Analysis

Trump’s Congress Speech Hits Reset Button on His Presidency, Until His Next Tweet

The U.S. president condemned anti-Semitic attacks hours after raising unhinged conspiracy theories about their perpetrators.

Donald J. Trump reacts after delivering his first address to a joint session of Congress, 28 February 2017.
Jim Lo Scalzo, AFP

Donald Trump may have pressed a reset button on his presidency. In a speech before a joint session of Congress on Tuesday night, Trump was disciplined, self-confident and even poignant at times. “You can disagree with him on policy, but this is the most presidential Trump has ever sounded,” tweeted Ana Navarro, Republican strategist turned Trump nemesis.  “If I had amnesia, I might even forget he is insane.”

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There wasn’t really anything new in the speech. It wasn’t the content or message that changed, but the tone and music, which, in Trump’s case, are nothing to sneeze at. Trump spoke with reasonable moderation, deviated only slightly from the teleprompter and refrained from harsh personal attacks. At the same time, however, he sounded megalomaniacal if not messianic, full of himself and his imaginary achievements and clearly not fully committed to hard truths or cold facts. It was an almost unrecognizable statesman-like Trump, which may only be a temporary guise: one can probably count the hours before an offensive tweet or disturbing, off the cuff reply to a question will quickly dispel the notion that there’s a new Trump in town.

A good example of the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde syndrome that characterizes Trump was the unequivocal condemnation of anti-Semitic incidents and other hate crimes with which he opened his speech. Jewish leaders, who have been urging the president to take a stronger stance against anti-Jewish crimes, will welcome the prominence of Trump’s denunciation. It’s all very well, until one remembers that only a few hours earlier, Trump was heard raising unhinged conspiracy theories about the perpetrators of the incidents, which, according to some interpretations, meant the Jews themselves. One can only hope that Trump doesn’t imagine that in their effort to carry out a “false flag” operation in order to damage his reputation, Jews had been overturning the graves of their own forefathers.

Three pictures from the speech will be etched into collective memories. The first is the very fact of Trump being greeted with ovations at an appearance before both houses of Congress, a scene that only a short while ago could have only been conceived as part of a science fiction or horror movie, depending on your point of view. The second was the stark difference between the Republican lawmakers, whose enthusiasm for Trump increased by leaps and bounds as they came to realize that he was not going to embarrass them this time around, and the scowling Democrats, who found it difficult to give Trump the respect they think he doesn’t deserve. Trump called on the Democrats to collaborate with the GOP for the sake of America - not before slamming the achievements of the previous administration, of course - but judging by the polarization that was on full view on Tuesday, that’s not going to happen.

The third picture, which will probably show Trump in his most positive light, was when he paid his respects to Ryan Owens, the Navy SEAL, who was killed in the recent commando operation in Yemen. Even though Owens’ father refused to meet with Trump and accused him of approving the operation to assuage his own ego, and even though hours earlier Trump himself blamed “the generals” for Owens’ death, his gesture of respect towards Owen’s widow, her tears and plaintive look at heaven, and the lengthy applause given by Congress members as a token of appreciation, created a dramatic and touching moment that many Israelis could identify with. It will be chalked up to Trump’s credit even among many Americans who didn’t vote for him.

The main focus of the speech was the continuation of Trump’s incitement against illegal immigrants, with which he launched his presidential campaign 20 months ago. In a cynical propaganda move worthy of un-democratic regimes, Trump even set up a special government office called VOICE - Victims Of Immigration Crime Engagement - in order to amplify crimes carried out by illegal immigrants. He reiterated his intention to repeal the Affordable Care Act, handing out general guidelines but not enough detail for GOP lawmakers to counter the rising tide of support for Obama’s health care bill and the growing protests against Republican efforts to repeal it. Trump wants to increase military spending and is planning a trillion dollar infrastructure package, but has yet to outline where funding will come from and how this squares with Republican wishes to lower the deficit.

Israel got a nod from Trump, who said he had “reaffirmed our alliance” with the Jewish state. He also satisfied many right-wingers by saying the magic words “radical Islamic terrorism” unlike his predecessor Obama and contrary to the advice of his new National Security Adviser, H.R. McMaster. Trump reiterated America’s commitment to NATO while demanding that member states pay their dues and repeatedly voiced his opposition to free trade. Noticeably missing from his foreign policy statements was Russia, perhaps because Trump feared that his usual kowtowing to the Kremlin and Vladimir Putin might not go over that well on this occasion. He also toned down his attack on the press, except for a few digs that will probably go unnoticed.

In a way, it was a confusing speech. Trump suddenly seemed like someone who can act responsibly, or at least seem to be acting responsibly, contrary to the impression he usually creates in most of his appearances, interviews and tweets. The speech might even stop the steady deterioration of Trump’s approval ratings, at least for the time being. In order for the shift to stay steady, Trump needs to remain consistent, but for that one has to believe that he can stop being abrasive and repulsive or that he can suddenly clamp a filter on his thoughts before they escape from his mouth. The chances for a such a metamorphosis are somewhere between slim and non-existent, much to the delight, at least, of most journalists: they may not like Trump or his policies, but he can always be counted on to provide drama, entertainment, ratings and, as he proved on Tuesday night, surprises as well.