By Julie Hirschfield Davis and Michael D. Shear
WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump on Tuesday will deliver a broad policy speech that constitutes his first engagement with Congress, opening a consequential new phase in a presidency that has so far been defined by his unilateral actions and pronouncements.
Trump, appearing in the well of the House, will defend his record of a first, tumultuous 39 days and lay out his priorities for the weeks and months to come. The address to lawmakers is expected to be laden with the populist themes that powered his campaign – but also is expected to be short on specifics.
The speech marks a potentially important pivot point for a president who has styled himself as the ultimate outsider and made liberal use of presidential power during his early days in office to execute an immigration crackdown and begin slashing federal regulations. It also will reflect the degree to which he now needs the cooperation of Congress to carry out the tax and health care overhauls he has promised.
“All I can do is speak from the heart and say what I want to do,” Trump said Tuesday morning in an interview with Fox News. He said he would discuss a “really terrific” health care plan his administration would soon unveil. “I’ll be talking about the military,” he said. “I’ll be talking about the border.”
By this point in his presidency, Barack Obama, Trump’s predecessor, had established an active – if not always friendly – working relationship with a Democratic-led Congress, having signed into law a $787 billion package of spending and tax cuts intended to stabilize the economy. Trump has yet to propose major legislation to achieve his goals, with members of his Cabinet and senior staff divided over key elements of tax and health care plans and congressional Republicans still split on how to structure them.
“Health care is a very complex subject,” Trump conceded in the interview. “If you do this, it affects nine different things. If you do that, it affects 15 different things. I think we have a great plan and I think Congress is absolutely taking a lot of blame but it’s not their fault.”
Trump is expected to steer clear of those debates on Tuesday night, speaking mostly in generalities about shared priorities, including pouring substantial new funding into the military, reducing the size of social programs, cutting taxes and regulations, and replacing Obama’s health care law with a cheaper and more effective alternative. He is not expected to speak at length about his plans for Social Security and Medicare, which he has pledged not to cut, or how he will tackle the nation’s deficit without touching the entitlement programs that are the primary drivers of it.
Democrats said they expected Trump to make grandiose promises without laying out specific steps for achieving them, and to double down on steps they argue have harmed Americans since he took office.
“It reminds me of the old joke about two men at a diner,” Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, the top Democrat, said. “One says to the other, ‘Gee, this food is terrible,’ and the other man replies, ‘Yeah, but the portions are small.’”
He argued that Trump’s address “is far less important than past presidential addresses, because his speeches don’t indicate what he’s actually going to do.”
Still, the speech constitutes a high-profile moment for Trump. In the past, such gatherings have been the backdrop for dramatic confrontations between presidents and their opponents in Congress. In 2009, Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., interrupted Obama’s health care speech to a joint congressional session, shouting, “You lie!” Democrats booed President George W. Bush during his 2004 State of the Union address when he called for a renewal of the Patriot Act.
Trump, though, sees the address as an opportunity to clarify his message to the American public. On Tuesday, the president gave himself an “A” grade for achievements in his early days in office, but a “C” for communicating them.
“Maybe I change that during the speech,” Trump told Fox.
To write the speech, Trump turned to the same top advisers who helped develop his inaugural address: Stephen Miller, his senior policy adviser, and Stephen K. Bannon, his chief strategist. The two were still working on the speech late Monday evening, aides said.
Miller and Bannon were responsible for shaping the dark themes of the president’s speech on Inauguration Day, setting in place a tone of confrontation with the Washington establishment that the president has embraced during his first month in office.
In that speech, the new president talked about “American carnage” and the “ravages” of economic dislocation. Since then, he has repeatedly warned of the terrorism threats facing the United States and has complained that the country he inherited is “a mess.”
But White House officials said Trump will offer a more upbeat, positive vision for the country’s future in Tuesday night’s congressional address. They said the president has drawn inspiration for the speech from the frequent “listening sessions” he has held in the White House with health care officials, law enforcement officers, coal miners, union representatives and others.
The result, according to advisers who have seen the speech, is an address focused on two main themes: economic opportunity and protecting the homeland.
Trump will start by reviewing his brief time in office, recounting for members of Congress and viewers his accomplishments: withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, pressuring corporate chief executives to keep jobs in the United States, and issuing executive orders on border security, regulations and ethics.
Aides said the second half of the speech will be an “optimistic look forward” of the president’s goals: repealing the Affordable Care Act, overhauling the nation’s tax code, repairing infrastructure, securing the border and rebuilding the military.
That mirrors what the same aides said would be an optimistic inaugural speech, but the speech as delivered was a strikingly grim assessment. Trump has rarely demonstrated a willingness to stick to a script, even during big moments in his campaign or his presidency.