How Trump's speech played on Capitol Hill

Story highlights

  • Trump's speech echoed many of the themes of his campaign
  • Some Democrats were dismayed by the speech

Washington (CNN)Perhaps Dan Quayle said it best: "He was the same old Donald Trump."

The former Republican vice president, inside the Capitol following Friday's inauguration ceremony, extolled the new president's speech as "fabulous" and "right on target."
"He's going to make America great again," Quayle said. "He's going to bring people together. And that's the only way to make America great again is to work together."
But just as they did during the blistering 2016 campaign, different ears heard different things during Trump's inaugural speech to the nation. That was particularly true among many of those who sat behind him as he took the oath of office, those who served as a backdrop as he assumed the ultimate mantle of power -- members of Congress with whom President Trump now has to work.
Inaugurations are generally intended to be feel-good events that bring the country -- and the capital -- together, if only for a brief moment in time. A strong inaugural address includes memorable lines that outlive a presidency and a president, soaring rhetoric that even the most partisan politicians can admire. Think Franklin D. Roosevelt: "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself." Think John F. Kennedy: "Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country."
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High standards, to be sure. But even lesser orators than FDR and JFK have risen to the moment in their own way, painting a vision that inspires Republicans and Democrats to work together for the greater good.
Trump had some memorable lines, most notably: "This American carnage stops right here and stops right now."
But his sometimes dark rhetoric was often more cajoling than inspiring.
Trump's speech echoed many of the themes of his campaign. It emphasized populism, putting "America first" and returning the country to some previous greatness. Music to the ears of his supporters. But a bit scratchy to other listeners.
"It was a continuation of what he campaigned on," Sen. John McCain, the Arizona Republican who was at times critical of that campaign, repeated three times in quick succession. "I didn't particularly like or dislike any part of it. I thought it was a continuation of his campaign for president."
As they filed into the Capitol following the inauguration, a number of Democrats signaled their dismay by simply walking away as a reporter asked for their reactions. Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, a frequent Trump critic, didn't have a word to say as she strode briskly through the ornate Rotunda. Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota let a staffer intervene on his behalf with a simple "no comment."
Sen. Amy Klobuchar, also a Minnesota Democrat, said she wanted to read the speech before speaking about it. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who sought the Democratic nomination, said he wanted to "hold off on a statement at this point." Both senators then walked away.
Other Democrats were more expansive -- and critical.
"I think America's the leading world power and that was not a speech that was uplifting or committed America to continued leadership in the world," said Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia.
Given the divisiveness of the campaign and the fact that Trump lost the popular vote to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, some Democrats expected him to offer something of an olive branch to voters -- and maybe even to politicians -- who might not have supported him.
"I thought it was a missed opportunity," said Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon. "This is what I thought was going to happen: The president would say, 'I want to talk to all Americans who didn't vote for me. And all of you who didn't vote for me, I want to make sure we're all together in terms of working for solutions.' And, in that sense, even a handful of sentences like that I think could have made a big difference."
"I was hoping for more of a unity speech," added Sen. Robert P. Casey Jr., of Pennsylvania. "An inaugural address is important, but what happens is obviously a lot more important. So we'll wait to see how he approaches his new responsibilities."
Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri was incensed that Trump seemed to impugn the integrity of elected officials who preceded him in public service.
"For too long, a small group in our nation's capital has reaped the rewards of government while the people have borne the cost," Trump declared. "Washington flourished -- but the people did not share in its wealth. Politicians prospered -- but the jobs left, and the factories closed. The establishment protected itself, but not the citizens of our country."
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"I just didn't realize that we were that terrible," McCaskill said. "I think he was so anxious to try to convince everyone that America is terrible now so that he can make it better that it felt awkward to me."
"It's always such a day of pride for our country," she said of the quadrennial presidential inauguration. "And for his laundry list of our shortcomings to take such a prominent part of his speech was weird to me."
Republicans defended their new standard bearer, saying he laid out the challenges facing the nation and pledged to overcome them.
"I thought it was a good positive upbeat and hopeful speech," said Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee.
Sen. Tim Scott, a Republican from South Carolina, had a different reason to like Trump's speech.
"Seventeen minutes. It was amazing," he said. "I liked it because it was short. What we say is less important than what we do. So let's get on about doing the work of the people's business."
As for the divergent reactions among his Senate colleagues, Scott offered this explanation:
"We all have learned to decipher what he said so that we know what he meant. I think he meant for us to blame less and work more."