Did last night’s presidential address to Congress signal a kindler, gentler Donald Trump? Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski of MSNBC’s Morning Joe ask Vice President Mike Pence on his Wednesday-morning Full Ginsburg whether the more serious and studied tone of Trump’s speech marks an end to his war on the media and rhetoric about fake news purveyors being the “enemies of the American people.” The speech itself never mentioned Hillary Clinton or Trump’s media bêtes noires, they note around the seven-minute mark of their segment with Pence. Will Trump turn the page?
Pence says no, and that Trump will remain the “fighter” that American voters wanted and chose in November:
BRZEZINSKI: To take it a step further, I’d like to ask — because these are the parts of what we’ve seen so far that doesn’t seem real. Is the war on the media over? Are we going to hear the words “fake news,” or is that page turned?
PENCE: I think what you have in this president, and frankly all of us in the administration, is a willingness to call out the media when they play fast and loose with the facts.
BRZEZINSKI: [crosstalk] “Enemy of the people”? It’s strong terminology.
PENCE: Well, I think when you see some of the baseless and fabricated stories that have come out and been treated with great attention —
SCARBOROUGH: But you know, “enemies of the people,” that’s a Stalinist term.
PENCE: Well, look —
BRZEZINSKI: Are we going to see that still? [crosstalk]
SCARBOROUGH: Was that a turning point — he’s moving away from that sort of rhetoric?
PENCE: I think one of the reasons that Donald Trump was elected is because he’s a fighter. The American people want a president who will fight for their future, who will fight for American jobs, fight to make America strong in the world again, but also he’s willing to make his case and to challenge his detractors when unfair criticisms come his way.
It’s interesting that one speech might have given the suggestion otherwise. After all, Trump didn’t explicitly pledge to do anything different than what got him to the Congressional dais in the first place. He never mentioned the media at all, for good or ill, but focused on his administration’s agenda and the legislative work ahead for the next year.
The question arose because of the tone and substance of Trump’s speech, which was remarkably … unremarkable. The speech itself was a conventional State of the Union speech, but coming from America’s most unconventional president, its adherence to the form and substance of the tradition was impossible to overlook. As I write in my column at The Week, that sense of normalcy became the main takeaway:
The speech itself, while well-crafted, also emphasized normalcy over disruption. Like most State of the Union speeches (this one was technically a “presidential address”), it consisted of the administration’s talking points, claims of success for actions already taken, and a laundry list of agenda items yet to come. None of those were new; a rumored call for Gang of Eight-style comprehensive immigration reform wound up watered down to a plea for Democrats and Republicans to work together on a solution that put the American worker first.
Trump talked about his victory as a “rebellion,” but the only element of revolt against convention was his use of the term “radical Islamic terrorism,” a rhetorical formulation avoided by both George W. Bush and Barack Obama. After spending more than a year on the campaign trail criticizing Obama for not using it, though, its inclusion hardly came as a surprise.
Otherwise, the speech looked and sounded very … normal, right down to the use of guests to highlight presidential policy. In form and style, if not necessarily on explicit substance, this speech could have been delivered by any of Trump’s predecessors of the modern television age. For that reason, it will likely be as forgettable as similar addresses from other presidents, except as a usual reference point for future policy. State of the Union speeches rarely provide memorable oratory, so the yeoman-like status of this speech only serves to underscore normalcy even further.
Voters may not have been the primary target of this strategy, either:
That will matter, and not just to the voters outside of the Beltway. It mattered to the audience in front of Trump on Tuesday night: Republicans on Capitol Hill. Before Tuesday’s address, some of them had to be wondering whether the new White House could get its act together on process as well as policy, and if Trump had a temperament that would allow them to work together. Tuesday’s speech shows that Trump can choose to modulate his approach when needed — and that the White House understood that it was needed now.
However, “modulate” does not mean change altogether. Trump will continue to use his more extemporaneous style where it works — like at CPAC last week, which also included a number of shots at the media. Last night’s speech made the point that Trump has the range to adjust where necessary to ensure success. While that may set a bar for expectations of future performances that Trump might not want to meet, it still acts as a confidence-builder on Capitol Hill as the administration begins to fight for the legislative agenda that Trump outlined last night.
There may be good reasons to modulate a bit on Trump’s media war, not the least of which is getting a better grip on news cycles, but last night’s focus on priorities isn’t a signal that Trump intends to let up at all.