Jim Lo Scalzo
Additional reporting by Tierney Sneed
WASHINGTON, D.C.—For several days, Republican leaders in the House and Senate have been assuring reporters and the public that President Donald Trump would deliver a “positive” address to his first joint session of Congress. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Tuesday afternoon that he was expecting “an upbeat portrayal of what America could be with the kind of changes we are in the process of implementing.”
What Trump ultimately delivered was somewhat more subdued than the apocalyptic rhetoric of his RNC acceptance speech and inaugural address. He vowed at the outset of the speech to “deliver a message of unity and strength,” and he struck a compassionate note by expressing concern about the recent waves of bomb threats against Jewish community centers and the vandalism of Jewish cemeteries.
But after that relatively moderate opening, Trump went on to paint a dark and often misleading portrait of a country with “dying industries,” “crumbling infrastructure,” a “terrible drug epidemic,” “neglected inner cities,” and a general “environment of lawless chaos.”
It was, in short, “American carnage” all over again, though less angry.
One of the most controversial portions of the speech, which garnered the sharpest reaction from Democratic lawmakers, focused on immigration.
Earlier on Tuesday, Trump shocked the nation by reportedly embracing a plan that includes a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. But there was no sign of this softening in Tuesday night’s speech, save for a vague “I believe that real and positive immigration reform is possible.”
Instead, Trump repeated his call for a “great, great wall” on the U.S. Mexico border, and touted his policy of ramped up deportations. “Bad ones are going out as I speak,” he said of the hundreds of people being removed from the country under the loosened guidelines in his executive order.
He then gave a nod to his guests at the address, people whose relatives were killed by undocumented immigrants. “These brave men were viciously gunned down by an illegal immigrant with a criminal record and two prior deportations,” he said, pointing to the people seated beside First Lady Melania Trump.
Many Democrats took issue with this portrayal of the nation’s immigrant population. Sen. Tom Carper (D-DE) disputed that characterization, telling TPM that many undocumented immigrants are “kids who are trying to flee violence and mayhem.”
Carper also criticized the President for failing to address the forces that push so many people to migrate to the U.S. in the first place. “The kind of money he wants to spend on a wall would be much better spent trying to make sure folks in Honduras and El Salvador have safety and a decent life,” he said. “That’s the root cause that ought to be addressed.”
Democrats’ strongest negative reaction of the evening came when Trump announced the creation of an office to track and highlight crimes committed by immigrants.
“The office is called VOICE: Victims Of Immigration Crime Engagement,” he said as lawmakers audibly booed and hissed. “We are providing a voice to those who have been ignored by our media, and silenced by special interests.”
Many studies have found that immigrants are far less likely to commit crimes that native-born American citizens.
As he has in past speeches, President Trump focused on violent crime, describing “an environment of lawless chaos” where “gang members, drug dealers and criminals … threaten our communities and prey on our citizens.”
“The murder rate in 2015 experienced its largest single-year increase in nearly half a century,” he said. While this is true, it is, again, misleading. The one-year spike came after two straight decades of a declining murder rate, and overall violent crime rates nationwide remain near historic low.
Earlier this week, Trump’s new national security adviser Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster advised him against the phrase “radical Islamic terrorism,” explaining that using the term hurts the ability of the U.S. to work with majority-Muslim countries on combating terrorism.
Trump ignored that advice Tuesday night. After vowing to protect the nation from “radical Islamic terrorism,” Trump described “war and destruction that have raged across our world,” focusing in particular on ISIS, which he called “a network of lawless savages.” Trump vowed with his usual bombast to “demolish and destroy” the terrorist network, saying he will “extinguish this vile enemy from our planet.”
Trump also hinted at, but did not directly address, reports that he will implement a new executive order on Wednesday banning some immigrants and refugees from the Middle East.
“It is not compassionate, but reckless, to allow uncontrolled entry from places where proper vetting cannot occur,” he said. “We cannot allow a beachhead of terrorism to form inside America — we cannot allow our Nation to become a sanctuary for extremists.”
An investigation by the Department of Homeland Security failed to find evidence that the people blocked by the travel ban posed any national security threat to the United States, and former State Department and national security officials submitted a court brief arguing that the ban makes the nation less safe.
The officials warned that the order will “endanger U.S. troops in the field,” interfere with “key counterterrorism, foreign policy, and national security partnerships” and “endanger intelligence sources in the field.”
Trump spent a significant portion of the speech lamenting the state of the economy he inherited.
“We have the worst financial recovery in 65 years,” he said. “Our trade deficit in goods with the world last year was nearly $800 billion dollars.”
That latter statistic is misleading, as the nation runs a surplus in trade in services, making the overall traded deficit much lower. Trump did not note that the jobs market is currently the strongest it has been in a decade, unemployment is under five percent, and he took office amid a record increase in middle-class incomes.