Donald Trump Changed His Tone to Push Nationalist Policies on Trade, Immigration

Trump Congress
President Donald Trump delivering his first address to a joint session of Congress in Washington, D.C., on February 28, 2017. REUTERS/Jim Lo Scalzo

President Donald Trump's address to Congress and the nation on Tuesday was a bold attempt to push forward his trademark nationalist agenda—protectionism, restrictions on immigration, a military buildup—but it was also notable for the ways in which he tried to protect himself from charges of racism, xenophobia and disregard for the poor.

This strategy was evident from the speech's surprising opening lines about Black History Month and civil rights. Trump caused eye-rolling just a few weeks ago when he seemed to suggest that Frederick Douglass, the former slave and abolitionist leader, was still alive. Over the past week, he's been facing criticism for not speaking out more about the recent desecration of Jewish cemeteries, the threats to Jewish schools and community centers and the shooting of Indian immigrants in the Midwest. By addressing it in the opening moments of his speech, he helped disarm the criticism.

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Yet no one listening to the nearly hour-long address would think Trump had mellowed his nationalist agenda. His decision to create an office at the Justice Department focused on crime caused by illegal immigrants elicited groans from Democrats in the chamber. Just as President Barack Obama once held up DREAMers—immigrants who arrived illegally as children and went on to lead productive lives—Trump pointed to families gathered in the House of Representatives who had lost family members to crimes perpetrated by undocumented immigrants. Trump showed no signs of softening his stance on immigration, save for not invoking his usual promise to have Mexico pay for the wall. If anything he went further, by suggesting that the current immigration system should be overhauled and based on "merit," however that's defined.

Despite news reports earlier on Tuesday that he might be open to some kind of immigration reform allowing 11 million undocumented migrants to stay in the U.S., there was no indication of that kind of softening in his address. Instead he invoked the frightening image of immigrants driving down wages and raising havoc. "Lawless chaos," he called it. The solution, he said: "We must restore integrity and the rule of law to our borders." By applauding Jamiel Shaw, the African-American man whose son was killed by an undocumented immigrant, Trump made his case for getting tough on the border and did so in a way that would help insulate him against charges of racism.

The Trump of Tuesday night anticipated criticism and responded adroitly. He slipped in a line defending the recent U.S. raid in Yemen that left one soldier dead and then showered praise on him and his widow. Critics have said the raid was botched. Trump sought to reassure the nation that it had been done well. He anticipated the Democratic rebuttal to his address from former Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear—an enthusiastic supporter of Obamacare—by mentioning problems the program's had in the Bluegrass state.

The speech is likely to be well received by the public. An initial poll from CNN showed 78 percent of the public approving the speech. But Trump is at a point in his presidency where a speech is unlikely to substantially buoy or sink him. His test in the coming weeks and months: Can he go from issuing executive orders to actually passing legislation? A mogul who made "The Art of the Deal" his trademark now has to start making them with the 535 members of Congress. And while Republicans control both chambers, even members of his own party are unlikely to favor much of what Trump is proposing. There's no agreement yet on a replacement for Obamacare, and opposition to his budget cuts—from foreign aid to environmental protection—will make it a tough sell. Besides, getting the numbers to add up from big tax cuts, big military increases and no change to entitlement programs like Social Security is impossible. Something will have to give.

But that's down the road. For one night, the spotlight was all Trump's, which is exactly how he likes it.