Most weeks, New York Magazine writer-at-large Frank Rich speaks with contributor Alex Carp about the biggest stories in politics and culture. Today: President Trump’s first address to a joint session of Congress.
A new president’s first address to a joint session of Congress is typically a chance to show how campaign promises will become a policy agenda, something that’s been notoriously tricky for the Trump administration so far. Did the speech leave things any clearer?
Not at all. It was the same old Trump swill served up in perfumed linguistic packaging and presented in a far fancier setting in an effort to retool his image after more than a month of bombast, chaos, and dysfunction in his White House. The litany of promises he recited are the same ones he’s made from the get-go — the repeal and replacement of Obamacare with better health care for everyone, a massive retooling of America’s infrastructure, an end to terrorism and the drug epidemic, tax cuts for everyone, a renaissance in coal mining, not to mention the Great Wall — with no explanation of how he will achieve any of them, what they will cost, who will pay, and what’s in any fine print (or even medium print). Endlessly regurgitating your campaign promises does not turn them into achievements. And they are unlikely to be realized anytime soon given that Trump knows nothing about governance and believes that basically you can run the country by tweeting, holding rallies, issuing executive orders, and pretending that the other two branches of government don’t exist.
Nonetheless, there were already signs that the press would be grading on a very high curve. An ABC News correspondent, Jonathan Karl, tweeted early on that we were watching Trump “at his most presidential.” That’s true. Trump wasn’t yelling and was rarely improvising, choosing instead to read a written speech that told us it was unifying and poetic, in case we didn’t get it: “A message of unity and strength … deeply delivered from my heart.” (If it were in fact deeply delivered from his heart, he wouldn’t have to provide his own rave review of his performance.) I think Glenn Thrush of the Times got it exactly right when he tweeted: “For any other president this would be a boring, laundry list speech. For Trump – amazing, responsible, detailed, united, presidential.” Brian Williams of MSNBC went even further, noting the “soaring rhetoric at the end.” His colleague Joe Scarborough could be found on the floor of the House applauding Trump before he even started to speak.
After all, Trump actually began by mentioning Black History Month, decrying anti-Semitism, and referring briefly and obliquely to last weekend’s murder of Indian immigrants in Kansas City. There’s unity for you. And you want specifics? Well, some CEOs told him that they will create “tens of thousands of new jobs.” You can take that to the bank, surely. Best of all, our president promised us that “everything’s that broken can be fixed.” Problem(s) solved.
I am sure Trump’s base loved it, but for other viewers most of it will disappear from memory fast, perhaps even as you are reading this — with a single exception. Trump took one big risk in this speech, which was to politicize the death of the U.S. Navy SEAL William “Ryan” Owens, who was killed in last month’s botched Yemen raid, by showcasing his widow, Carryn, understandably in tears as she watched from her seat in the balcony. Owens’s father has called the raid a “stupid mission.” It has been reported to be a failure that also killed a score or so of civilians, including young children, while yielding no significant intelligence, according to an NBC News scoop this week.
But clearly Trump feels that reports of the mission’s failure are fake news. He doubled down on his previous claims that it was “a highly successful raid” and said that his secretary of Defense, James Mattis, had tonight confirmed that claim. Official and further journalistic investigations will tell us whether Trump is telling the truth or not, and whether Mattis’s sterling reputation for probity has now been sullied.
In any case, there’s no way of proving Trump’s related claim, his jocular, self-congratulatory assertion that his salute to Ryan’s heroism “broke a record” for applause. For sheer tastelessness, however, it is in a class by itself.