hope.”
And unlike his convention speech last summer — which was criticized as messianic — Trump wasn’t saying that he alone could do that but calling for the collective help of Congress and the public.
“Each American generation passes the torch of truth, liberty and justice –- in an unbroken chain all the way down to the present,” Trump said. “That torch is now in our hands.”
Senior administration officials said Stephen Miller, Trump’s top policy adviser, who also wrote the inaugural, took the lead in drafting the speech. Chief strategist Stephen Bannon was involved, along with chief of staff Reince Priebus and Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner. One 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.
Trump did offer red meat for his supporters, urging Congress “to save Americans from this imploding Obamacare disaster” and speaking at length about the crimes committed by illegal immigrants and the need to build a border wall. He also repeated the phrase “radical Islamic terrorism” despite a push from new National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster not to.
He promised to create a new office for victims of such crimes and cited four guests by name whose families, he said, were impacted by those who “should have never been in our country.”
Still, he sought to sell his policies — including a rewrite of his most controversial executive order, halting immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries, that is expected on Wednesday — in subtler ways.
“It is not compassionate, but reckless, to allow uncontrolled entry from places where proper vetting cannot occur,” Trump said.
Trump offered some olive branches to Democrats saying he wants to work “with members in both parties to make child care accessible and affordable” as well as for “paid family leave” and “clean air and clean water.” Some of that rhetoric does not match the reality of what Trump has pursued as president; the administration rolled out a budget blueprint to gut the EPA’s budget by about one-quarter on Monday.
Throughout, Trump stuck unusually closely to the text scrolling before him on the teleprompter. One of his few ad-libs was a powerful one: to acknowledge the sustained applause bestowed upon former Navy SEAL William “Ryan” Owens, who was killed in a Trump-ordered operation that has come under some criticism.
“I think he just broke a record,” Trump said, as Owens’ widow fought back tears, in a reference to the length of clapping.
But if Trump was hoping the speech would serve as a turning point from a tempestuous first 40 days, he did not act like it in the preceding hours.
On Tuesday morning, he’d appeared on Fox and Friends and deflected blame to military leaders for the death of Owens, a 36-year-old Navy SEAL. “They lost Ryan,” Trump said.
He hosted a lunch for television network anchors and expressed a new openness comprehensive immigration reform — something he’d campaigned vociferously against. And in a meeting with attorney generals, he’d veered toward the conspiratorial in suggesting that threats and attacks on Jewish centers and cemeteries were being done to “make people…look bad.”
On Tuesday, Trump tried to float above such controversies, many of which he incites daily from his early-mornings tweets to his late-night phone calls to friends.
“The time for small thinking is over,” Trump said, without a hint of irony. “The time for trivial fights is behind us.”
As he exited the chamber, the question was for how long.