For the first time in his presidency, Donald Trump acted the part.
“I am here tonight to deliver a message of unity and strength,” he announced from the Speaker’s rostrum moments into his hour-long joint address to Congress on Tuesday night. For once, that message bucked his bombastic instincts and channeled the aspirational aims of conventional predecessors. It was perhaps the clearest sign yet that after 40 days in the West Wing, the President is beginning to come to grips with the public responsibilities of the office.
Trump opened with a perfunctory nod to Black History Month and an overdue condemnation of a rash of recent hate crimes. He spoke about reforming the nation’s immigration laws and ramping up space exploration. He cheered Democrats by calling for investments in infrastructure and paid family leave. At a moment when his legislative agenda is sputtering in a Congress controlled by his own party, he rallied wary allies by laying out a plan for economic revival.
Gone, for the most part, were the braggadocio and the bluster, the unscripted asides and off-message score-settling. The man who began his presidency picking fights over crowd size uttered lines like “the time for trivial fights is behind us.” Trump hewed closely to his prepared text, which he was spotted practicing in his armored limousine on the drive to the Capitol.
The speech was still unmistakably Trumpian. Even in an address stuffed with banal platitudes—”we just need the courage to share the dreams that fill our hearts,” Trump said, “the bravery to express the hopes that stir our souls”—the President echoed the grim themes that have marked his major speeches.
He lamented “the cycle of violence” in urban neighborhoods and warned against “a beachhead of terrorism” forming inside the U.S. Moments after taking credit for a stock market rally, he blamed his predecessor for a shrinking labor force and generational economic trends. The protectionist themes Trump laid out on the campaign trail—what chief strategist Steve Bannon has dubbed “economic nationalism”—were a pillar of the speech. Those lines underscored the strange scrambling of American politics that Trump has exploited, drawing awkward silences from mainstream Republicans along with cheers from the left.
The familiar warnings about the dangers posed by undocumented immigrants were back. Not long after declaring that “real and positive immigration reform is possible,” Trump was announcing the formation of a new office called VOICE—”Victims of Immigration Crime Engagement.” Instead of inviting a cast of Americans with feel-good stories to First Lady Melania Trump’s box in the balcony, the President’s team summoned four people whose family members were killed by criminals in the U.S. illegally.
The result was an address of jarring tonal shifts. It pinballed between the optimistic chords that usually undergird such speeches and the darker notes that Trump hit in his inaugural address and his convention speech last summer. The dissonance reflected the dueling visions within Trump’s White House, where one faction has urged more conventional behavior and another counsels him to follow the freewheeling formula that won him the presidency.
But Trump arguably proved for the first time on Tuesday that he can hit some of the office’s ceremonial high notes. Perhaps the most poignant moment of the speech was the sustained applause for Carryn Owens, the widow of Senior Chief William “Ryan” Owens, the Navy SEAL killed in the first operation Trump ordered of his presidency. “Ryan’s legacy is etched into eternity,” Trump said, quoting the Bible and Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis’ defense of the disputed Yemen raid that took Owens’ life.
With few exceptions, Trump didn’t delve into domestic or foreign policy specifics. (In a calculated nod to Speaker of the House Paul Ryan’s agenda, however, the President embraced the House-GOP plan to replace Obamacare with a package that includes tax credits and expanded health savings accounts.) He made no mention of Russia or the calls for a congressional investigation into its meddling in the 2016 election. Nor did the President make an explicit reference to the ongoing U.S. conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. Over the objection of his new national security advisor, Gen. H.R. McMaster, he repeated his denunciation of “radical Islamic terrorism.”
But what audiences were looking for on this occasion was not just policy or key phrases but presentation. Almost every occupant of the Oval Office has a huge ego; almost all refashion themselves to fit the job nonetheless. Trump has been an exception. What thrilled Republicans most about Tuesday’s address was how conventional it was. “Donald Trump did indeed become presidential tonight,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told CNN after it was over, in tones that were as uncharacteristically excited as Trump’s speech was muted.
It was only one night. But for Republicans, who have struggled to defend Trump’s incendiary style, it was a merciful reprieve—and a sign, perhaps, that he has the capacity to grow into the role.