At the end of his much-praised 2017 State of the Union-esque speech to Congress, President Trump shoehorned some hyperbole in alongside some uncharacteristic humility. “When we fulfill this vision, when we celebrate our 250 years of glorious freedom [in 2026], we will look back on tonight as when this new chapter of American greatness began,” he said, before adding: “The time for trivial fights is behind us.”
The jury is out on the first claim. The second may be the biggest and most instructive broken promise of his presidency.
Trump has an economy that usually buoys whatever party is in control, and Republicans passed a signature tax cut package before the calendar hit 2018. Yet Trump has the approval rating of a severely embattled chief executive and seems to float from controversy to controversy like the reality TV star he once was.
Looking back today, with Trump set to deliver his first official State of the Union address on Tuesday night, his February 2017 speech looks more like a toned-down, aspirational version of the inconsistent hyperbole he was offering on the campaign trail. Below, I've pulled some relevant sections, along with where we stand 11 months later.
“Tonight, as we mark the conclusion of our celebration of Black History Month, we are reminded of our nation’s path toward civil rights and the work that still remains to be done. Recent threats targeting Jewish community centers and vandalism of Jewish cemeteries, as well as last week’s shooting in Kansas City, remind us that while we may be a nation divided on policies, we are a country that stands united in condemning hate and evil in all of its very ugly forms.”
This was at the top of the speech, and like the “trivial fights” line, it's almost laughably counter to what actually occurred in Trump's first year. Perhaps the most divisive moment of Trump's presidency completely flew in the face of this pledge of unity. As people of all political stripes were condemning the white supremacist who mowed down counterprotesters in Charlottesville, Trump not once, but twice, interjected to suggest that “both sides” carried blame. This drew widespread rebukes from Republicans and even an unprecedented public one from his chief economic adviser, Gary Cohn.
After this and other racially tinged events from Trump's first year, a poll last month showed that 60 percent of Americans thought Trump had made race relations worse, while just 8 percent thought he had made them better.
“What we are witnessing today is the renewal of the American spirit. Our allies will find that America is once again ready to lead. All the nations of the world — friend or foe — will find that America is strong, America is proud and America is free.”
A Gallup poll released earlier this month showed an 18-point drop in approval of U.S. leadership around the world — to levels that are the lowest since at least the George W. Bush administration. For the first time in that span, more disapproved than approved of U.S. leadership.
“Dying industries will come roaring back to life. Heroic veterans will get the care they so desperately need. Our military will be given the resources its brave warriors so richly deserve. Crumbling infrastructure will be replaced with new roads, bridges, tunnels, airports and railways gleaming across our very, very beautiful land. Our terrible drug epidemic will slow down and, ultimately, stop. And our neglected inner cities will see a rebirth of hope, safety and opportunity. Above all else, we will keep our promises to the American people.”
That last line is key. Whatever progress was made on all of these other things — Congress did pass a modest Veterans Affairs reform bill, for example, and we're still waiting for some accounting of where the fight against the opioid crisis stands — Trump has clearly broken many of his big, bold promises. The Washington Post's promise tracker, in fact, shows that he has broken more campaign promises (15) than he has kept (11).
“We have begun to drain the swamp of government corruption by imposing a five-year ban on lobbying by executive branch officials and a lifetime ban — thank you — and a lifetime ban on becoming lobbyists for a foreign government.”
The Trump administration would soon grant more than five times as many waivers on this policy as the Obama administration did in its first months.
“We have cleared the way for the construction of the Keystone and Dakota Access pipelines, thereby creating tens of thousands of jobs. And I’ve issued a new directive that new American pipelines be made with American steel.”
It turns out the American-steel-only rule didn't apply to Keystone, which the administration later clarified. A brave White House spokeswoman explained: “The way that the executive order is written is actually . . . specific to new pipelines or those that are being repaired. Since [Keystone] is already currently under construction . . . it was hard to go back. Everything moving forward would be all under that executive order.”
“That is why my administration has been working on improved vetting procedures, and we will shortly take new steps to keep our nation safe and to keep out those out who will do us harm.”
The travel ban was supposed to be merely a placeholder until the administration could craft a plan for “extreme vetting,” as Trump frequently put it. But as the ban has languished in the courts, it's not clear what the administration has done about this. “What Happened to Extreme Vetting? The White House Won't Say,” the conservative Weekly Standard's Michael Warren wrote in June 2017. Trump would later play up that phrase in November after a terrorist attack in New York City, but it's still unclear how much has been implemented.
“But to accomplish our goals at home and abroad, we must restart the engine of the American economy — making it easier for companies to do business in the United States, and much, much harder for companies to leave our country. Right now, American companies are taxed at one of the highest rates anywhere in the world. My economic team is developing historic tax reform that will reduce the tax rate on our companies so they can compete and thrive anywhere and with anyone. It will be a big, big cut. At the same time, we will provide massive tax relief for the middle class.”
This is actually one of the most accurate portrayals of something to come: Trump's signature tax bill. Although the bill was often pitched as a middle-class tax cut, the biggest benefits were reserved for businesses, and the individual tax cuts will eventually expire.
“To launch our national rebuilding, I will be asking Congress to approve legislation that produces a $1 trillion investment in infrastructure of the United States — financed through both public and private capital — creating millions of new jobs.”
Trump never actually produced this $1 trillion package, and now he's set to significantly scale back this grand proposal. He will call for $200 billion in federal funding, which he concedes is “not a large amount.” He blamed U.S. spending on foreign wars — although those investments were known 11 months ago.
“One-third of counties have only one insurer, and they are losing them fast. They are losing them so fast. They are leaving, and many Americans have no choice at all. There’s no choice left. Remember when you were told that you could keep your doctor and keep your plan? We now know that all of those promises have been totally broken. Obamacare is collapsing, and we must act decisively to protect all Americans.”
Today, the number of counties with only one insurer is up to 52 percent. Trump's pledge to repeal Obamacare immediately upon becoming president still hasn't been fulfilled. And Republicans seem to have largely given up on large-scale health-care reform. They did add a repeal of the Affordable Care Act's individual health insurance mandate in their tax package, but we have yet to see how that will play out.
“Every American child should be able to grow up in a safe community, to attend a great school, and to have access to a high-paying job. But to create this future, we must work with, not against — not against — the men and women of law enforcement. We must build bridges of cooperation and trust — not drive the wedge of disunity and, really, it’s what it is, division. It’s pure, unadulterated division. We have to unify.”
Another divisive moment in Trump's presidency was when he criticized NFL players protesting alleged police mistreatment of African Americans. Trump would surely argue that this was part of his effort to make people respect law enforcement. But it also most certainly drove a “wedge of disunity and . . . division” into the debate, according to polling.
“We are blessed to be joined tonight by Carryn Owens, the widow of a U.S. Navy Special Operator Senior Chief William “Ryan” Owens. Ryan died as he lived: a warrior and a hero, battling against terrorism and securing our nation. I just spoke to our great [Defense Secretary] General [Jim] Mattis, just now, who reconfirmed that — and I quote — 'Ryan was a part of a highly successful raid that generated large amounts of vital intelligence that will lead to many more victories in the future against our enemies.' Ryan’s legacy is etched into eternity. (APPLAUSE) Thank you. And Ryan is looking down, right now — you know that — and he is very happy because I think he just broke a record. For as the Bible teaches us, 'There is no greater act of love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.' Ryan laid down his life for his friends, for his country and for our freedom. And we will never forget Ryan.”
This was what many thought was the strongest moment of Trump's speech — if not any presidential speech. Trump spotlighted the widow of a Navy SEAL, Ryan Owens, who was killed during a raid in Yemen, and the whole thing led to a sustained standing ovation and plenty of tears. Trump quickly decided that ovation may have “just broke a record.” But it all papered over the fact that the Yemen raid was the subject of intense questions at the time. And Owens's father said as recently as last week that he is still searching for answers, and that the Trump administration hasn't provided any.