President Donald Trump showed his aspirational side Tuesday night.
Gone from his speech to a joint session of Congress were the lengthy attacks on media and Democratic opponents. Missing was the gloom-and-doom warnings of “American carnage” from his inaugural address. And while he didn’t deliver a ton of policy specifics, Trump smoothed his rough edges, soothed congressional Republicans and reached out to populations he’d previously alienated.
“The time for trivial fights is behind us,” Trump said.
The question, of course, is whether Trump will take his own advice when he’s facing some criticism and Twitter is calling.
Here are CNN’s takeaways from Trump’s speech:
’Etched into eternity’
The most stirring moment of Trump’s speech – and his presidency – came when he spoke directly to Carryn Owens, the widow of Navy Chief William “Ryan” Owens, who was killed in the military raid in Yemen that Trump ordered shortly after taking office.
Trump said “Ryan died as he lived: a warrior, and a hero.” Then, he defended the value of intelligence gained on the raid.
“Ryan’s legacy is etched into eternity,” the President said.
Trump led a 2-minute, 11-second standing ovation as Carryn Owens stood, crying and clasping her hands.
“Ryan is looking down right now. You know that. And I think he’s very happy, because you just broke a record,” Trump said, joking about the length of the applause.
“For as the Bible teaches us, there is no greater act of love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends,” Trump said. “Ryan laid down his life for his friends, for his country, and for our freedom – we will never forget him.”
CNN contributor Van Jones said Trump “became president of the United States in that moment. Period.”
“He did something extraordinary and for people who have been hoping that he would become unifying, hoping that he would find some way to become presidential, they should be happy with that moment,” Jones said.
Trump’s American exceptionalism
Trump’s Republican National Convention speech painted a picture of a struggling nation in need of rescue. His inaugural address described “American carnage” and declared that “from this day forward, it’s going to be only America first.”
But on Tuesday night, Trump looked to the stars – “distant worlds,” even.
“Cures to illnesses that have always plagued us are not too much to hope. American footprints on distant worlds are not too big a dream. Millions lifted from welfare to work is not too much to expect. And streets where mothers are safe from fear – schools where children learn in peace – and jobs where Americans prosper and grow – are not too much to ask,” Trump said.
He said he was “asking all members of Congress to join me in dreaming big, and bold and daring things for our country.”
His uplifting message was dramatically different from Trump’s usual rhetoric – and also from his usual controversies. For the night, he set aside his demands that Mexico pay for a border wall, and his claims that “extreme vetting” and his travel ban are necessary — even as his administration prepares to release a revised ban.
The departure left Republicans absolutely thrilled.
“Donald Trump did indeed become presidential tonight, and I think we’ll see that reflected in a higher approval rating,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, said on CNN afterward.
Unanswered health care questions
Trump broadly endorsed the major elements of a Republican bill to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act – including protections for pre-existing conditions and tax credits and health savings accounts.
But if GOP lawmakers wanted clarity on their path forward to achieve Trump’s promise to “expand choice, increase access, lower costs, and at the same time, provide better health care,” they didn’t get it.
On one hand, Trump called for expanded “access” to health insurance – signaling that he doesn’t view it as government’s role to make sure Americans can actually afford that insurance.
On the other hand, Trump called for Medicaid funding that ensures “no one (is) left out” by state governments – a proposition Democrats support but Republicans consider too costly.
Though the GOP largely agrees on broad strokes, the details of health care policy have proven much trickier.
And on those details, Republicans will wake up Wednesday without much more clarity than they had Tuesday.
Trump ended with a call for bipartisan cooperation on repealing and replacing the “collapsing” Obamacare. Then, television cameras cut to House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi – who was shaking her head no.
The ‘how?’ problem
Trump made a lot of big promises Tuesday night – but for each one he didn’t dive into the details.
On taxes, he promised a “big, big cut” to the corporate rate. “At the same time, we will provide massive tax relief for the middle class,” he said. Yet he offered no details on how he’d pay for it.
Trump promised a $1 trillion infrastructure program – a priority along the lines of what former President Barack Obama sought from Republicans for years – without any explanation of the funding.
Trump said he’d wipe ISIS off the face of the Earth, but didn’t talk about the specific problems confronting the US military in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere.
He touted Abraham Lincoln’s “protective policy” that would defend manufacturing, but said nothing about how his administration would harness the technologies and growth industries of the future.
Forty days into Trump’s presidency, the greatest-hits list of Trump’s campaign promises still look more like concepts than concrete policy ideas – and that didn’t change Tuesday night.
“His speeches and the realities are very, very far apart,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-New York, said on CNN afterward. “Until his reality catches up with his speeches, he’s got big trouble.”
What happened to immigration reform?
Hours before his speech, Trump pulled the pin out of a grenade – telling journalists that he wants comprehensive immigration reform and expects Democrats and Republicans to compromise to make it happen.
A senior White House official said Trump was considering whether to address the topic in his joint address.
The news landed with a wallop – shaking up Capitol Hill, where the parties have feuded for years over immigration policy with no success.
Tuesday night, however, Trump avoided the topic.
He did not mention legislation or any specific immigration reform policies during his speech – leaving questions about whether “Dreamers” would gain citizenship, whether some undocumented immigrants could be granted legal status, how his border wall would be built and funded, and more unanswered.
It means Congress is unlikely to wade deeply into yet another hairy political issue until Trump does decide he’s willing to use the megaphone of the presidency to lobby for specific reforms.
The Democratic response
Former Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear was tapped to deliver the Democratic response to Trump for two reasons.
His former-governor status meant choosing Beshear allowed Democrats to avoid any fights about which of the party’s long list of 2020 prospects it would elevate. (Though some Democrats might have groaned when Beshear stumbled early, saying that “I’m a Republican and Democrat and mostly, American.”)
He was also one of the few red-state governors to embrace Obamacare, expanding Medicaid and implementing a state-run exchange, allowing him to speak for Democratic values through a frame that got him elected twice by white rural and exurban voters in Kentucky.
And on that score, Beshear delivered.
“Does the Affordable Care Act need some repair? Sure it does,” the folksy Beshear said in a speech delivered from a Lexington diner, surrounded by neighbors. “But so far, every Republican idea to replace the ACA would reduce the number of Americans covered, despite your promises to the contrary.”
“Mr. President, folks here in Kentucky expect you to keep your word, because this isn’t a game – it’s life or death for people,” he said.