For the first 39 days of his presidency, Donald Trump advocated a confrontational policy agenda with a confrontational style. In his first address to Congress Tuesday night, the agenda remained confrontational, but Trump tried to make it sound inspiring, nonthreatening, even conventional.
Trump’s speech was designed to mimic that of an ordinary president. The reality TV bad boy — the one who stokes petty feuds, wanders off script, rants about “fake news,” and spreads nonexistent tales of voter fraud — didn’t show up. The man in his place — a politician laying out his agenda in a more traditional way — won him rave reviews from many in the Washington press.
But occasionally, the mask slipped.
“I have ordered the Department of Homeland Security to create an office to serve American victims,” Trump told Congress. “The office is called VOICE, Victims of Immigration Crime Engagement.” Set up a few weeks back, the office has a nice-sounding acronym but a controversial mission.
As Trump framed it, he was simply giving “a voice to those who have been ignored by our media” — namely, people with family members murdered by unauthorized immigrants. But the office could also be used as yet another way for Trump to drive home a message that unauthorized immigrants are dangerous and bad.
As such, it was received with an audible negative response from Democrats in the chamber, who have long criticized Trump for demonizing immigrants. (“They're bringing crime. They're rapists. And some, I assume, are good people,” Trump said during his campaign announcement.)
The moment illustrated that, sunnier language aside, Trump is not suddenly pivoting to the center. Instead, he is trying a different approach — he’s attempting to use less threatening, more conventional rhetoric to sell the same basic agenda, one that could well bring major upheaval to millions of people’s lives.
Trump is not pivoting on immigration
Earlier on Tuesday, news anchors emerged from a private lunch with Trump with a surprising story.
Sometimes attributing the remarks to a “senior administration official” — who, it was later confirmed, was Trump himself — the anchors reported that the president was considering asking Congress to pass a major immigration reform bill that would “allow undocumented immigrants who aren't serious or violent criminals to live, work and pay taxes in the US without fear of deportation,” as CNN put it.
This always sounded a bit questionable, and it turned out the actual speech affirmed that, no, the immigration stance Trump took throughout his campaign has not suddenly changed. The president defended his moves to ramp up deportations, saying, “My administration has answered the pleas of the American people for immigration enforcement and border security by finally enforcing our immigration laws.”
He defended his currently frozen immigration and travel order aimed at residents of seven majority-Muslim nations, which has been his most controversial policy yet. And he promised a revised order soon, saying, “We cannot allow a beachhead of terrorism to form inside America. We cannot allow our nation to become a sanctuary for extremists.”
When Trump finally got around to the teased “immigration reform” section of the speech, all he said was that reform should “improve jobs and wages for Americans, to strengthen our nation’s security, and to restore respect for our laws.” What would happen to unauthorized immigrants already here — always the crucial question — was absent.
We’ve seen this movie before
Much of the rest of the speech was a laundry list of policies and goals akin to what other presidents have asked for — and hearing them, Trump could sound surprisingly normal.
- What adviser Steve Bannon recently called “the deconstruction of the administrative state,” Trump described more blandly as an effort “to massively reduce job‑crushing regulations.”
- The president called on Congress to pass a trillion-dollar infrastructure bill and a major school choice bill, and vaguely said Democrats could work with him on child care and family leave, but nobody expects Congress to do anything on those anytime soon.
- We got a few more specifics on Obamacare, but much remains vague there.
However, Trump is still Trump. For instance, he still condemned “radical Islamic terrorism,” even though his new national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, reportedly advised him that those words were unhelpful.
There were periods during the campaign when Trump would temporarily moderate his rhetoric, follow scripts more closely, and try to avoid fights. They never lasted. But if he hopes to advance an ambitious legislative agenda, he should try to make sure it does this time.