President Donald Trump began his landmark first address to a joint session of US Congress on Tuesday condemning unequivocally the killing of Indian engineer Srinivas Kuchibhotla in Kansas last week as well as all such hate-attacks recently, including those on Jewish community centers, synagogues, and cemeteries.
“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 its forms,” the president said.
The White House had seemed slow to respond to the Kansas shooting at first, but came hard and strong at the issue in the last two days with a spokeswoman calling it a “racially motivated attack” earlier Tuesday.
Trump himself followed up with an unequivocal condemnation, at the start of his maiden speech to Congress, an event followed closely the world over.
With the condemnation of the Kansas shooting and Jewish center attacks, Trump set the tone for what turned out to be his most positive speech yet, light years away from the “American carnage” of his inauguration address and the dark vision laid in his speech accepting the Republican party nomination in 2016. The tone was positive, and the pitch was conciliatory.
In an address greeted by applause, mostly partisan applause from Republicans as most Democrats kept sitting, Trump spoke of a “new chapter of American Greatness” a “new national pride” and a “a new surge of optimism”, all packaged under an overarching message of “Renewal of the American Spirit”, a theme that had been teased by the White House in previews of the President’s first address to congress.
The high point of the address came when he spoke of a US Navy SEAL commando who died in a counter terrorism operation in Yemen, which was the first such strike ordered by him. The commando’s widow, who sat with the President’s family in the visitors’ gallery and who looked emotionally distraught, received applause for a long time. The timing and the efficacy of the operation has come under scrutiny and the President has himself blamed the generals for the SEAL’s death.
There were few new policy positions, as he hewed close to pronouncements from the campaign trail, the inauguration speech and myriad others from any and every public platform, with the usual boasts, failed fact-checks and contradictions. The difference was the tone, the way he packaged them, without rancor, without dark forbidding warnings and threats of impending doom.
Response to his speech ranged from “Presidential” from some leading Republican Never Trumpers, to “memorably normal” from skeptical commentators. Chris Cillizza, who writes The Fix blog for The Washington Post, wrote, “This was the best ‘big’ speech he has given as president. It may well have been the best speech Trump has given since he entered politics way back in June 2015.”
Trump did not back away from the controversial extreme vetting he plans for visa-holders from certain areas of the world, he used the phrase “Radical Islam Terrorism” against the reported advice of his warrior-intellectual NSA H R McMaster, and doubled down on his wall along the border with Mexico and the promise to crack down on illegal immigration.
On foreign policy the President struck a familiar, but conciliatory, note. “Our foreign policy calls for a direct, robust and meaningful engagement with the world,” he said.
“It is American leadership based on vital security interests that we share with our allies across the globe.” The United States will continue to support NATO strongly by “our partners must meet their financial obligations”.
Trump also laid down a marker for all allies and partners “to take a direct and meaningful role in both strategic and military operations, and pay their fair share of the cost”. Was there a message for India, which, remember is neither an ally or a partner but only a “major defence partner” for defense trade?