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In Trump's Address to Congress, New Tone But the Same Substance

First Read is a morning briefing from Meet the Press and the NBC Political Unit on the day's most important political stories and why they matter
Image: Trump addresses a joint session of Congress
President Donald Trump addresses a joint session of Congress at the Capitol in Washington on Feb. 28, 2017.Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

First Read is a morning briefing from Meet the Press and the NBC Political Unit on the day's most important political stories and why they matter

A different tone from Trump, but the same substance

Last night was a good night for President Trump. His address to Congress contained rhetorical flourishes (“That torch is now in our hands, and we will use it to light up the world”), unifying themes (though they didn’t go beyond platitudes), and red meat to the Republican base. But one good speech doesn’t make up for a chaotic and controversial first month, a slow start to beginning his government, and a lack of real leadership on how to proceed overhauling Obamacare and achieving tax reform.

"President Trump on Tuesday night offered a sweeping vision of the many ways in which he plans to improve the United States, but he said little about his plans for achieving those ambitious goals,” the New York Times writes. But maybe the biggest takeaway is that while the tone was a bit softer, the substance was roughly the same. Tough rhetoric on illegal immigration (so much for that idea about compromise). “Radical Islamic terrorism” (even though his new national security adviser don’t think that kind of rhetoric helps). Repealing and replacing Obamacare. Violence in Chicago. These have been the same themes he’s been making for months — either on the campaign trail, from his executive orders, or on Twitter. He just sanded down the edges.

The answers we received (and didn’t) from Trump last night

Yesterday, we posed seven questions we were looking answers for from President Trump’s address to Congress. Here are the answers we got — and didn’t get:

  • Did Trump offer a way forward on health care? He discussed five principles: 1) ensuring that Americans with pre-existing conditions have access to coverage; 2) allowing people to use tax credits to purchase their own coverage; 3) giving governors the resources they need with Medicaid; 4) wanting to bring down the high cost of drugs; and 5) allowing Americans to purchase health insurance across state lines. But Trump didn’t mention how to pay for this (especially if you repeal the current health law’s funding mechanisms). He didn’t promise that his plan would cover as many — or more —Americans as the current law does. And note that “access” to coverage for those with pre-existing conditions isn’t the same as a guarantee of coverage.
  • Did he provide clarity on tax reform? Trump gave a nod to House Speaker Paul Ryan's border-adjustment tax, but it wasn’t a full-throated endorsement. “Currently, when we ship products out of America, many other countries make us pay very high tariffs and taxes — but when foreign companies ship their products into America, we charge them almost nothing,” Trump said.
  • Did he explain how his budget priorities add up? No. Trump discussed tax cuts, increased military spending, more money for infrastructure, paid family leave — but nothing on how to pay for these things while ballooning the size of the deficit.
  • Did Trump extend an olive branch to the millions of Americans who didn’t vote for him? Unlike in his inaugural address, Trump made three different mentions of Democrats and Republicans working together. He also called for increased infrastructure spending — something that Democrats have wanted. But there was nothing beyond these platitudes. And when he said the “time for trivial fights is behind us,” he signaled to the Democrats in the audience — so hardly a real olive branch.
  • Did he mention what happened in Kansas? Yes and no. He mentioned the violence against two Indian immigrants in Kansas at the top of his remarks. “Recent threats targeting Jewish Community Centers and vandalism of Jewish cemeteries, as well as last week's shooting in Kansas City, remind us that while we may be a nation divided on policies, we are a country that stands united in condemning hate and evil in all its forms.” But unlike his description of violence committed by undocumented immigrants, the president didn’t go into detail about what happened in Kansas and why.
  • What did Trump say about Russia and North Korea? He didn’t mention a single word about either country.
  • How do Democrats treat him? They made some grumbles, withheld their applause (mostly), and headed for the exits right after the speech. But there were no "You Lie" outburst. Of course, that’s a very low bar.

Trump’s big Yemen gamble

The most moving part of last night’s speech was when President Trump acknowledged the widow of the fallen Navy SEAL Ryan Owens who died in that U.S. military raid in Yemen. “I just spoke to General Mattis, who reconfirmed that, and I quote, ‘Ryan was a part of a highly successful raid that generated large amounts of vital intelligence that will lead to many more victories in the future against our enemies.’ Ryan's legacy is etched into eternity.” But that moment is only going to give news organizations and others more incentive to dig into what really happened in Yemen. And if they uncover what NBC News has so far — “Yemen SEAL Raid Has Yielded No Significant Intelligence” — then last night’s moving moment could be highly problematic. A highly successful raid? Or an exploitation of an unsuccessful one?

No, there wasn’t much of a compromise on immigration reform

So much for the idea that Trump was going to offer a compromise on immigration reform. Here’s what he said: “I believe that real and positive immigration reform is possible, as long as we focus on the following goals: to improve jobs and wages for Americans, to strengthen our nation’s security, and to restore respect for our laws. If we are guided by the well-being of American citizens then I believe Republicans and Democrats can work together to achieve an outcome that has eluded our country for decades.”

In other words, he was saying that IF wages increase for Americans, IF we build that wall, and IF we reduce illegal immigration, then maybe reform “is possible.”

Trump’s biggest whopper from last night

It was his declaration that he inherited an economic mess from Barack Obama. “Tonight, as I outline the next steps we must take as a country, we must honestly acknowledge the circumstances we inherited,” he said. “Ninety-four million Americans are out of the labor force. Over 43 million people are now living in poverty, and over 43 million Americans are on food stamps. More than 1 in 5 people in their prime working years are not working. We have the worst financial recovery in 65 years.” Some of those numbers check out: Yes, 43 million Americans are living people the poverty level (though that’s down from the 44 million when Obama took office). Others are highly misleading: The 94-million figure includes retirees and teenagers still in school. But here is the bigger reality of what Trump inherited on Jan. 20, 2017:

  • An unemployment rate below 5% (4.8%, to be exact)
  • A GDP that’s growing (instead of falling)
  • Rising consumer confidence
  • A Dow Jones average nearly at 20,000 (and it’s gone above that since then)
  • Falling number of Americans living below the poverty level
  • More Americans with health insurance
  • Rising household income

Words Trump didn’t say last night

  • Russia
  • North Korea
  • Syria
  • Afghanistan
  • Iraq
  • Abortion

What were other presidents doing on March 1?

Heading to SXSW? So is Chuck!

Hear from him on March 14th at 5 p.m. CT as he explores if big data is destroying the U.S. political system.