WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump opened his first address to Congress Tuesday by condemning the recent spate of threats against Jewish community centers, vandalism at Jewish cemeteries and the shooting of two Indian men in Kansas.
“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 very ugly forms,” he said.
He entered the House chamber to thunderous applause as he seeks to pull off a dramatic recasting of his political fortunes. He’s delivering the speech just hours after throwing a curveball at his Republican allies by suggesting a shift of his stance on immigration policy.
Trump is aiming to perform a sharp tonal shift Tuesday in his address to a Joint Session of Congress. He is striking notes of inspiration and a common national purpose, a contrast with his darker addresses at the inauguration and last summer’s Republican National Convention.
“What we are witnessing today is the renewal of the American spirit,” he said.
Trump still struck hardline notes. He overruled national security adviser H.R. McMaster, according to a senior administration official, to warn of “radical Islamic terrorism.” Striking themes familiar from his campaign, Trump vowed to restore “integrity and the rule of law to our borders.”
“We will soon begin the construction of a great, great wall along our southern border,” Trump said, drawing raucous Republican cheers even as he didn’t mention his earlier promise that Mexico would pay for construction.
While such language could please conservatives, Trump is on Capitol Hill after sending shockwaves through Washington earlier Tuesday by telling reporters he wants to pass an immigration reform bill that could grant legal status to millions of undocumented immigrants living in the US.
“The time is right for an immigration bill as long as there is compromise on both sides,” Trump said at the White House.
So far there is little sign that the new President’s legislative agenda, which includes repealing and replacing Obamacare, a big tax overhaul, and a trillion-dollar infrastructure program, is anywhere near coming to fruition. That could quickly turn out to be a problem for the President because there is only so much he can do by flexing his power through executive orders — his main method to date of showing that he is leading the nation in a new direction.
He is under pressure to issue marching orders for Republicans who have been attacked in their home districts over a lack of specifics about key planks of the Trump agenda. There are no concrete plans yet to provide Americans with a workable alternative to the Affordable Care Act — a reality that is fast eroding Republican political capital. But Trump will promise a much better system than the one that formed the centerpiece of Obama’s political legacy.
“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,” Trump will say, according to excerpts of his speech released by the White House. “Mandating every American to buy government-approved health insurance was never the right solution for America. The way to make health insurance available for everyone is to lower the cost of health insurance and that is what we will do.”
The President will also signal action on another key piece of his agenda — tax reform.
“My economic team is developing historic tax reform that will reduce the tax rate on our companies so they can compete and thrive anywhere and with anyone. At the same time we will provide massive tax relief for the middle class,” Trump will say, according to the excerpts.
Trump aides are promising an “optimistic” speech designed to rally Americans toward a hopeful future, and say the President’s topics have been influenced by a series of “listening” sessions he has held in his first weeks in office with business executives, union leaders and blue collar workers. The President plans to talk directly to the country and stress the need to solve “real problems for real people,” a senior administration official said.
The President needs to use Tuesday’s address to buy himself some political time. Trump’s approval ratings are hovering at depths never seen for a modern president so early in his administration. Some 44% of Americans approve of the job Trump is doing, while 48% disapprove, according to a new NBC/Wall Street Journal poll published on Sunday.
Trump remains a highly divisive figure, after the most negative presidential campaign on record, although has consolidated the support of many Republicans. Still, his White House is struggling to fend off a controversy about alleged ties between his campaign and Russia.
Trump’s fast start in office, engineered by a flurry of executive orders fulfilling campaign vows was meanwhile derailed by the chaotic rollout of his travel entry ban on the citizens of seven predominately Muslim nations, which was stayed by federal courts. An amended plan is due to be unveiled this week, so Trump has a chance to explain the need for the ban to voters in a way he neglected to do the first time around.
The address also comes at a moment when the White House is fleshing out the ideological foundation of the Trump presidency. The President’s top political aide Steve Bannon spoke last week at the Conservative Political Action Conference of a relentless effort to dismantle the “administrative state” and a crusade against regulations Republicans believe have crushed innovation and economic growth.
Trump’s speech to the same meeting struck stark themes of economic nationalism and an America First foreign policy.
And in the first details of his forthcoming budget unveiled on Monday, Trump gave notice of a 10% spike in defense spending to be financed by steep cuts at other government departments and a reduction in foreign aid.
In a nod to another central theme of Trump’s campaign, several relatives of people killed by undocumented migrants will be in First Lady Melania Trump’s box on the House balcony for the address. They include Jessica Davis and Susan Oliver, widows of Detective Michael Davis and Deputy Sheriff Danny Oliver, who were California police officers killed while on duty in 2014.
Trump will also highlight his nomination of Judge Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court when the first lady is joined by Maureen Scalia, widow of Justice Antonin Scalia who Gorsuch will replace if he is confirmed.
Unlike most new presidents, Trump has done little to broaden his support and to unite the nation after a polarizing campaign. His inaugural address evolved into a searing indictment of Washington elites, whom he blamed for unleashing “American carnage” in the nation’s industrial heartland.
But the only predictable characteristic of Trump is that he rarely takes the conventional path — so it is difficult to predict how he will approach Tuesday’s speech. Aides once assured reporters that Trump’s convention speech last summer would be optimistic in tone — yet it turned out to be one of the darkest political speeches given by a presidential nominee for decades.
The White House is framing Tuesday’s address as an optimistic speech.
“The theme of the address is Renewal of the American Spirit — an optimistic vision for All Americans,” said a senior administration official.
Aaron Kall, Director of Debate at the University of Michigan, has just edited a book about presidential addresses to a Joint Session of Congress, and doubts that Trump will reach for bipartisanship and unity in his speech.
“I have seen all the articles saying is going to be more optimistic. But Stephen Miller, the same aide, has been tasked to produce this speech just like he did with the inauguration,” said Kall.
“I think it would be the definition of insanity to expect a different outcome this time.” Kall however points out that Trump’s inaugural address that struck many in Washington as off key, was viewed as much more palatable by the President’s supporters outside Washington. And Trump has made clear that he is far more concerned with keeping up the spirits of his supporters than currying favor in Washington.