WASHINGTON ― It took 10 minutes and 25 seconds into his first State of the Union address Tuesday night for President Donald Trump to do what’s became his defining signature in office: saying something demonstrably false.
“We enacted the biggest tax cuts and reforms in American history,” Trump said from the dais of the House of Representatives in the U.S. Capitol.
The boast is not close to accurate. The $1.5 trillion tax cut passed by the Republican-run Congress and signed by Trump in December is only the eighth-largest as a percentage of the economy, and fourth-largest in terms of inflation-adjusted dollars.
He later claimed that he ended the “war on beautiful clean coal,” that the United States was now “an exporter of energy to the world,” that Chrysler is moving a major plant from Mexico to Michigan, that the visa lottery allows in immigrants with no regard for “the safety of our people,” and that his administration has restored America’s “standing abroad.”
In fact, there was never a government war on the experimental and expensive process of removing carbon dioxide from coal power plant smokestacks. The United States is not a net exporter of energy. Chrysler is not closing its Mexico factory, but merely moving truck production to Michigan. Applicants to the visa lottery system already undergo rigorous vetting. And polling shows clearly that America’s standing as a world leader has plummeted under Trump.
The obvious falsehoods notwithstanding, though, Trump’s address was closer to a mainstream Republican politician speech than anything he has given before. Reading slowly from mainly the left-hand screen of his teleprompter, Trump managed, as he has previously, to deliver an address without devolving into an airing of his grievances and attacks against his critics.
He repeated an outline of an immigration plan the White House had released earlier that proposes protecting 1.8 million undocumented immigrants who were brought into this country as children in return for building his border wall and drastically cutting the numbers of legal immigrants.
Other policy proposals in his 80-minute speech, however, were far more vague: Vows to rebuild roads and bridges, help prison inmates re-enter society, battle the opioid addiction epidemic, lower the price of prescription drugs, and negotiate better trade agreements were tossed out with virtually zero details.
On trade, for instance, Trump repeated his desire for agreements that were “reciprocal” ― which Peterson Institute for International Economics trade expert Monica de Bolle said she found “baffling.”
“If it meant everyone should abide by the same rules, those already exist with institutions like the WTO, which President Trump has bashed in the recent past,” she said. “But it seems to mean that trade should be balanced with all partners, which simply makes no sense.”
For Trump’s White House and supporters of his agenda, the big question now is how long Trump can avoid trampling on his message with angry, off-topic tweets or falsehood-filled remarks to the media.
Trump has received praise for previous speeches that others have written for him and he’s read as-is off a teleprompter. But, without fail, he has followed up the performance by veering off-message and returning to his more normal behavior of insulting and picking fights with critics and political opponents.
“Message? What message?” joked one top Republican National Committee member speaking on the condition of anonymity. “That is so old politics.”
Of course, many of the things Trump promised Tuesday night had already been promised 11 months ago, during his first speech to Congress.
“Crumbling infrastructure will be replaced with new roads, bridges, tunnels, airports and railways gleaming across our very, very beautiful land,” Trump vowed at the time. “Our terrible drug epidemic will slow down and, ultimately, stop. And our neglected inner cities will see a rebirth of hope, safety and opportunity.”
None of those things happened. Trump did not propose an infrastructure plan. While he declared an “opioid emergency,” it received no serious funding and was such a low priority that a 24-year-old campaign staffer with zero experience in the field was made deputy chief of staff of the drug control office. And Trump’s White House has done little, if anything, to rebuild blighted urban neighborhoods.
Nor did Trump “repeal and replace Obamacare with reforms that expand choice, increase access, lower costs and, at the same time, provide better healthcare,” as he said he would last year.
And while he called for “one of the largest increases in national defense spending in American history,” Trump and Congress have yet to pass a spending bill beyond a “continuing resolution.” That means the federal government, including the military, is essentially still operating under a spending plan passed under Trump’s predecessor, President Barack Obama.
Trump did follow through on his promise to cut environmental, safety and consumer protection regulations on businesses – although not nearly to the extent he likes to claim. Similarly, he presided over the passage of corporate tax cuts, long a Republican Party priority, but did not cut middle-class taxes by 35 percent, as he had promised during his campaign.
Trump’s address comes after several days of renewed focus on the investigation into ties between his campaign and Russia. On Monday, the Trump administration announced that it would not punish Russian leaders with new sanctions, defying a law overwhelmingly passed by Congress that instructed the administration to do so in response to Russia’s efforts to help Trump win the 2016 U.S. election.
Both Trump and his White House staff continue to downplay the significance of a report released by the U.S. intelligence community last year about Russia’s election meddling. At Monday’s daily briefing, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders called the media’s continued interest in the story “Russia fever.”
Monday was also the day that Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee voted to make public a memo written by its staff members. Democrats on the committee who have read it say it is inaccurate, misleading and designed to undermine Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation. Trump’s allies in Congress and conservative media have been agitating for its release for weeks.
Mueller’s probe has already resulted in two guilty pleas by Trump aides ― including his first national security adviser, Michael Flynn ― and indictments of two more.
Trump’s State of the Union speech, while boasting of sanctions against other authoritarian regimes like Venezuela, North Korea and Cuba, hardly mentioned Russia at all.