THE MORNING PLUM:
President Trump did a reasonably good job reading a speech to the nation Tuesday night, for which he has been rewarded with a shower of acclaim that has declared him “presidential.” Many are declaring this a pivotal moment in Trump’s evolution and his presidency.
So I propose that we take the idea that this was an important moment seriously. Here’s how: By asking whether Trump actually showed signs of evolving, and by treating it as a legitimate possibility that the answer to that question is “Yes.”
One core tension at the heart of the Trump presidency centers on whether he will remain in thrall to the America-first ethno-nationalism of Stephen K. Bannon and Stephen Miller, which requires adherence to a reality-challenged depiction of the state of the country and of the challenges we face, and to the nationalist agenda we might term “Trumpism” or “Bannonism.” There are forces trying to push Trump to break out of that posture — other advisers, the generals in his Cabinet, certain Republicans in Congress (who break down into different groups who each want different things from Trump, some of which would also be destructive in other ways).
Trump’s speech — along with several new events — reveals a president who is trying to create the impression that he is moving past Bannonism. But is he? Here’s how the evidence breaks down.
Evidence that Trump really is evolving:
1) The Associated Press reports that Iraq will be dropped from the countries whose citizens will be included on Trump’s forthcoming new version of the travel ban, after “pressure from the Pentagon and State Department, which had urged the White House to reconsider Iraq’s inclusion given its key role in fighting the Islamic State group.” Reality-based considerations about how the ban might impact the war on terrorism are beginning to assert themselves.
2) Trump’s speech led with invocations of Black History Month and anti-Semitic vandalism. Yes, that’s rhetorical, but the refusal at times to indulge even rhetorically in this fashion had been a key hallmark of Trumpism.
3) Trump suggested earlier Tuesday that he might be open to an immigration compromise that could include some form of legalization.
4) Trump’s speech expansively affirmed our support for NATO and the alliance’s historical role in promoting global order and human progress in the 20th century — and pledged (somewhat qualified) support for international institutions.
5) CNN reports Wednesday morning that the White House has delayed introduction of the new version of the travel ban, “in the wake of positive reaction” to the speech. This could mean the White House is reevaluating its posture in the wake of pundit praise of Trump’s evolution.
Evidence that Trump’s evolution was really just cosmetic:
1) Trump’s speech repeated many of his favorite lies, and crucially, they were the ones designed to feed the same deeply misleading picture of a country sliding into chaos and darkness, thanks to crime and immigration, that fueled his campaign.
2) Trump’s speech repeated the vow to build a Mexican wall and reiterated the plan to introduce a new version of the travel ban. The rationale for this ban is increasingly difficult to sustain. But the reporting indicates that it will still target those same countries (minus Iraq), which means that on balance, little has changed.
3) The only immigration reform Trump talked about in his speech would be to move toward a “merit-based immigration system.” This offers nothing on what to do about the millions of undocumented immigrants currently here, who are right to fear that they are now targets for deportation. As noted above, he also told a variety of lies about immigrants.
4) Trump’s speech went out of its way to repeat the phrase “radical Islamic terrorism,” despite his own national security adviser’s insistence that this would be counterproductive. This suggests a continued adherence to the clash-of-civilizations frame so beloved by Bannon and Miller.
5) As the First Read crew notes, there was no serious olive branch to those millions of people who have been dismayed or horrified by his presidency thus far.
6) Robert Costa reports:
Some sources in WH are frankly surprised at how pundits are warming to the speech. Say Trump has not changed, no big shift in policy coming.
— Robert Costa (@costareports) March 1, 2017
The substantive evidence plainly weighs in favor of the argument that Trump’s evolution is largely cosmetic — that Bannonism remains the driving force behind the Trump presidency. However, it’s at least possible we may be seeing the beginnings of a genuine search for a different rationale. As Democratic strategist Simon Rosenberg emails me:
It was always the case that Bannon’s ethno-nationalism, if unchecked, would destroy Trump’s Presidency. Last night there was evidence that raw Bannonism was being reigned in a bit. Whether this is structural or just cosmetic, time will tell. But it suggests that the President has come to understand Bannonism has its limits, and that he needs to find a new rationale for his Presidency more connected to American greatness than white tribalism.
* SPEECH WAS PACKED WITH LIES AND DISTORTIONS: Glenn Kessler and Michelle Lee have the rundown on all the speech’s BS, from the lie that we have open borders to the exaggerations about jobs “saved,” to the inflated effort to blame illegal immigration for crime. The big picture:
An address to Congress is such an important speech that presidents generally are careful not to stretch the truth. … Trump’s maiden address to Congress was notable because it was filled with numerous inaccuracies. In fact, many of the president’s false claims are old favorites that he trots out on a regular, almost daily basis.
As always, Trump simply continues repeating his lies after they have been debunked, because the whole point is to assert the power to say what the truth is in the face of empirically verifiable facts and reality.
* BUT SPEECH GETS HIGH MARKS FROM PUBLIC: A new CNN poll finds that nearly 7 in 10 who watched said Trump’s proposed policies will move the country in the right direction:
On specific issues, Trump scored the highest marks for his proposed policies on the economy, with 72% saying those went in the right direction. Almost as many, 70%, said the same about his terrorism proposals. Slightly fewer, but still a majority, felt his policies on taxes (64%), immigration (62%) or health care (61%) were heading in the right direction.
Of course, Trump mostly kept things vague and wrapped in an optimistic tone; many of the already-introduced policies themselves have generated majority opposition, and now Trump will have to embrace specifics on health care and taxes.
* WHY DEMOCRATS CHOSE STEVE BESHEAR: The choice of former Kentucky governor Steve Beshear to deliver the official Democratic response drew criticism from some who wanted to see the role played by a rising star. The New York Times explains the thinking:
Democratic leaders are determined to make health care — particularly Medicare and the Affordable Care Act — the centerpiece of their attacks against Republicans leading into next year’s midterm elections. And as Mr. Beshear alluded to, he has a compelling story to tell about the effect of the health law in a conservative-leaning state.
Beshear has been an evangelist for the ACA in a deep red state — he knows how to sell progressive policy to the types of rural and working-class white voters among whom Democrats need to regain ground.
* TRUMP SPEECH REVEALS GOP HYPOCRISY ON DEBT: Philip Klein points out that Trump’s speech offered up proposals cutting taxes and boosting some forms of spending, with no regard to long-term debt, and asks why Paul Ryan cheered him on:
If Obama had made a speech like this … Ryan … would be leading the charge of House Republicans in attacking the lack of seriousness about the nation’s long-term debt problem. … But on Tuesday night, Ryan stood behind Trump for the entire speech and enthusiastically applauded.
Of course he did. Deficits and debt don’t matter to Republicans when the president is a Republican.
* THE BIG HOLE IN TRUMP’S SPEECH: Jonathan Bernstein has a terrific analysis of the speech that gets to the core of one of its biggest problems:
There was simply nothing in this speech to break the deadlock Republicans in Congress are facing on health care. Nothing to reconcile Trump’s instincts for promising huge tax cuts and huge new spending with budget realities, let alone with his complaints about the debt. He talked big on infrastructure, but we know the Republican leadership in Congress has already indicated they have no interest, and it’s hard to see anything in this speech to change that.
Indeed, read this way, the speech was all about the much more urgent and immediate task of rescuing Trump’s image.
* GOP GOVERNORS CLOSE IN ON MEDICAID DEMAND: Axios reports that Republican governors are eyeing a mechanism to keep the Medicaid expansion money flowing to their states under the GOP replacement for the ACA. The gist:
If a state that expanded Medicaid wanted to keep the expansion, and the extra federal money that goes with it, they’d have to agree to “put the state on a budget” by eventually switching to per-capita caps or block grants.
This would eventually create a mechanism that would likely lead to cuts over time, because “per-capita caps” or “block grants” would get outrun by escalating health costs. It’s also unclear whether congressional conservatives could accept this spending.
* REPUBLICANS DEEPLY DIVIDED ON REPEAL: Carl Hulse reports that congressional conservatives are increasingly opposed to voting on a measure that would actually replace much of the ACA’s coverage expansion, and notes the problem this creates:
Conservatives have become increasingly alarmed at discussion of what they deride as “Obamacare Lite” — efforts to keep some of the provisions in place and “repair” the health law rather than kill it outright. … But just as conservatives are adamant that Republicans repeal the law before replacing it, other more centrist Republicans are threatening to withhold their votes if there is no suitable alternative in place.
It seems obvious that the ultimate solution will spend money to cover at least some of the people currently covered. The question is whether conservatives can accept such an appalling outcome.
* AND THE PLUM LINE GETS A NEW BLOGGER! Starting today, Sarah Posner will be writing a post for this blog three times a week, to give your devoted proprietor some extra time to work on a longer project. You probably know Posner’s work from Rolling Stone, Mother Jones, and other publications (including this one!), and she has long written about the intersection of politics and religion.
I will continue writing the Morning Plum daily, and Paul Waldman will continue contributing daily at the usual mid-day time. Posner’s posts will come in the mid-afternoon. Please welcome her and treat her well.