Trump’s high-road trip
It wasn’t what he said. The big themes of President Donald Trump’s speech to a joint session of Congress on Tuesday night are now familiar: End bad trade deals. Defeat ISIS. Tighten borders. Replace Obamacare. Boost the military. Cut taxes and regulation.
The difference was in how he said it. No insults. Hardly any self-aggrandizing. No dark phrases like “American carnage.” No ad-libs sparking confusion about policy and cleanup scrambles by other Trump administration officials. No reprise of “I alone can fix it” from his convention speech.
“This is our vision. This is our mission. But we can only get there together,” he said.
Trump expanded, somewhat, on his goals over the 60 minutes. On Obamacare, for example, he set out “principles”: Preserve the right for coverage of pre-existing conditions. Help Americans buy coverage, but don’t mandate what they can choose. Give governors flexibility to design Medicaid programs “to make sure no one is left out.”
Unsaid, and from all indications unsettled: How to get there. And the same still goes for many of Trump’s promises.
Tribute to SEAL hero
An emotional, and unifying, high point was Trump’s introduction of the widow of Navy SEAL William “Ryan” Owens, who died in a late January raid against al-Qaida in Yemen.
Members of Congress stood and gave prolonged applause to Carryn Owens, tears streaming down her face, as Trump said, “Ryan laid down his life for his friends, for his country, and for our freedom — we will never forget him.” (Video excerpt.)
Still, controversy over the raid lingers. Owens’ father has refused to meet with Trump and criticized the greenlighting of the mission, and the president in a Fox News interview that aired Tuesday morning seemed to distance himself from the decision.
Trump noted planning by the military had begun under Obama. “They came to see me and they explained what they wanted to do, the generals, who are very respected. ... And they lost Ryan.”
Yes, Trump said that
“The time for trivial fights is behind us,” Trump said in the closing minutes of his speech.
The context was a call for a coming together — not a mea culpa for the serial distractions of his own making, such as complaining about reporting on the size of his inauguration crowds or a department store that stopped selling his daughter’s fashion line.
Still, his speech was free of petty asides. Is he turning a page? We’ll know soon enough. And the initial reviews could encourage behavior modification. A CNN poll of speech watchers found 57 percent had a very positive reaction, 21 percent somewhat positive and 21 percent negative.
A softening on immigration?
In the speech, Trump spoke of trying to pass a comprehensive, bipartisan immigration bill that is “guided by the well-being of American citizens” by giving a preference for legal immigration to those with higher skills.
He did not discuss the future of immigrants without documentation other than those with criminal backgrounds he is seeking to deport. But earlier, in a luncheon with TV news anchors, Trump said he was open to finding them a pathway to legal status — though not citizenship.
The take-away: DEE-fense
Trump is calling for a “historic increase in defense spending to rebuild the depleted military,” but there are other incentives for the Republicans running Congress to go along, writes Newsday’s Dan Janison.
Military shopping means a lot of red-state spending. The procurements and subcontracts at stake are also worth watching in the redder parts of the blue states, such as Long Island.
It presents aerospace companies with an “opportunity we don’t want to miss,” Peter Rettaliata, former president and CEO of Hauppauge-based Air Industries Group, told Newsday’s Ken Schachter.
Former Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear gave the Democrats’ formal response to Trump’s speech, accusing him of planning to “rip affordable health insurance” from Americans and being “Wall Street’s champion.”
Beshear also hit Trump’s attacks on “the loyalty and credibility” of intelligence agencies, federal judges, the news media and others as “eroding our democracy. And that’s reckless.”
Getting clear about hate
In the opening lines of his speech, Trump condemned the wave of threats against Jewish community centers and desecrations of Jewish cemeteries as well as the Kansas shooting of two Indian immigrants now labeled by the White House as “an act of racially motivated hatred.”
“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.
Yet there was consternation earlier in the day when Trump, meeting with a group of attorneys general, was reported to have suggested theories that right-wing extremists were behind the attacks aimed at Jews could be wrong.
“The reverse can be true” — it could be “Someone’s doing it to make others look bad,” Trump said, according to Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro.
Obama a community organizer again?
In a “Fox & Friends” interview that aired Tuesday, Trump asserted — without evidence — that former President Barack Obama was responsible for anti-Trump protests at House Republicans’ town halls, writes Newsday’s Tom Brune.
“I think that President Obama is behind it because his people certainly are behind it,” Trump said.
Asked to grade his presidency so far, Trump have himself an “A” for achievement but a “C or C plus” for messaging. “I think I’ve done great things, but I don’t think I have — I and my people, I don’t think we’ve explained it well enough to the American public,” he said.
What else is happening:
- The guests sitting with Melania Trump for the speech included three family members of people killed by immigrants without documentation. Trump has cited such crimes to justify his immigration crackdown.
- Attorney General Jeff Sessions said he wants to “pull back” on the Justice Department practice of suing police departments accused of violating the civil rights of minorities because “we need ... to help police departments get better, not diminish their effectiveness.”
- New York City tourism officials project 300,000 fewer foreign visitors this year than the 12.7 million who came in 2016 because Trump’s rhetoric has scared some off, The New York Times reported.
- Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) predicted the Senate won’t accept Trump’s plan for a 37 percent slash in the State Department budget. “The diplomatic portion of the federal budget is very important, and you get results a lot cheaper, frequently, than you do on the defense side,” he said.
- For the first time since 1989, Rep. Eliot Engel (D-Bronx) didn’t stake out a spot in the House chamber to press the flesh with a president arriving for the annual address. “I will listen to what he has to say today, but I will not greet him and shake his hand,” Engel said.
- Tuesday night’s Trump speech was not technically a State of the Union address. That’s because by tradition, a president needs to be in office a full year before the speech can have that designation.
- A Marist-McClatchy poll finds 59 percent of Americans say they have little, if any, trust in Trump and his administration to give accurate and factual information to the public. There is a partisan divide: 88 percent of Republicans trust the information, while 89 percent of Democrats and 59 percent of Independents don’t.
- The Trump White House does have its struggles with simple facts. Example: its list of state attorney generals who met with Trump on Tuesday included New York’s Eric T. Schneiderman. He wasn’t there. Also listed: the AG from “American Sonoma.”