The president toned down his customary bombast in his first address to Congress, but his divisive stance remained unchanged on immigration, trade, and terrorism.
- By Dan De LuceDan De Luce is Foreign Policy’s chief national security correspondent. He joined FP in June 2015 after working as Pentagon correspondent for Agence France-Presse. Prior to that, Dan reported for the Guardian from Iran until he was expelled by the regime in 2004. After the end of communist rule in Eastern Europe, Dan worked as a freelance journalist in Prague. He later covered the war in former Yugoslavia for Reuters from 1993 to 1995 before serving as Sarajevo bureau chief after the conflict. Born and raised in Los Angeles, Dan lives in Washington with his wife, journalist and author Caitriona Palmer, and his four children.
President Donald Trump struck a comparatively restrained tone in his first speech to a joint session of Congress on Tuesday, but he showed no sign of easing up on his isolationist, protectionist agenda, and he avoided any reference to Russia, a country whose interference in his election has cast a long shadow over his young presidency.
His speech repeated themes and promises he touted as a candidate, particularly the idea that America is being taken advantage by other countries and the assertion that trade deals and immigration have destroyed jobs and fueled crime. In a departure from his bleak inaugural address and recent public comments, though, Trump scaled back his usual dystopian rhetoric and avoided attacking the media.
Although Trump paid lip service to unity and bipartisan cooperation, he gave little indication he was ready to tack to the center or give ground on his signature issues, devoting large sections of his speech to the alleged dangers of illegal immigration, free trade, and crime.
“Above all else, we will keep our promises to the American people,” said Trump, referring to his campaign as a grassroots “rebellion” that grew into a political “earthquake.”
The divisive atmosphere that has followed Trump’s election was on full display in the chamber, with Democrats — including female members of the caucus clad in white to honor the suffrage movement — sitting silently through the speech, while Republicans across the aisle repeatedly leapt to their feet to applaud.
When Trump, who has recruited billionaires and Wall Street tycoons to his cabinet and who has refused to divest from his own family business, said his administration was draining the “swamp” of corruption in Washington, Democratic lawmakers openly snickered. Others gave a thumbs down when Trump vowed to repeal the health insurance law known as Obamacare.
The inward-looking speech did not lay out any foreign policy vision, and unlike his predecessors, he did not reaffirm America’s role as leader of the free world. Trump’s hour-long speech contained no reference to Russia’s hacking of the U.S. election, its invasion of Ukraine and seizure of Crimea, China’s actions in the South China Sea, or the thousands of U.S. troops deployed in wars in Afghanistan, Syria, and Iraq.
Since taking office, Trump has been dogged by questions about his persistent affinity for Russia and his campaign team’s contacts with Moscow before and after the election. In his speech, Trump avoided any mention of Russia, whose interference in the U.S. election — and possible connivance with the Trump campaign — has spurred multiple Congressional investigations and growing unease among Republican lawmakers.
Trump and his press secretary have responded to reports and criticism over the issue by lashing out at the news media and vowing to stamp out leaks from officials inside the administration. In an interview with Fox News aired before his joint address, Trump suggested — without providing evidence — that former president Barack Obama was behind damaging leaks and widespread protests at town halls for Republican lawmakers.
In keeping with his “America First” campaign rhetoric, Trump’s address was almost entirely devoted to domestic issues, except for some shots at trade, citing cherry-picked trade statistics that were wildly misleading about the positive and negative outcomes from trade flows. Trump cheered scuppering the Trans Pacific Partnership, a 12-nation trade deal President Barack Obama negotiated, and which would have given the United States privileged access to nearly half the global economy. Trump called the pact “job-killing.”
Trump made ambitious promises to bring dying industries back to life, to produce millions of new jobs and to “demolish” Islamic State — but there were few if any details on how he intended to deliver on those promises.
The president also railed against the threat he says is posed by terrorism, which he referred to pointedly as “radical Islamic terrorism.”
The president employed the phrase even though his own national security advisor, Gen. H.R. McMaster, and numerous experts and former counterterrorism officials have warned the term plays into the hands of extremist propaganda by implying a conflict between the West and Islam.
Trump claimed, erroneously, that the majority of terrorist-related offenses since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks have been carried out by those “from outside of our country.” He then cited the deadly 2015 attack in San Bernadino, which was carried out by a U.S. citizen, Syed Rizwan Farook, and his Pakistani wife.
A Department of Homeland Security report last week said that out of 82 people inspired by a foreign terrorist group to attempt or carry out an attack in the U.S., just over half were native-born citizens. And numerous attacks and attempted assaults have been carried out since 9/11 by Americans subscribing to far-right, racist ideology, including the 2015 shooting rampage by a white supremacist at an African-American church in South Carolina that killed nine people, and the murder last week of an Indian engineer by a 51-year old Kansas man imploring him to “get out of my country.”
“We cannot allow a beachhead of terrorism to form inside America — we cannot allow our nation to become a sanctuary for extremists,” Trump said.
And he promised the administration would soon take unspecified action to “keep our nation safe,” which is expected to take the form of a new executive order imposing restrictions on foreign immigrants and refugees. A federal court overturned a ban introduced by Trump in his first days in office that had barred entry to travelers from seven mostly Muslim countries.
Photo credit: JIM LO SCALZO/Pool/Getty Images