President Trump will surely tout what he considers his first-year highlights on Tuesday in his State of the Union address — things like the Republican tax bill, the roaring stock market and the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Neil M. Gorsuch. But the highest point of Trump Year One, in terms of press coverage, was the news cycle that followed his first speech to Congress, 11 months ago.
A New York Times report called it “the most presidential speech Mr. Trump has ever given — delivered at precisely the moment he needed to project sobriety, seriousness of purpose and self-discipline.”
CNN commentator Van Jones, a frequent critic of the president, gushed over a moment when Trump honored Carryn Owens, the widow of a fallen Navy SEAL.
“He became president of the United States in that moment,” Jones said on the air, after Trump delivered his remarks.
Trump frenemy Joe Scarborough attended the speech and told his MSNBC viewers the next morning that “this was Donald Trump normalizing Donald Trump.”
So it went throughout much of the media. There were countertakes, of course. And, as I wrote at the time, Trump benefited from being graded on a curve. But the prevailing assessment in the press was that Trump’s performance was worthy of his office.
The afterglow did not last long.
One reason was beyond Trump’s control. Roughly 24 hours after the speech, The Washington Post reported that Attorney General Jeff Sessions neglected to disclose in his confirmation hearing that he met twice during the presidential campaign with Russia’s ambassador to the United States. The story, and Sessions’s decision the next day to recuse himself from a law-enforcement investigation into Russian election meddling, quickly detracted from Trump’s oratorical good showing.
It is worth remembering, however, that Trump’s Twitter feed also affected news coverage that week — for good and bad. He sent only six tweets on the day before, the day of and the day after his address to Congress. Here they are:
Notice the absence of anything inflammatory. Trump has a tendency to trample on his own good headlines by picking fights on social media, but he was uncharacteristically restrained on the days surrounding his address to Congress last year. As a result, coverage of the speech focused on, well, the speech.
Trump reverted to his usual form after Sessions’s recusal, however. He tweeted that Democrats “lost the election, and now they have lost their grip on reality. The real story is all of the illegal leaks of classified and other information. It is a total ‘witch hunt!’ ”
On the weekend after his speech, Trump fired off a memorable string of tweets in which he falsely accused President Barack Obama of wiretapping Trump Tower during the campaign. It was a reckless charge that tore down the “presidential” image Trump had built in the House chamber just four days earlier.
On Monday, Trump was a subdued presence on Twitter. He sent a single congratulatory tweet about new Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar. Perhaps he is trying, again, to minimize distractions ahead of his State of the Union address.
The lesson of 2017 is that a well-executed, well-received speech by Trump on Tuesday is entirely possible — with some provocative statement soon to follow.