President Donald Trump took his “America First” vision to a joint session of Congress on Tuesday night, delivering his nationalist message in a way more palatable to the Washington, DC, crowd, successfully endearing many of the lawmakers and elites he vehemently fought against while seeking the White House.
Trump spent more than an hour speaking about job creation, immigration, national security, and international trade as he implored Americans to embrace a “renewal of the American spirit” and work together to tackle a wide array of challenges facing the country at home and abroad.
Upon its conclusion, NBC News anchor Brian Williams dubbed the address “the most speech-like speech” Trump has ever given. CNN’s Dana Bash said it was the president’s most “presidential” speech.
Staying almost exclusively on his prepared text, Trump said he was delivering a “message of unity and strength.” Coming off a shocking electoral win in November, the nation has been bitterly divided in the early days of his presidency.
“A new chapter of American greatness is now beginning,” Trump said. “A new national pride is sweeping across our nation.”
In a move that surprised some, Trump decided to open his speech by denouncing the threats targeting Jewish Community Centres and the vandalism of Jewish cemeteries, in addition to the shooting of two Indian men near Kansas City, saying that the country “stands united in condemning hate and evil in all its forms.”
The president moved on to touting his early moves as president, which included his withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, his rescinding of regulations, the nomination of Judge Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, and immigration orders that sparked widespread controversy. When he spoke of his beginning to “drain the swamp,” several Democratic members proceeded to laugh.
Additionally, the president mentioned several major companies, such as Ford, General Motors, and Softbank, which have touted the creation of new jobs since he took office, and he made note of record gains in the stock market. He promoted his direction to the Department of Defence to create a plan that will ensure the destruction of ISIS, the terrorist organisation he said was composed of “lawless savages that have slaughtered Muslims and Christians, and men, women, and children of all faiths and beliefs.”
Saying that he inherited many problems domestically and overseas, Trump began to outline what he believed needed to be addressed.
First, were the 94 million people out of the labour force — a misleading statistic, considering it would encompass retirees, students, and stay-at-home parents. But he also mentioned the many millions of Americans in poverty and called for a restarting of “the engine of the American economy.”
To do so, he called for a slashing of corporate taxes and a reevaluation of America’s policies related to international trade — two planks of his ascendancy to the White House.
Promising to return “millions of jobs,” Trump discussed the taxes American companies face overseas without a similar counterpart for foreign companies looking to ship into America. Citing a recent meeting with executives from Harley-Davidson, he promised to change that.
“They weren’t even asking for change,” Trump said, after mentioning the executives discussing overseas taxes. “But I am.”
The president tied changes in trade policy to an overhauling of the immigration system. Earlier in the day, multiple outlets reported he was now open to comprehensive immigration reform, something he chastised along the campaign trail in favour of a more hardline stance.
“I believe that real and positive immigration reform is possible, as long as we focus on the following goals: to improve jobs and wages for Americans, to strengthen our nation’s security, and to restore respect for our laws,” Trump said. “If we are guided by the well-being of American citizens then I believe Republicans and Democrats can work together to achieve an outcome that has eluded our country for decades.”
In his next salvo, Trump called for $US1 trillion in infrastructure spending, citing President Dwight Eisenhower’s creation of the interstate highway system as proof that such investment, traditionally a Democratic cause, was favoured by Republicans.
Trump took aim at the Affordable Care Act, as well, saying that his replacement for President Barack Obama’s signature healthcare law will ensure Americans with pre-existing conditions will have access to coverage and expand health savings accounts and tax credits. Several Democrats showed their disdain for his targeting of the healthcare act.
“Everything that is broken in our country can be fixed,” he said. “Every problem can be solved. And every hurting family can find healing, and hope.”
Speaking about issues related to law enforcement and security, Trump touted his budget proposal to increase defence spending and insisted he is committed to NATO — adding the caveat that member nations must meet requirements for defence spending. He also painted a picture of a nation gripped by “lawless chaos,” a charge not backed up by crime data.
The president said America cannot become a “beachhead” or “sanctuary” for terrorists. He did not discuss Russia or the civil war in Syria.
The most powerful moment of the night came as Trump introduced Carryn Owens, the widow of Navy SEAL Ryan Owens, who was killed in the controversial raid in Yemen last month, Trump’s first military action as president.
“Ryan died as he lived: a warrior, and a hero — battling against terrorism and securing our Nation,” Trump said. “I just spoke to General Mattis, who reconfirmed that, and I quote, ‘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,” he continued. “For as the Bible teaches us, there is no greater act of love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. Ryan laid down his life for his friends, for his country, and for our freedom — – we will never forget him.”
In visible tears, Carryn stood and clapped as the room stood for its longest applause of the night.
Veering from the script, Trump said Ryan was happily looking down because he “just set a record,” pointing to the lengthy ovation.
Following the speech, Democratic CNN commentator Van Jones said Trump “became president of the United States in that moment, period.”
In closing his address, Trump spoke of the upcoming 250-year anniversary of the country. He declared Tuesday night was “when this new chapter of American greatness began.”
“The time for small thinking is over,” Trump said. “The time for trivial fights is behind us. We just need the courage to share the dreams that fill our hearts. The bravery to express the hopes that stir our souls. And the confidence to turn those hopes and dreams to action.”
“I am asking all citizens to embrace this Renewal of the American Spirit,” he concluded. “I am asking all members of Congress to join me in dreaming big, and bold and daring things for our country. And I am asking everyone watching tonight to seize this moment and — Believe in yourselves. Believe in your future. And believe, once more, in America.”
Afterward, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer told CNN the president’s address was “another speech where Trump talks like a populist; the way he’s been governing is totally the opposite.” Newly elected DNC Chair Tom Perez told MSNBC the speech was “Steve Bannon on steroids with a smile.”
“President Trump’s speech had an air of unreality because what he said tonight was so different than how he has governed in the first 40 days,” Schumer said in an expanded statement.
The New York senator added: “He’s proposed nothing on trade or infrastructure, which might help working families; and his budget seems to cut education and medical research, which he talked about improving. The President is simply using populists rhetoric to cloak his hard right, anti-middle class agenda. The American people don’t want words, they want actions that help them.”
But hearkening back to Jones’ comments on CNN moments before, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell gave his analysis on Trump’s big night.
The Senate majority leader said of the president: “For people who are not Republicans and already committed to the president and his agenda, Donald Trump did indeed become presidential tonight.”
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