I waited for TV pundits to declare the "pivot" and proclaim Donald Trump to be our one true president after Tuesday night's lengthy State of the Union address. But with the exception of Fox News State TV, most were less effusive than the last time he addressed a joint session of Congress. That's not to say that nobody was impressed. Some people were evidently nearly brought to tears:
By now most Americans take what Trump says with a grain of wait-and-see salt. There's never been a president in history for whom words matter less. Nonetheless, it's worth reflecting on a few of the ideas in the speech, just to remind ourselves of his main objectives.
Trump is not a bipartisan leader. After a year, that should be more than obvious. He is the most divisive president in modern memory in both style and substance. His speech did nothing to change that. He claimed to offer "an open hand to work with Americans of both parties," but it's as clear as ever that he means to use that hand to slap down his opponents and caress his supporters.
Trump's main issue was the same as the one he ran on in 2016: immigration. And he has not softened his stance or his rhetoric at all. In fact, he has become even more xenophobic and is now pushing major curbs on legal immigration, which was not a central theme until recently. He paints legal as well as illegal immigrants as dangerous criminals and promises to end the long-standing policy of family unification. Immigrants actually commit crimes at a dramatically lower rate than native-born citizens, but Trump never lets facts get in the way of a good, lurid tale about how foreigners are ruining America.
Most depressingly, he framed the plight of the Dreamers as competitors with working-class (white) America, declaring "Americans are dreamers too." It's not the first time he's made clear that he doesn't like immigrants using that term because in his mind it's reserved for deserving Americans, but it was still jarring to hear all those Republicans shriek in ecstasy when he said it.
Naturally the president praised law enforcement, which had to be the weirdest moment of the night, considering the atmospherics that had engulfed Washington for the previous two days. After all, this is a president deeply implicated in a growing scandal whose party has declared a crusade against the FBI and the Department of Justice. It was surreal enough to watch Donald Trump deliver a State of the Union speech. To have him do it under the cloud of suspicion stemming from a counterintelligence investigation into his campaign and a subsequent coverup was downright disorienting.
It's not the first time a president has had to deliver a State of the Union in the midst of a roiling scandal, of course. Bill Clinton delivered his 1998 State of the Union as the Monica Lewinsky details were first being splashed all over the media. Richard Nixon delivered his 1974 address in the middle of the Watergate scandal, about six months before he resigned. Clinton's approval rating climbed as the pursuit heated up, mostly because Americans could see that the Republicans were using a trivial matter for political ends and most people didn't like it. It didn't work that way for Nixon: The steady drip, drip, drip of revelations were already taking their toll by the time he gave that last State of the Union speech, and things never got any better. Trump's approval rating has been between 35 and 40 percent most of the year, the lowest for any first-year president on record.
The events of the past couple of weeks, from the news that Trump had ordered the firing of special counsel Robert Mueller last summer to the reports of White House pressure on the Justice Department to "purge" career employees and the abrupt departure of deputy FBI director Andrew McCabe, indicate that we have moved into a critical new phase. Yesterday, House Intelligence Committee chairman Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., refused to say whether or not he had worked with the White House to prepare the famous "memo" which, according to The Washington Post, Trump wants to release as soon as his national security team looks it over. (This wouldn't be the first time Nunes has compromised his oversight duties by colluding with the White House.)
Trump's reason for wanting the memo released is that he believes it may provide grounds for him to fire another Justice Department official, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who oversees Mueller. Rosenstein himself, along with FBI Director Christopher Wray, went to the White House personally on Monday, reportedly to appeal to Chief of Staff John Kelly to persuade the president not to release the memo for national security reasons. Any bets as to how that's going to go?
Nobody will be talking about what Trump said last night, after today. It was just one more in a series of bad speeches filled with boasts, threats and empty promises. What people will be talking about for some time to come, however, is the rapturous support he got from his own party. Presidents are always well-received by their own team at speeches to a joint session of Congress. But last night felt different. It was febrile and overstimulated, scary in its intensity.
Perhaps the best way to fully understand that feeling is to read what future EPA administrator Scott Pruitt said about Trump in 2016:
I think he has tendencies that we see in emerging countries around the world where -- he goes to the disaffected, those individuals. And says, "Look, you give me power and I will give voice to your concerns." . . . I believe that Donald Trump in the White House would be more abusive to the Constitution than Barack Obama -- and that's saying a lot.
Pruitt issued a statement this week after being reminded of those comments:
After meeting him, and now having the honor of working for him, it is abundantly clear that President Trump is the most consequential leader of our time. No one has done more to advance the rule of law than President Trump. The president has liberated our country from the political class and given America back to the people.
That evolution from conservative skeptic to flamboyant sycophant is representative of the evolution of the entire party. There is much about the Republican Party in this era that isn't new. This is. It's what potentially gives Donald Trump the power to engineer a true constitutional crisis and get away with it. He doesn't have a majority of the country behind him, but he doesn't need it. He has a cabinet full of yes men and a servile majority in Congress. They are happy to do his bidding.