WASHINGTON — In his first speech to a joint session of Congress, President Trump on Tuesday challenged divided lawmakers and a polarized nation to look past his turbulent early days in office and rally behind the “America First” vision of his history-making campaign.
“A new national pride is sweeping across our nation,” Trump declared to a packed House of Representatives at the outset of the hourlong address. “What we are witnessing today is the renewal of the American spirit.”
The entrepreneur stayed true to many of the core messages of his insurgent and profoundly nationalist candidacy — blaming immigration and global trade for a range of ills, expressing resentment at the burdens of America’s post-World War II global leadership, pushing for dismantling Obamacare — while dropping some of his most inflammatory rhetoric.
“By finally enforcing our immigration laws, we will raise wages, help the unemployed, save billions and billions of dollars, and make our communities safer for everyone,” he said. But, he insisted, “the time for small thinking is over. The time for trivial fights is behind us.”
The speech received a chilly reception from congressional Democrats, who audibly gasped when the president mentioned his directive to track crime by undocumented immigrants, and laughed at another point when Trump said he was draining the swamp. Many of the female lawmakers were dressed in white, a symbol of the women’s suffrage movement.
“I saw Democrat women all put on white clothes and sat in the same place, what was that about?” asked Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, after the speech, adding that no one had explained to him what rights men have that women do not. He said Democrats had been “tepid” and “flat” during the address.
Other Republican lawmakers, however, pointed out that Democrats stood and applauded for Trump’s lines on infrastructure and American steel. “I don’t think the Democrats came in tonight thinking they would ever applaud, let alone stand and applaud,” Rep. Chris Collins, R-N.Y., told Yahoo News. He said the laughter was “inappropriate,” but that overall he was pleased with the “respect” Democrats showed Trump.
Rep. Keith Ellison, chair of the Progressive Caucus, told reporters after the speech he thought about interrupting Trump’s “divisive” speech at one point, but “decided to have some class and respect — not for him but for the institution,” Ellison said.
In Trump’s telling, his chaotic first 40 days in office became a story of promises kept — construction will begin soon on the “great, great wall” along the border with Mexico, he said, and the stock market is already setting records. And he took pains to defend his controversial executive order halting refugee flows and suspending immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries, now frozen in the courts. Aides said he could issue an updated version as early as Wednesday.
The president darkly warned of “uncontrolled entry from places where proper vetting cannot occur” creating a “beachhead of terrorism” in America. In doing so, he brushed aside the complex, frequently years-long government process for ensuring that newcomers are not extremists, and the fact that the countries affected by his new restrictions were not home to terrorists who struck inside the United States.
But he also laid down an ambitious marker, suggesting that the elusive goal of comprehensive immigration reform might be within reach.
“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.”
At the same time, the president pushed for a specific, dramatic shift in U.S. immigration policy: limiting entry to would-be newcomers who are “able to support themselves financially.”
“Switching away from this current system of lower-skilled immigration, and instead adopting a merit-based system, we will have so many more benefits,” he said. “It will save countless dollars, raise workers’ wages, and help struggling families, including immigrant families, enter the middle class. And they will do it quickly, and they will be very, very happy, indeed.”
But he did not repeat his suggestion, in the traditional pre-speech interview with television news anchors, that he would be open to permitting millions of undocumented immigrants already in the United States to remain, legally, provided they had no criminal record.
Trump also gave more details than he has in the past about his vision for repealing Obamacare and replacing it — a task that has exposed deep divisions in the Republican-controlled government despite the party having had years to agree on a strategy.
“Action is not a choice; it is a necessity,” he said, calling for an approach that provides Americans with tax credits and expanded health savings accounts and permits them to buy insurance across state lines. Some of these ideas have been popular with some Republicans, but Trump’s remarks were unlikely to erase divisions inside the GOP.
The president ran down a list of ambitious policy priorities but provided few details — a typical omission from speeches of this kind, particularly in the first year. He said his tax overhaul plans would provide “a big, big cut” to what corporations pay and “massive tax relief” for the middle class. He pushed Congress to fund “school choice for disadvantaged youth.” He highlighted his planned request for a $54 billion increase in military spending, as well as his forthcoming strategy for a ramped-up war on the so-called Islamic State.
And he called for “a new program of national rebuilding,” with a $1 trillion price tag borne by an unspecified blend of private and public capital and fueled with a “buy American and hire American” philosophy.
“Crumbling infrastructure will be replaced with new roads, bridges, tunnels, airports and railways, gleaming across our very, very beautiful land. Our terrible drug epidemic will slow down and ultimately stop. And our neglected inner cities will see a rebirth of hope, safety and opportunity,” he promised.
Trump opened his remarks with a denunciation of “recent threats targeting Jewish community centers and vandalism of Jewish cemeteries” as well as the shooting last week of two Indian men in a Kansas City bar. The FBI has said it is investigating the latter incident as a hate crime.
“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,” he said.
In another emotional moment, Trump paid tribute to a Navy SEAL, Ryan Owens, killed in a raid in Yemen, highlighting the presence of Owens’ widow, Carryn. After a very lengthy, bipartisan standing ovation, the president said, “Ryan is looking down right now. You know that. And he’s very happy, because I think he just broke a record.”
Trump mostly stayed away from the vitriolic denunciations of the news media that were a campaign refrain and have become a White House staple, and he did not explicitly address the troubles that have beset his young presidency.
Trump’s first 40 days have featured the firing of his national security adviser for misleading his vice president, the withdrawal of his labor secretary nominee in the face of opposition from Republicans as well as Democrats, turn-downs by his choices for secretary of the Army and secretary of the Navy, typo-filled official statements about terrorism, jarring telephone confrontations with the leaders of Mexico and Australia, the chaotic rollout of his order restricting travel from seven Muslim-majority nations, reports that the nation’s spies are spooked by his team’s alleged relations with Russia, a spat with China, and newly belligerent actions by Moscow. He has signed no significant legislation and has yet to nominate people to fill hundreds of government positions requiring Senate confirmation. Through it all, some of Trump’s senior aides have anonymously fed the news media a steady diet of backstabbing palace intrigue and gossip while publicly insisting that everything is fine and nervously trying to anticipate the president’s next angry tweet.
At the same time, Trump has forged ahead with some core campaign promises — like starting the difficult process of repealing and replacing Obamacare, moving ahead with building a wall along the border with Mexico, removing undocumented immigrants from U.S. soil, formally pulling out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, and taking aim at government regulations. He has also signed executive actions meant to tackle violent crime and shore up police, and roll back federal oversight of water-quality rules. The president has met with leaders of Britain, Japan, Jordan, Canada, and Israel. And the stock market has soared, amid hopes for a corporate-friendly overhaul of tax laws.
“I turn on the TV, open the newspapers and I see stories of chaos. Chaos! Yet it is the exact opposite. This administration is running like a fine-tuned machine,” he said at his first press conference.
The president has posted historically terrible approval ratings. But he does not seem to be losing his base, or even reluctant Trump supporters, many of whom said in November that they did not care whether he had the temperament for the job because at least he would shake up a system they felt had left them behind.
There have been signs that the president is tired of the turmoil — his top two advisers, chief of staff Reince Priebus and senior strategist Steve Bannon, have done a wave of joint interviews to showcase an unconvincing buddy routine and banish talk that they are frequently at odds.
On Tuesday, Trump offered an almost impossibly sunny vision of what he can accomplish.
“Everything that is broken in our country can be fixed. Every problem can be solved,” he said. “And every hurting family can find healing and hope.”
Read more from Yahoo News: