Softer Trump storms the Capitol

Softer Trump storms the Capitol
© Greg Nash

A disciplined President Trump stormed Capitol Hill late Tuesday bearing a few olive branches for Democrats, some red meat for conservatives and a softer tone that surprised members in both parties.

Republicans cheered the president both for his policy vision and an unusually restrained delivery — one they hope marks a turning point in a presidency plagued by early missteps. Democrats, meanwhile, welcomed Trump’s calls for unity and vows to bolster civil rights, hike infrastructure spending and prioritize education.

But some Republicans remain wary of the president's approach to deficit spending. And many Democrats are already warning that Trump's bipartisan outreach contradicts both the combative tenor of his first weeks and the steep spending cuts he’s eyeing in his budget.

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“President Trump’s speech had an air of unreality because what he said tonight was so different than how he has governed in the first 40 days,” Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerCharles SchumerSchumer: Dems didn't 'tell people what we stood for' in 2016 Schumer: Dems, not Russia, are to blame for loss to Trump Repair is the only “R” word that can solve our healthcare woes MORE (D-N.Y.) said afterward. “The president is simply using populist rhetoric to cloak his hard-right, anti-middle class agenda.”

Still, a number of Democrats off of Capitol Hill hailed aspects of Trump's speech, suggesting it heralded a turning point in his White House tenure.

Van Jones, a former adviser to President Obama, praised Trump for honoring the widow of a Navy SEAL killed during a raid in Yemen, saying "he became president of the United States in that moment."

David Axelrod, another senior Obama adviser, predicted Trump would get at least a short-term bounce in the polls from the address.

And if Trump’s aim was to rally the GOP behind his ambitious policy agenda, he largely succeeded. Despite conservative opposition to proposed tax credits to pay for replacing ObamaCare — and more general deficit concerns — Republicans left the House chamber saying Trump exceeded expectations. Speaker Paul RyanPaul RyanGingrich, small biz to launch major tax cut campaign GOP divided over care for transgender troops Want bipartisan health reform? Make the debate honest again MORE (R-Wis.) deemed the speech “a home run.”

“This is a president who is serious about tackling our biggest challenges and improving people’s lives,” Ryan said.

Trump’s address to the rare joint session of Congress was his first since taking office, and there were early signs it would be no traditional affair.

While several Democrats lined the center aisle where Trump entered the House chamber — including Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (Fla.), who chaired the Democratic National Committee for much of the presidential race — many more Democrats were clamoring away from the aisle than toward it. And only two shook Trump’s hand: Reps. Sanford Bishop (D-Ga.) and Jared Polis (D-Colo.).

Reps. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), Bill Pascrell (D-N.J.) and Sheila Jackson LeeSheila Jackson-LeeHouse committee advances budget resolution Dems launch ‘no confidence’ resolution against Trump House Democrats offer to set agenda for Trump-Putin meeting MORE (D-Texas), who for years have lined up early to shake the president's hand at such speeches, abandoned their posts in the symbolic gesture of refusing to shake Trump’s hand.

“I had done it for 28 consecutive years, with both Democratic and Republican presidents,” Engel said a few hours before the speech, “but I feel that what has been coming out of the mouth of this president … it makes you kind of get goosebumps.”

The address was boycotted by at least two Democrats — Reps. Maxine Waters (Calif.) and Al GreenAl GreenDem warns of additional articles of impeachment against Trump House Dems plan to force Russia votes House Democrat files article of impeachment against Trump MORE (Texas).

“I don’t honor this president; I don’t respect this president; and I’m not joyful in the presence of this president,” Waters said prior to the speech.

For those who did attend, the response to Trump’s message was largely a study in contrasts in the divided House chamber, where the theme was established early: Republicans stood frequently and cheered enthusiastically; Democrats sat sullenly and exuded resentment. And the disparity foreshadows the likely difficulty surrounding the fights to come as Trump and the Republicans try to enact their ambitious agenda under a unified government.

Reading quickly, Trump thrilled Republicans with vows to bring jobs home, rejuvenate inner cities and put America first. But on those and countless other themes, the Democrats sat motionless. On numerous topics, the only Democrat standing was Sen. Joe ManchinJoe ManchinManchin bashes GOP candidate for pushing McCain to resign McCain’s primary challenger asks him to step aside after diagnosis Governors-turned-senators meet to talk healthcare MORE (W.Va.).

Rep. Joseph Crowley (N.Y.), chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, summarized his party’s response in a phrase.

“A lot of fluff with no substance,” Crowley told C-SPAN afterward.

Highlighting the partisan contrast in the chamber, roughly three dozen Democratic women wore white dresses in solidarity with the suffragists of a century ago who struggled to secure the right of women to vote — the same gesture Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonTrump Jr. adds to legal team ahead of Senate meeting Trump: Democrats, Russians laughing at 'phony Russian Witch Hunt' Scaramucci makes Sunday shows debut with vow to stop WH leaks MORE had made while attending Trump’s inauguration.

Immigration quickly emerged as a central theme of the evening. Democrats had invited a number of young “dreamers” as their guests in protest of Trump’s aggressive deportation strategies.

Not to be outdone, Trump invited three guests, seated with first lady Melania Trump, who were relatives of people killed by illegal immigrants. Trump also highlighted his plan to create an office within the Department of Homeland Security to publicize crimes committed by illegal immigrants — a line that drew exasperated sighs from across the aisle.

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

Rep. Adriano Espaillat (D-N.Y.), a former undocumented immigrant, said Trump exaggerated unfair stereotypes of people who come to the U.S. illegally.

“President Trump spoke about unity and asking the country to come together,” Espaillat told The Hill after the speech. “But at the same time, he tries to equate immigration with criminality. And in doing so, he divides the nation.”

Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-Fla.), a centrist who’s a top target of Democrats in 2018, said he’s hopeful Trump’s emphasis on law and order eases the concerns of conservative voters in a manner that frees Republicans to support the broad immigration reforms that have eluded Congress for decades.

“If the segments of our population that are most concerned with illegal immigration see that our nation’s laws are being enforced, I think that will relieve some pressure and allow many — specifically Republicans in the House and in the Senate — to pursue a broader bill that solves everything,” said Curbelo, who refused to back Trump during the presidential race.