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OpinionColumnistsMark Chiusano

Donald Trump speech was unremarkable, wait for actions to judge him

President Donald Trump's rhetoric was unchanged in his

President Donald Trump's rhetoric was unchanged in his first Congressional address, even as his tone moderated slightly. Credit: AFP / Getty Images / Jim Lo Scalzo

Among the surprises in President Donald Trump’s first address to Congress that Frederick Douglass and politics bingo writers wouldn’t have imagined: opening with a reference to “Black History Month.”

It was part of a mostly traditional and sorely needed opening paean to America’s diversity, culminating with an admonition against “hate and evil in all of its very ugly forms.”

Perhaps the only untraditional thing about the opening was the pluralistic call’s inclusion at the very top of a speech like this, as if the speaker had to get it out of the way or make sure it made its way in.

Sure enough, after a few additional focused, serious lines about the torch of truth, justice and liberty, Trump arrived at the “new chapter of American greatness.” Which sounded a bit like a certain campaign slogan. A few sentences later, “inner cities,” and “drugs pouring in,” and it was Trump’s usual campaign promises and warnings.

In what might have been the most restrained speech of his political career so far, Trump avoided major outrages. He concisely made the case for an “America First” economic agenda. And he closed with an uplifting passage about the wonders of American innovation and the need to unite to fix problems, noting that the time “for small thinking is over.”

But through most of the speech, his tone was dark, as it has been in the past, describing the country Trump now leads: the “lawless chaos” and lack of rule of law at the border. The Obamacare “disaster.” Violent crime terrifying the nation.

And, as has too often been the case, he included things that aren’t true: Trump emphasized anew the need for proper immigration vetting from countries like the ones included in his knocked-down executive order. Yet he said we allow “uncontrolled entry” from such places, which is a strange way to describe a stringent multi-year process for admitting refugees.

He said 94 million people are unemployed in a country of some 320 million, a wildly inflated figure that seems to include students and the elderly.

Earlier in the day Trump told news anchors he was open to a compromise on immigration, perhaps even for a path to legalization. The closest he came to describing that in the speech was calling for a reformed immigration system that prioritized immigrants of merit, a line that must have gotten rubbed off the Statue of Liberty.

All told, the address was mostly Trump’s usual rhetoric. Viewers would do well to take him at his word and investigate how his words now compare with his actions and plans.

For example, Trump said Tuesday that he wanted to “promote clean air and clean water,” a reassuring statement that is at odds with his campaign-long criticism of the Environmental Protection Agency which does just that. This week he also unravelled an Obama-era regulation on clean water; and reports have surfaced of more than 20 percent potential slashes to the agency’s budget.

Such cuts have happened in the past — under Ronald Reagan, the EPA budget was cut by more than 20 percent by fiscal year 1983, as compared to 1980. Previous levels of funding were not restored until 1987.

According to Eric Goldstein, senior attorney at the National Resources Defense Council, that resulted in cuts to the Superfund program, which cleans up dangerous sites, as well as an enforcement slowdown.

That kind of change would have ramifications around the country, and in New York City alone Goldstein says the NRDC is concerned about potential cuts that would slow the cleanup of Superfund sites like the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn or Newton Creek between Brooklyn and Queens. And enforcement is the kind of thing that “often without much fanfare,” says Goldstein, “makes sure the promises of the Clean Water Act and Safe Drinking Water Act are met in practice.”

Cuts don’t do much to “promote clean air and clean water,” no matter what Trump promised in his speech.

He’ll have to do more than empty promises to indicate a shift.