By Matthew E. Milliken
March 3, 2017
President Donald Trump’s address to a joint session of Congress on Tuesday was, by his low standards, not a bad speech. Trump largely stuck to his script, offering little in the way of needless provocation. While the address contained plenty of misleading information, it featured a notable dearth of novel or headline-making lies. This is, shall we say, a slender basis for praising the leader of the free world. Then again, that’s where we are in 2017.
Unfortunately, much of what the president said was undercut either by the facts or by his earlier statements — in some cases, ones that Trump had made that very morning.
Trump took a few seconds at the beginning of his remarks to condemn the wave of anti-semitic bomb threats and cemetery vandalism as well as “last week’s shooting in Kansas City,” an apparent reference to what appears to have been a racially motivated murder in Olathe, Kansas. Some commentators called this a grace note, but this was literally the least that the president could have done — Trump, who is quick to snipe at people who disagree with him on Twitter, had been silent on the subject for days. Moreover, that morning, he’d suggested to Fox News interviewers that the wave of anti-semitic incidents might be a false-flag operation designed to make him and his deplorable followers look bad.
Trump also offered a gracious tribute to Senior Chief William “Ryan” Owens, the Navy SEAL who died January in a raid in Yemen. Unfortunately, the moment was undermined when Trump called attention to the lengthy applause his tribute had engendered (“Ryan is looking down right now… [a]nd he’s very happy, because I think he just broke a record”).
But alas, that morning the president had made an effort to shirk responsibility for the raid. In the same Fox News interview, Trump said that the mission “was started before I got here” and added, referring to his generals, that “they lost Ryan.”
These were arguably the most noteworthy and risible moments in Trump’s speech, but it was saturated with his trademark falsehoods. He tried to take credit for corporate decisions that will keep some jobs from being shifted overseas and that will cut costs on the F-35 jet fighter, despite the fact that many of these changes were in the works for months before the election. Trump also suggested that his election had fueled a recent stock market run, the kind of assertion that partisans rarely make with much intellectual rigor.
Trump also touted his rather dubious executive order mandating that “for every one new regulation, two old regulations must be eliminated.” He claimed that he would work with both parties “to promote clean air and clean water,” even though he’s already signed orders crippling the Stream Protection Rule and the Clean Water Rule, both of which were implemented under President Obama. He implied that his moves to back Keystone and Dakota Access pipelines would create “tens of thousands of jobs” and that he could somehow require that these be built with American steel, although there’s little evidence for either claim.
Strangely, despite having been seduced by the notion of a pivot many times previously during the nearly two years since the New York businessman first announced his presidential candidacy, many political pundits gave Trump’s address high marks. The administration even decided to push back an announcement of a revised travel ban so it could bask in the positive coverage — an archetypal Trumpian move in that it both played to the president’s vanity and contradicted Trump’s claims that implementing a travel ban is of the utmost urgency.
The administration got caught up in its own foibles, of course. By Wednesday evening, Trump’s attorney general, Jeff Sessions, was on the hot seat for appearing to have misled his fellow senators when questioned during his confirmation hearings about his possible contacts with Russian officials during the 2016 campaign. That story dominated the news cycle on Thursday.
By Friday, reports were emerging that Trump himself had personally acted during the Republican National Convention to moderate the party’s position on Russian intervention in Ukraine. This stuck out like a sore thumb for two reasons. For one thing, Trump had explicitly denied any involvement in changing the platform; for another, Trump’s team had displayed little to no interest in changing any other aspect of the document. Now the Internet is once again rife with speculation about Russian officials’ involvement with Trump campaign.
This is, shall we say, a strange story to dominate the pundit-o-sphere during the early stretch of a new presidential administration. Then again, that’s where we are in 2017.