Only the willfully blind saw anything except a well-constructed, powerfully delivered address by President Trump to Congress on Tuesday night.
Many have praised his tone. Almost all conservative critics applauded most of his substance (with disquiet over his rhetoric on trade passing quickly over House Speaker Paul D. Ryan’s face and the hearts of most Reagan conservatives). With the pledges of significant funding for the military, and the detailed takedown of the “collapsing” Obamacare and the false promises made to secure its passage in the first place (“If you like your doctor . . . ”), the president opened the legislative debate, which will be extended and, at best, lively — at worst, deeply bitter.
Trump is clearly looking to establish himself as a “promise keeper,” and that position is strengthened with the nomination of Judge Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court.
Trump’s repeated calls in many places for regulatory reform had been foreshadowed earlier Tuesday with an executive order directing the Environmental Protection Agency and its new and very able director, Scott Pruitt, to move quickly to roll back the ruinous, overreaching “Waters of the United States” rule of the Obama years. That call was coupled with a demand in his speech for speed in approval of new drug applications from the Food and Drug Administration. His domestic agenda is indeed about the rollback of the vast administrative state, and it is a popular one with the congressional majorities.
The heart of the speech, though, was the president’s tribute to Chief Special Warfare Operator William “Ryan” Owens and his widow, Carryn, who in an act of incredible courage attended the speech and allowed the nation to grieve with her. By doing so, she invited every patriot to thank in their hearts and prayers all families who have suffered such losses, every veteran who has absorbed a wound. It was a transcendent moment, and indeed a defining moment. This president will stand by his troops.
There is a ginned-up controversy on the left over remarks the president made earlier in the day in response to another ginned-up controversy about the mission to capture or kill terrorists in Yemen. That mission tragically included the death of Owens, even as it succeeded in its objectives, according to Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and confirmed by Trump in his address. Owens died protecting the nation’s security — and every citizen.
But critics seized on Trump’s comments about the mission following anonymous reports alleging that it was both rushed and botched:
“This was something that was, you know, just — they wanted to do,” Trump told Fox News. “And they came to see me and they explained what they wanted to do, the generals, who are very respected. . . . And they lost Ryan.”
To me, a civilian, and to the retired military officer I emailed immediately after the speech, the statement “they lost Ryan” was one of observed grief by the president, an acknowledgment that the SEALs had lost one of their own and that civilians should know about it and grieve with them. It was not an attribution of guilt or malpractice to the “very respected” generals. Far from it. Trump was batting away criticism of them, of the mission operators, and indeed of anyone at all. “They” seemed obviously to mean Owens’s fellow warriors, to express that the mission carried an enormous cost.
Trump’s critics seem to deeply desire to attribute to him what would be a terrible example of blame-shifting by the commander in chief. It isn’t an irrational opinion, but it also isn’t one that rings true. And pressing the argument — pushing the worst possible interpretation of a statement far more easily understood the way I understand it — underscores again the yawning gap between Manhattan-Beltway media elites and flyover country.
The media should press every debate at every moment and from every angle. Nothing less is expected from a free press. But those whose contempt for Trump is warping every instinct into one that sees only the worst of motives risk — and indeed may have already willed into being — a wall of refusal to hear any further critiques from them. Turning every statement, every speech, every interview into an occasion of the harshest condemnation does not lead to rising negatives for the president. It instead cements the narrative that the elite media is out to delegitimize and destroy the Trump presidency. It’s a trap the media may have already fallen into.
The media needs to step back and applaud when the new president delivers, as he did Tuesday night, and blast away when he swings and misses, as he did when he labeled a sitting federal jurist a “so-called judge.” If everything done by the president is an assault on decency and the rule of law, then nothing is.
Trump delivered Tuesday night. And in so doing he also delivered a heartfelt appreciation for the ultimate sacrifice made by thousands since 9/11. Rise with him in saluting Mrs. Owens and all other Gold Star families. Don’t detract from the moment. The press does the president no damage in doing so — and only injures its ability to play its crucial role, by refusing to see the obvious and acknowledge the good.