President Donald Trump spent the lion’s share of his first formal State of the Union address running off a laundry list of political victories, making the case for a massive new infrastructure project and, in a few brusque asides, trolling his liberal rivals.
His point-by-point list of demands for an immigration deal – the first time Trump has articulated them, in his own voice, for the American public – will likely have the most resonance moving forward. But there was also power in what he chose not to discuss during the 80-minute speech.
In that way, if not too many others, Trump has something in common with his predecessors. He mostly eschewed the promises he’s so far failed to keep, steered clear of roiling issues that could threaten his standing, and skipped by complicated questions that, one year into his presidency, remain unanswered.
Here are a few notable absences:
Mueller and ‘the memo’
We’ve either found the limits of Trumpian norm-smashing or just witnessed the handiwork of a convincing lawyer armed with an expensive red pen.
However it played out behind the scenes, special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation and adjacent concerns like “the memo” were absent from Trump’s speech. Whether he stays mum on the future of the FBI and his Justice Department’s highest-profile (part-time?) employee much longer is quite another thing.
But for one night at least, Trump was able to keep from scratching that most tormenting itch.
China and Russia
Neither global frienemy went entirely absent from the speech. They just happened to share a lone sentence, lumped in with “rogue regimes” and “terrorist groups” that “challenge our interests, our economy and our values.”
Russian meddling in the 2016 election and the sanctions his administration will not pursue were unsurprising snubs (the cost, one imagines, of leaving former FBI Director James Comey and Mueller out of the mix), but the absence of a sustained broadside against China – he mentioned intellectual property and trade practices only in passing – was a somewhat surprising omission.
Hillary Clinton made news just a few minutes before Trump arrived on the big stage, responding – again, and this time with a little more substance – to a report last week that she chose not to fire an adviser accused of sexual harassment during her 2008 presidential campaign.
But her 2016 performance and, more to the point, Trump’s, went without mention. For a President who so rarely finds occasion to not discuss his election night triumph, letting that piece of the past remain there felt something like an achievement in its own right.
This one was less of a surprise. The nationwide movement to root out sexual misconduct and harassment from the workplace and other prominent places (and positions) in American life did not make the cut on Tuesday night.
Trump, of course, has been accused of misconduct by multiple women and is now at the center of a controversy surrounding allegations his lawyer paid off a porn star to keep silent about a pre-presidential extramarital affair, leaving him with little opportunity here for political profit.
Still, by passing it off entirely, he further ceded the narrative — and the high ground – to the Democrats, who can and likely will make hay of his ignoring such a vast and substantial issue on such a large stage.
Who is going to pay for the wall
The wall got a couple mentions, but mostly in the context of a potential immigration bargain with Democrats. Trump’s campaign promise – right up there among his most prominent – that Mexico would pay for its construction did not garner a single mention.
What now for health care?
Trump lit up the Republican side of the room when he celebrated the demise of Obamacare’s individual mandate. From there, though, he jumped right to the GOP’s corporate tax cuts – which kept House Speaker Paul Ryan and co. smiling but left the future of the health care system dangling.
After failing to gut Obamacare last year, then reaching back and taking a chunk out with their tax bill, Trump appears resolved to claim victory and move on from this particular fight. At least, that’s the impression one got on Tuesday night.
The closest Trump came to addressing anything to do with the environment came during his triumphal riff on the state of the energy economy, when he proudly claimed to have ended the war on “beautiful clean coal.”
Apart from that, the speech didn’t even include a sarcastic jab about global warming and the cold weather. And the only shores mentioned were those of Normandy, France. America’s Gulf Coast and other potential drilling sites, the source of an ongoing dust-up with backyard-conscious governors, were pushed out to sea.