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In break from chaotic start, Trump outlines broad agenda

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.
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.

WASHINGTON — President Trump, making a sharp break from his chaotic and often divisive start in the White House, on Tuesday night spoke in optimistic terms as he urged lawmakers to “find common ground’’ around his broad agenda.

The speech to a joint session of Congress did not include many new policy prescriptions — and lacked much of the detail needed to bring about change — but it marked a stronger turn toward a more proactive approach, with a sense that government could be a force for inspiration and good in Americans’ lives.

“True love for our people requires us to find common ground, to advance the common good, and to cooperate on behalf of every American child who deserves a brighter future,” he said. “But we know that America is better off when there is less conflict — not more.”

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At other points he said, “Our children will grow up in a nation of miracles” and also that “Everything that is broken in our country can be fixed. Every problem can be solved.’’

The most moving moment of the night occurred as Trump acknowledged Carryn Owens, the widow of Ryan Owens, a Navy SEAL killed in a recent intelligence gathering raid in Yemen. She stood and wept, looking skyward several times as the chamber stood for a long ovation.

Pushing back on reports that the raid did not recover vital information, Trump quoted Defense Secretary Jim Mattis saying, “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,” Trump said.

In an interview with Fox News hours before, however, Trump blamed the military for the operation’s fatal outcome, saying of the generals: “They lost Ryan.”

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Earlier in the day, Trump said that he was open to an immigration overhaul that could provide a pathway to legal status for millions of undocumented immigrants, a dramatic statement after he ran on a platform of a sweeping crackdown on immigration and whose administration in recent weeks has been deporting undocumented immigrants.

Trump, who has a history of articulating policy views that he later contradicts or backs away from, made the comments during a luncheon with news anchors ahead of his prime-time address.

The new stance — in which he would support a pathway to legal status, but not citizenship, for those who have not committed serious crimes — would be a significant turnabout for a president whose campaign was marked by chants of “Build the wall!” and pledges to create a deportation force to take people back to their countries of origin.

But during his speech, he did not mention any pathway toward legalization. And while he said that immigration reform was needed, he emphasized his more hard-line stance and recent deportations.

“To any in Congress who do not believe we should enforce our laws, I would ask you this question: What would you say to the American family that loses their jobs, their income, or a loved one, because America refused to uphold its laws and defend its borders?” he said.

He urged Congress to depart from what he called a “system of lower-skilled immigration’’ and adopt a “merit-based system.’’

His speech came amid numerous questions about his first few weeks in office and with a newly empowered Republican Party fractured over what to do on an agenda that touches almost every aspect of government, including health care, immigration, and taxes.

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Much of Trump’s prime-time address seemed tailored to unify the GOP and avert some of the discord within a party that controls the White House and both congressional chambers for the first time since 2006.

Trump touts actions since taking office in speech to Congress
Trump touts actions since taking office in speech to Congress

“Think of the marvels we can achieve if we simply set free the dreams of our people,” he said. “Cures to illnesses that have always plagued us are not too much to hope. American footprints on distant worlds are not too big a dream. Millions lifted from welfare to work is not too much to expect.”

“The time for small thinking is over. The time for trivial fights is behind us,” he added. “We just need the courage to share the dreams that fill our hearts.”

He delivered his address — and most prominent speech since Inauguration Day — as the most unpopular president in recent history, and in desperate need of resetting the course of his administration. In an interview earlier in the day, he had a rare moment of introspection, saying that he believed that he had accomplished a great deal in his weeks in office but conceded that he had been mediocre in his communication skills.

While not technically a State of the Union address, which are delivered in noninauguration years, the speech had all the ritualistic feel of one. Vice President Mike Pence and House Speaker Paul Ryan sat behind the president — the most visible sign of the Democrats’ dramatic reversal of fortunes — and the president read from a Teleprompter.

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Trump touted a “renewal of the American spirit,” and focused on some of what the administration believe have been underplayed successes. He also acknowledged the string of violent acts in the past several days.

“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 of its very ugly forms,’’ Trump said at the beginning of his speech.

His budget, which will be released in a few weeks, is expected to include $54 billion in new military spending, corresponding with $54 billion in cuts to domestic programs. He is also planning to unveil a new executive order Wednesday to bar certain immigrants from entering the United States, which comes after his first order was blocked by a federal appeals court.

The speech gave an indication of Trump’s top agenda items. Despite deep budget cuts that are likely to come, he said he wanted to “make child care accessible and affordable,” as well as ensure that parents have paid family leave.

Although his budget plans are likely to call for scaling back the Environmental Protection Agency, he said one goal is “to promote clean air and clean water.”

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He promised a reduced corporate tax rate, and “massive tax relief for the middle class.”

“We must restart the engine of the American economy — making it easier for companies to do business in the United States, and much harder for companies to leave,” he said.

The president also turned toward foreign policy, calling for a more aggressive effort to topple the Islamic State.

“We will work with our allies, including our friends and allies in the Muslim world, to extinguish this vile enemy from our planet,” he said.

But many of the policies he wants to implement — including a wall along the US-Mexico border, a tax reform plan, and a repeal of the health care law — are running into opposition from Republicans.

How and when to repeal Barack Obama’s health care law has triggered conflict as well, with some members of a restive conservative caucus calling for quick legislation while others are concerned about the complexities — as well as the robust opposition they have been seeing during town hall meetings.

“Mandating every American to buy government approved health insurance was never the right solution for America. The way to make health insurance available to everyone is to lower the cost of health insurance and that is what we will do,” Trump said.

“Obamacare is collapsing — and we must act decisively to protect all Americans. Action is not a choice — it is a necessity,” he said.

Democrats have sought to capitalize on the divisions within the Republican Party, but they are also struggling to figure out how to harness the newfound energy and attempting to showcase unity.

Former Kentucky governor Steve Beshear, an ardent support of Obama’s health care law in a staunchly conservative state, delivered the Democrats’ official response to the address. Giving the response in Spanish was Astrid Silva, an immigration activist, who came to the United States illegally with his parents and has been allowed to stay under Obama administration policies.

Beshear’s response included a plea for Trump to keep the health care law intact, and not to follow through with Republican plans to dismantle it.

Democrats avoided the large-scale boycotts of Trump’s speech that marked his inauguration. Instead, they invited guests who could be a visible sign of their protests. Senator Elizabeth Warren, for example, brought an Iraqi refugee who moved to Lynn in 2010 and recently became an American citizen.


Matt Viser can be reached at matt.viser@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mviser.