In his first address to a joint session of Congress, President Trump challenged the orthodoxy of both political parties in a mind-bending and contradictory way that perhaps only he could deliver.
Trump asked Democrats expand what is already the largest military in the world and approve tax cuts, even though they will be very unpopular with the party’s base. This might be expected of a Republican president who is talking to a Democratic party that is out of power in the US House and Senate.
But then Trump also championed paid family leave, to the applause of Democrats. And he asked Republicans to turn away from free trade and increase government spending on infrastructure, such as improving airports, fixing roads, repairing bridges and expanding high-speed rail services and subways.
What? Yes, that happened. Just wait.
Trump, who at one point during the campaign discussed (and later dismissed) having a deportation force, told reporters earlier Tuesday that he was open to a pathway to legal status for those in the country illegally. And in his joint address, Trump heralded a “merit-based immigration system” employed by Canada and Australia.
The speech was technically not a State of the Union address, but the stagecraft was there. Trump, in a suit with a blue-and-white striped tie, was flanked by House Speaker Paul Ryan and Vice President Mike Pence.
Traditionally, newly-elected presidents have used this speech as a call for unity. In 1981, Ronald Reagan said that it was not “his agenda” but “our agenda.” Bill Clinton called for a end to partisan divisions. Barack Obama addressed Congress after they just passed a large stimulus package intended to help reverse the Great Recession.
Trump, like Reagan, called for unity in his address.
“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 into action.”
Here’s what else happened in his Tuesday address:
Trump began with a call against racism and anti-Semitism
Trump, who his critics have said is stoking racism and has been slow to respond to the rise of anti-Semitism in the country, directly addressed both at the top of his speech. He noted that it was Black History Month, and there’s still “work that needs to be done.” He also referred to the recent rise in threats against Jewish Community Centers and cemeteries.
“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,” he said.
Trump signaled that he has already kept campaign promises
Just a month into office, Trump wanted to make clear that he is keeping his campaign promises. He touted that he’s done so by creating jobs, pledging to build a wall along the southern border, fighting the Islamic State and picking a conservative for the Supreme Court.
‘Radical Islamic terrorism’
In his speech to Congress, Trump became the first president to say that controversial three-word phrase, “radical Islamic terrorism.” There have been two other presidents since Sept. 11, 2001, but George W. Bush and Barack Obama both avoided the phrase because, their administrations argued, it could be used as a recruiting tool by terrorists.
Democrats sat on their hands.
Even when Trump announced two bipartisan ideas -- companies who brought jobs to the US and a five-year ban for White House staff to become lobbyists -- several Democrats refused to clap. Other Democrats chose to not attend the speech at all.
It’s possible that these members worry there’s a political cost for clapping for Trump on national television. The Democratic base is fired up, and they simply wants their politicians to say no.
Trump began to define his place in the (new?) GOP.
Ronald Reagan helped to remake the GOP in his image by rejecting the party’s status quo. Trump is now trying to do the same. His call for “fair trade” over free trade and a robust infrastructure program? Not typically part of the modern Republican candidate’s platform.
Yet Trump also invoked Republicans from the past in his appeal. Abraham Lincoln said similar things on trade, Trump said, and his infrastructure program will be the biggest since Dwight Eisenhower.
This was the most detailed policy address yet from Trump.
Back in August, when pressed about his policy positions, Trump told reporters, “I think the press is more eager to see it than the voters, to be honest.” And indeed, throughout the campaign, Trump never got into the weeds about what he wanted to do with several policy areas, other than immigration and a broad outline of a tax plan.
His Tuesday speech is important because it signaled in a major way what Trump wants to see become law during his presidency. Yes, he addressed immigration and tax reform, but he also spelled out his vision for education, infrastructure and health care, and even the Food and Drug Administration.
‘We will never forget Ryan’
Emotions peaked in the chamber when Trump recognized the widow, Carryn Owens, of a slain Navy SEAL. Trump looked at Carryn, who sat next to Ivanka Trump in the gallery, and declared, “Ryan died as he lived: a warrior, and a hero –- battling against terrorism and securing our Nation.”
Carryn, who was crying, prompted the longest sustained applause of the night from both parties.
“I think he just broke a record,” Trump said, referring to her late husband, Ryan Owens.
Trump talked about the country’s 250th anniversary. Often.
Trump made six references to how America will soon celebrate its 250 year anniversary. Here’s the thing: That anniversary is in 2026, some 9 years from now after Trump will leave office.
Trump reset the tone of his presidency.
Trump may have been inaugurated on Jan. 20, but he might as well become president on Feb. 28. While his inauguration speech will be known for its gloomy words like “carnage”, this speech will be remembered for his upbeat tone about the promise of America.
In many ways, it was the long-awaited pivot that Trump has always promised. This was unlike any other speech we have seen from Trump: he was disciplined, didn’t veer much at all from the script and hit his marks.
Trump expressed optimistic platitudes such as, “The time for small thinking is over. The time for trivial fights is behind us,” and, “From now on, America will be empowered by our aspirations, not burdened by our fears.”
But when he says such things, the person he is really arguing with is, well, candidate Donald Trump.