So we watched — if we could bear it — Trump’s state-of-the-unified-union speech, which was not, in fact, a unity speech at all. But since the president didn’t suggest that he would punch anyone in the crowd, it was touted as a success in too many corners of cable TV news and in at least one post-speech quickie poll.
And then we wake the next morning to reality. We heard that Trump had vowed to release the Nunes Memo (“100 percent,” he told one congressperson during his post-speech victory lap through the House chambers) and that the FBI, in response, had released a statement saying, in effect, that the memo was so much fake news.
This is a remarkable pushback from Christopher Wray, Trump’s appointment to succeed Jim Comey as FBI director. Here’s the key line from the FBI statement: “As expressed during our initial review, we have grave concerns about material omissions of fact that fundamentally impact the memo’s accuracy.”
In other words, the FBI is saying it’s a political hack job. Trump’s Justice Department is saying that its release would be “extraordinarily reckless.” Trump, meanwhile, is 100 percent behind its release because recklessness and inaccuracy are, to him, as mother’s milk. What should be shocking, but sadly isn’t, is that so many Republicans will embrace the report, which is a sham. Wait till the fact-checkers get hold of it.
I’m not here to defend the FBI and its blighted J. Edgar Hoover history. But if what sounds like a deep-state coup is afoot — it’s not, but if you buy the premise, you buy the bit — you’d think it would be sufficiently significant to broach with the American people. But then, you know, we’d have to go back to discussing whether Trump still wanted to fire Robert Mueller, whose credibility is apparently the real target of the can’t-wait-to-see-it Nunes Memo, and why Trump lied when he said he’d never discussed firing Mueller.
But Trump did have other things to talk about in what was, at least seemingly, a somewhat bipartisan speech, with Trump giving brief nods to issues that Republicans and Democrats could conceivably agree on, not that they will.
These were largely unformed issues, with the usual level of Trump detail, meaning none at all. These were issues meant to encourage Democrats in the audience to applaud. It didn’t work. For example, Trump gave 45 seconds to opioids. He mentioned, as he always does, bringing down drug prices. He didn’t mention a plan to address either.
Toss in infrastructure — in which the opposing parties are coming from completely opposing directions — and worker training, and you’d think this was a Bernie-friendly nod. It wasn’t. It was Trump, in a unity speech, taking a swipe at the NFL kneelers —“…we proudly stand for the National Anthem” — and at so-called “open borders” and the end of the war against clean coal. I kept waiting for him to mention Christmas. He took credit for the record-low African-American unemployment numbers, which have been falling for some years. And then there was the Trumpian line of the night, “Americans are dreamers, too.” Yes, too. As if Dreamers aren’t Americans. You get the point, and so did everyone watching.
And what makes a Trump-so-called-unity speech a Trump-as-ever speech was his brag that he’d finally gotten rid of the hated Obamacare individual mandate, suggesting that this was an up-and-down-and-across-the-aisle crowd pleaser. I don’t know. Maybe he really thinks it is.
Give Trump’s speech writers credit, though, for doing what they could to hide Trump’s always-glaring megalomania — you surely noted that he set all records during the speech for applauding himself— by having him set more records in introducing American heroes from the audience, a tradition begun by Reagan and taken by Trump to never-before-seen attempts at reflected glory.
In most cases, the heroes — true heroes all, by the way; not like that captured non-hero McCain — had nothing to do with Trump or with any Trumpian policies. And in some of the most moving moments, as Trump introduced those who had suffered from the all-too-real cruelties of North Korea, you couldn’t help but worry that this is how presidents talk in the run-up to war.
But the major point of the speech was to push his immigration plan, which he said everyone should support, even though most Democrats and some Republicans do not. It was interesting, for example, to watch Marco Rubio sit on his hands for at least parts of Trump’s four-pillared immigration plan.
This was where Trump turned to the usual race-baiting, going on about MS-13, as if these violent gang members were the face of immigration. One of the pillars was “chain migration,” which goes with “illegal aliens” and “anchor babies” as the ugly language often used in these debates. Chain migration is family-based migration. I remember my grandmother telling me about sleeping on the floor as her father sponsored relatives from Russia, cousins and nephews and others who crowded their small apartment. It’s the American story, of course. But that was long ago.
But in Trump’s world, it’s somehow an attack on “nuclear families,” which in Trump’s view apparently includes only children and spouses. It doesn’t include, um, parents and siblings. Under the present rules, Trump said that a single immigrant “can bring in virtually unlimited numbers of distant relatives.” In this part of the unity speech, many Democrats hissed, because, in fact, there are long lines to bring in close relatives, which do not include uncles and aunts, nieces or nephews, much less third cousins. If you want to see how it actually works, try this.
As Republican Sen. Jeff Flake, a critic of Trump on many things, but especially on immigration, put it: “If you’re going to mention MS-13, then mention a Dreamer, one that has accomplished a lot — instead of the ‘American Carnage” version of immigration.”
It wasn’t an American Carnage kind of speech. It was a speech by a president with historically low approval numbers who desperately needed to appeal to those who have so far rejected him. It didn’t work. But, hey, presidents can be dreamers, too.