EDITORIAL: Trump Lite offers wall-to-wall menu

York Dispatch Editorial Board
President Donald Trump gives his State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress, Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2019 at the Capitol in Washington. (Doug Mills/The New York Times via AP, Pool)

There are two President Donald Trumps. One is the campaign-stop showman who speaks off the cuff, tweets from the hip and seeks to inflame rather than inform.

The other shows up once a year to address the nation from the well of the House, sticking to the script, speaking in sober tones, and offering calls for bipartisan compromise, political probity and the public good.

The latter was in fine form Tuesday evening during his second State of the Union address, in which he claimed credit for the nation’s record-low unemployment and robust economy, broke a little international news, and stated — and sometimes misstated — the state of the nation.

That the 80-minute address was bookended by calls for political unity did not prevent the president from overstating successes, overblowing assertions and overlooking certain political realities.

The address, after all, might also be bookended by government shutdowns, but that once-and-looming consequence was left unmentioned by the president.

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He did, as expected, return to the sticking point that triggered the first shutdown: his insistence on a border wall — or, as he called it Tuesday evening, “a smart, strategic, see-through steel barrier.”

While Trump, wisely, did not threaten to declare a national emergency or again shut down the government, he did resort to prevarication to make his case. Talk of “organized caravans on the march to the United States” sounded like a bad rerun, and claims that the border city of El Paso saw a drop in crime after a barrier was built there are patently false.

The president likewise strayed from the truth in characterizing Virginia Gov. (for now) Ralph Northam’s position on abortions, stating incorrectly that the pediatric neurologist would condone executing a baby after it was born. He also mischaracterized a New York law that broadens women’s reproductive rights. Trump used these misstatements to propose a ban on late-term abortions — drawing cheers from conservatives and crossed arms from many of the record-breaking 100-plus female legislators in the chamber.

Speaking of the latter, one of the evening’s more unexpected moments came when Trump stated that 58 percent of the new jobs created in the past year have been filled by women. The female contingent of Democratic lawmakers — seated together and dressed in white — rose and pointed to themselves in celebration. To his credit, a magnanimous Trump went along with the moment, joking, “You weren’t supposed to do that!”

Also unintentionally humorous was Trump’s lone allusion to the ongoing investigations into his campaign and administration: “An economic miracle is taking place in the United States — and the only thing that can stop it are foolish wars, politics, or ridiculous partisan investigations.” Nice try.

Elsewhere in his remarks, the president:

  • Confirmed his second meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un will take place Feb. 27-28 in Vietnam. (The jury remains out on whether his pen-pal diplomacy with Kim is successfully dissuading the regime from nuclear adventurism but testing the diplomatic waters beats test-firing missiles.)
  • Offered a welcome commitment to end the spread of HIV within 10 years. (An about-face from an administration that fired its HIV/AIDS advisory committee and cut funding for HIV research because it involved fetal tissue.)
  • Saluted numerous heroes in attendance, including D-Day participants and victims and responders from the mass shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh last year. (The latter in clear and uncomfortable juxtaposition to Trump’s caravan claims — which echoed a conspiracy theory believed to have motivated the Tree of Life shooter.)
  • Reiterated plans to remove U.S. troops from Syria (receiving one of the more tepid responses from the usually applause-ready Republicans in the chamber).

While there were no major policy announcements or gaffes, the address was interrupted three times by chants of “USA! USA!” from the galley and lawmakers themselves, creating an unseemly and somewhat ironic display: It was the audience rather than Trump who resorted to campaign-rally behavior.

The president ended his address on a refrain of his call for bipartisan cooperation.

“We must reject the politics of revenge, resistance and retribution,” he said at the outset, “and embrace the boundless potential of cooperation, compromise and the common good.”

No argument there. If we could just get the President Trump who leads those boisterous rallies and tweets endless venom to take the advice of the President Trump who gives State of the Union addresses, that “boundless potential” might indeed be attainable.