Trump spent a lot of time during the campaign saying he was a businessman, not a politician. He ran as a blunt outsider, not a slick insider. Tonight he showed the old dog is still learning some new tricks. Trump gave one of his best speeches ever and provided one of the most deeply affecting moments of any joint-session/SOTU speech in the past few decades.
Trump opened with recognition of black history month and the work that remains to be done on civil rights. He noted recent threats against Jewish Community Centers and a shooting in Kansas which appears to have been racially motivated. It was a smart move because it brought the room together from the first moments of the speech.
Trump then framed his own presidency as beginning with a groundswell of support that put him in office and gave a recitation of actions he had taken in his first month in office. What followed were all the usual Trump issues: border control, job creation, improved trade deals, Obamacare, rebuilding the military and a major investment in infrastructure. Some highlights:
- On the border: “We want all Americans to succeed, but that can’t happen in an environment of lawless chaos. We must restore integrity and the rule of law at our borders. For that reason, we will soon begin the construction of a great, great wall along our southern border.”
- On the economy: “More than one in five people in their prime working years are not working. We have the worst financial recovery in 65 years. In the last eight years, the past administration has put on more new debt than nearly all of the other presidents combined.”
- On trade: “I am not going to let America and its great companies and workers be taken — advantage of us any longer. They have taken advantage of our country…no longer.”
- On Obamacare: “Mandating every American to buy government-approved health insurance was never the right solution for our country.”
- On the military: “I am sending Congress a budget that rebuilds the military, eliminates the defense sequester…and calls for one of the largest increases in national defense spending in American history.”
Those were the policy statements but it was his handling of the guests in the audience that really became the highlight of the night. First, he told the story of Megan Crowley who was diagnosed with a serious disease at 18-months and was not expected to live past five. But thanks to the work of her own father to find a treatment for her disease, Megan is now a sophomore at Notre Dame.
Then Trump introduced Denisha Merriweather who struggled in school early on but, with a tax credit, was able to enroll in a private learning center and is now a college graduate working on her Master’s degree. Trump also introduced Jamiel Shaw, Susan Oliver, Jenna Oliver and Jessica Davis, each of whom had lost a relative to violence by an illegal immigrant to the country.
The emotional highlight of the night and possibly of any joint-session speech in the last 30 years was Trump’s final guest. Carryn Owens, widow of Senior Chief William ‘Ryan’ Owens who died in Yemen last month. The first time Trump praised Ryan as a “hero” the cameras cut to his wife who was in tears and too upset to even stand. Trump went on to say “Ryan’s legacy is etched into eternity.” Then he turned to Carryn Owens and added, “Thank you.” At this point, Trump led the applause that lasted for 10, then 20, then 30 seconds at which point people in the room began to cheer. But Trump continued to lead the applause for another full minute.
And when it finally died down he said directly to Carryn Owens, “And Ryan is looking down right now. You know that. And he’s very happy because I think he just broke a record.” It’s worth noting that the “Thank you” leading into the applause and Trump’s line about breaking a record after were not in the prepared remarks. These were his impromptu additions. It was a moment that seemed to transcend the speech, a solemn show of respect for one soldier that spoke to America’s respect for all of its military.
Trump will no doubt have plenty of detractors in the morning but tonight it came across as one of his best efforts to date.