Trump Speech Revives Campaign Themes But Details Remain Scarce

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  • The president delivered his first congressional address
  • His speech was notably more optimistic than inaugural address

Trump: America Is Once Again Ready to Lead

President Donald Trump urged Americans to set aside conflict and help him remake the fabric of the country in his first address to Congress, a moment he hopes will turn the page on his administration’s chaotic beginning and bring clarity to his policy agenda.

The speech offered few new proposals, and Trump made no suggestions on how he would pay for his plans, including a replacement of Obamacare, a tax overhaul offering cuts for the middle class, $1 trillion in infrastructure investment and a large increase in defense spending.

“What we are witnessing today is the renewal of the American spirit,” Trump said. “Our allies will find that America is once again ready to lead. All the nations of the world -- friend or foe -- will find that America is strong, America is proud and America is free.”

He exhorted lawmakers to act swiftly on legislation to enact his policies, something they so far have not done. His 61-minute speech outlined an agenda that begins with strong national defense, including a ruthless pursuit of Islamic State and aggressive enforcement of immigration laws. He did not mention Russia, the federal deficit, banks, financial regulations or college education.

Meeting Skeptics

Trump arrived at the lectern in the House of Representatives with a heavy burden: to explain his plans to skeptics, including a growing number of fellow Republicans. His address comes in the sixth week of a term marked by record highs in the U.S. stock market but also mass protests against his presidency, court battles over a proposed travel ban, and a controversial habit of policymaking via Twitter.

"What you heard the president talking about last night was a better future for America, a more prosperous future." including immigration changes and a stronger military, Vice President Mike Pence said on ABC’s "Good Morning America" on Wednesday. "The candidate Donald Trump is the president Donald Trump and he spoke about those priorities."

Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer of New York said the speech was scant on specifics of how Trump intends to finance his proposals, such as an infrastructure build-out nationwide. "He can’t just give a speech that has a shelf life and think that’s the way to govern,” Schumer said in an interview on MSNBC Wednesday morning. “We need to see plans.”

Read more: A Q&A on Trump’s plan for a bigger military

Trump faced a choice in his speech to either echo his inaugural address and stoke his nationalist and conservative base or to reach toward the political center and explore compromise with his opponents.

“I am here tonight to deliver a message of unity and strength,” Trump said. “From now on, America will be empowered by our aspirations, not burdened by our fears.”

He made a series of extravagant promises: “Dying industries will come roaring back to life. Crumbing infrastructure will be replaced with new roads, bridges, tunnels, airports and railways gleaming across our very, very beautiful land. Our terrible drug epidemic will slow down and ultimately, stop. And our neglected inner cities will see a rebirth of hope, safety and opportunity.”

‘Millions of Jobs’

“I am going to bring back millions of jobs,” he pledged.

Wall Street was unimpressed. Futures on the benchmark U.S. S&P 500 Index, which had been up 0.3 percent going into the speech, pared their gains as the president was speaking to 0.2 percent at 9:54 p.m. in New York. On Wednesday, the index was up about 0.6 percent at 8:08 a.m.

American stock markets have led a global rally in riskier assets since Trump’s election, though gains have also come amid strengthening fundamentals from corporate profits to economic data. Almost $3 trillion has been added to the value of U.S. stocks since Nov. 8, as the S&P 500 Index has surged 11 percent to a record and the Dow Jones Industrial Average just capped a 12th day of closing at an all-time high, matching its longest-ever streak set in 1987.

“He’s talked about so many different topics and he touched on just about all of them here, but none in any more granular level of detail,” Scott Wren, senior global equity strategist at Wells Fargo Investment Institute, said by phone. “Markets have been patient, have been optimistic, and will continue to be for some time at least. We’re still not that far into this thing.”

$3 Trillion

Trump said that since his election Ford Motor Co., Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV, General Motors Co., Sprint Corp., Softbank Group Corp., Lockheed Martin Corp., Intel Corp., Wal-Mart Stores Inc. “and many others” had announced billions of dollars in investments and “tens of thousands of new American jobs.”

Foreign-currency markets have lost some of their enthusiasm for the Trump trade, with the U.S. dollar lower by more than 3 percent since Jan. 3 after surging 6.5 percent following the election, according to the Bloomberg Dollar Spot Index.

Hours before his speech, Trump signaled to network television anchors in a private meeting at the White House that he’s open to legislation that would overhaul the nation’s immigration laws. That set off speculation the president might be poised to make an about-face and support a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. A senior administration official said the president hasn’t changed his core positions on the issue.

Safer Communities

“By finally enforcing our immigration laws, we will raise wages, help the unemployed, save billions of dollars, and make our communities safer for everyone,” Trump said.

In one of the only new policies in the speech, Trump said he had ordered the Department of Homeland Security to establish an office for victims of crimes committed by undocumented immigrants. 

"We are providing a voice to those who have been ignored by our media, and silenced by special interests,” he said.

He adopted a somewhat more nuanced approach to distinguishing peaceful Muslims from terrorists. Islamic State, he said, had "slaughtered Muslims and Christians," and the U.S. would work with allies, "including our friends and allies in the Muslim world," to extinguish the threat.

Trump drew a standing ovation from Republicans in the chamber when he again described a U.S. fight against "radical Islamic terrorism," using language former President Barack Obama resisted as inflammatory.

Trump said that, even as he was speaking, his immigration crackdown was "removing gang members, drug dealers and criminals that threaten our communities and prey on our citizens. Bad ones are going out as I speak.”

Optimism, Unity

The president made a stab at encouraging optimism and unity, ideals at odds with much of his governance. Many of his first acts have proved divisive, especially executive orders to enhance immigration enforcement and to ban U.S. entry to travelers from seven predominantly Muslim nations, as well as a decision to revoke an Obama-era directive intended to protect transgender children from bullying at schools.

“The time for small thinking is over,” Trump said. “The time for trivial fights is behind us. We just need the courage to share the dreams that fill our hearts. The bravery to express the hopes that stir our souls. And the confidence to turn those hopes and dreams to action.”

In a signal of where Trump stands on immigration, among the guests invited to sit with first lady Melania Trump were Jessica Davis and Susan Oliver, widows of California law enforcement officers killed in the line of duty by an undocumented immigrant, and Jamiel Shaw Sr., whose son was shot by a gang member in the country illegally, according to the White House. Maureen McCarthy Scalia, the widow of the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, also was invited. The Senate will hold hearings this month on Trump’s nominee to fill the Scalia vacancy, federal appeals court judge Neil Gorsuch.

Widow Owens

Carryn Owens, the widow of a U.S. Navy Special Operator killed in a raid in Yemen last month, the first military action Trump ordered, sat next to Trump’s daughter, Ivanka. She received the longest standing ovation of the night when Trump recognized her. Her husband, Ryan Owens, “is looking down right now, you know that, and I think he is very happy, because I think we just broke a record,” Trump said.

In an interview with the Miami Herald published Sunday, Owens’s father, Bill Owens, criticized Trump for ordering the Jan. 28 raid and questioned whether the operation was well planned. As many as 29 civilians were killed in the raid including a U.S. citizen, the 8-year-old daughter of former al-Qaeda strategist Anwar al-Awlaki.

Democratic women in the House chamber wore white in a show of protest and solidarity. Several Democrats invited undocumented immigrants as their guests.

Designated Survivor

The Trump Cabinet member who didn’t attend the speech in the event of catastrophe -- the so-called designated survivor -- was Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin.

Congressional Republicans were looking for any endorsement by Trump of a border-adjusted tax, a roughly $1 trillion revenue-raiser that sits at the heart of House Speaker Paul Ryan’s plan to slash corporate and individual tax rates. The plan is struggling for support, and proponents are eager for a boost from Trump, who has so far sent mixed signals on the proposal.

“My economic team is developing historic tax reform that will reduce the tax rate on our companies so they can compete and thrive anywhere and with anyone,” Trump said, without mentioning the border-adjusted tax. “At the same time, we will provide massive tax relief for the middle class.”

Border Tax

Under the border-adjustment plan, the current corporate income tax would be replaced with a 20 percent levy on imports and domestic sales, while exempting exports. The measure has stirred sharp divisions among businesses: Retailers, automakers and oil refiners that rely on imported goods and materials oppose it, while export-heavy manufacturers support it. Critics argue that the plan would raise prices for consumers while proponents say that, in theory, international currency-exchange rates will adjust to prevent raising consumer prices or favoring exporters.

Trump implored Congress to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, a centerpiece of his campaign.

“Mandating every American to buy government-approved health insurance was never the right solution for our country,” he said. “The way to make health insurance available to everyone is to lower the cost of health insurance, and that is what we are going to do.”

But the effort has stalled, with Republicans divided on a policy to replace the law known as Obamacare and facing protests from voters in their home districts. Trump described the law as “collapsing” and said that “action is not a choice.”

Call for Bipartisanship

“Democrats and Republicans,” Trump said, should “work with us to save Americans from this imploding Obamacare disaster.”

Democrats were unmoved. “There was nothing new on immigration, and no replacement plan on the ACA,” Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois, the second-ranking Democrat in the chamber, said after the speech. “It wasn’t very substantive.”

Trump has previously proposed spending as much as $1 trillion on U.S. roads, bridges, seaports, airports and other public works, and his advisers have suggested the program would rely on private-sector funding. The president renewed the commitment but provided no new details in Tuesday’s address.

“To launch our national rebuilding, I will be asking the Congress to approve legislation that produces a $1 trillion investment in the infrastructure of the United States -- financed through both public and private capital –- creating millions of new jobs,” he said.

— With assistance by Justin Sink, Andrew Mayeda, Anna Edney, John Voskuhl, Mark Niquette, Oliver Renick, and Laura Litvan

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