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Carol Felsenthal
On politics

Trump, Predictably, Slams Chicago—But Still Catches Us Off Guard

His sober performance, punctuated by an emotional moment, is bad news for Democrats.

There were no surprises... which was a surprise.  Photo: Jim Lo Scalzo/Pool Image via AP

In his first speech to a joint session of Congress last night it took President Donald Trump 50 minutes to get to the scary Chicago murder stats. And, more surprising, when he got there he skipped the “send in the feds” order and the words “horrible carnage.” He didn’t assert that Chicago is worse than Afghanistan and he skipped the chance to, once again, tar Rahm Emanuel as “mayor of this war zone.”

“In Chicago,” Trump said soberly last night, “more than 4,000 people were shot last year alone—and the murder rate so far this year has been even higher.”

A month ago, I had predicted a very different kind of speech from a new president who couldn’t stop talking (and lying) about the size of his crowds and his electoral win and the number of times he had been Time magazine’s cover boy.

Trump did none of that last night. He stuck to his teleprompter, refrained from referring to himself in the third person, used “we” more than “I,” and seemed downright, well, presidential. He pleaded with Democrats to make a deal with him and his party on health care and immigration and trade. He avoided cheap shots and the urge to call out congressional enemies by name. Hillary’s name never passed his mostly downturned lips. “Dishonest media?” “Failing New York Times?” Nope. Just one mention of news outlets, in his complaint that they have "ignored” the victims of crimes committed by undocumented immigrants.

I predicted that the theme of his speech might be the sad state of the media. Nope, it was the renewal of the American spirit. I’m not sure what it means, but it sounded rather lofty.

And when he started the speech by decrying the bomb threats at Jewish community centers and the desecration of Jewish cemeteries, he softened the image of the guy who, in late January, issued a International Holocaust Remembrance Day statement that failed to mention Jewish victims.

If he headed home last night and tortured himself with tapes of Barack Obama entering the chamber in February 2009 and being greeted with frenzied adoration, like a rock star, perhaps we’ll see some unhinged tweets today about how he, Trump, got more standing ovations than Obama ever did. But I’m guessing not.

If it irritated him that the Democrats didn’t pounce for an autograph or a hand shake as he made his way to the rostrum, or if it annoyed him that they almost never applauded, much less jumped to their feet in approval, he didn’t show it.

A number of Supreme Court justices showed up, including Obama appointees Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, and Trump paid special tribute to his guest, the late Justice Scalia’s widow Maureen. Ruth Bader Ginsburg (a regular attendee of State of the Union and major presidential addresses) has tangled personally with Trump—she called him a “faker” and worse—and wisely, I think, did not show up.

Republicans, for the most part, looked delighted—like they still couldn’t believe their astonishingly good fortune in winning not only the presidency but also maintaining control of both houses of Congress.

Democrats looked like they were battling, simultaneously, heartburn and migraine headaches, and would prefer to be home cleaning contaminated floodwater from their basements. Dick Durbin, No. 2 in the minority party leadership, sat beside No. 1, Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, and seemed to take his cues from Schumer whose expression can best be described as murderous.

Tammy Duckworth was not dressed in white in tribute to suffragettes as many of her sister Democratic senators were. As the camera caught her pained expression, I wondered if Duckworth was imagining what the night might have been like had Hillary Clinton won instead of this man who talked big about going to war but got no closer than a military school uniform and escaped the Vietnam draft because of heel spurs.

Because Trump won, he could single out and celebrate individuals he invited to sit in the gallery. He did so with great effect several times, most poignantly when he paid tribute to the widow of Navy Seal Ryan Owens. The Peoria native died in a raid on an al-Qaeda stronghold in Yemen on January 29. I’ve been watching presidential addresses for decades and I’ve never seen anything like the drama and emotion of Carryn Owens sobbing and looking upward to commune with her husband. That she was seated next to the preternaturally cool Ivanka Trump made the scene all the more heartrending. (I kept wishing that Ivanka would offer Carryn a tissue or Jared’s handkerchief.) The sadness of the scene was accentuated by the fact that the dead soldier’s father, also a veteran, has publicly blamed Trump for his son’s death, called the mission “stupid,” and refused to meet with the new president.

Trump who is, after all, Trump, went off teleprompter to note that the applause aimed at the grieving widow made him certain that Ryan was gazing down from heaven and is “very happy because I think we just broke a record.” (The record, Trump meant, for most prolonged applause directed at a gallery guest during a presidential address.)

Congressman Mike Quigley promoted his plan to bring a Dreamer to sit in the gallery with him, as did many of his Democratic colleagues. But who knew? It’s not as if he could pay public tribute in front of a nationally televised audience. Bill Foster said his guest would be a Muslim high school student who has described being told she resembles a terrorist because she wears a hijab. Luis Gutierrez was out with a press release shortly after the speech ended accusing Trump of “lying when he says he supports immigrant reform” and charging Trump with “tarring our community as criminals, drug-dealers, and killers.”

When Trump’s long speech was over, the Democrats, with the exception of West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin who fears losing his seat in 2018, headed for the exits. Trump signed a few autographs and exited relatively quickly—relative, that is, to Obama, whose exits, over the years, were slowed by admirers and autograph seekers. If the Democrats want to get to Trump, some savvy strategist should make sure he sees that exit video. If that image gets and sticks in his head, his next speech might be far more Trumpy than presidential.

I must admit to missing former congressman Jesse Jackson, Jr., who used to stake out an aisle seat many hours before presidential addresses so he could hog the television camera as the president entered. We know where that bit of vanity got him.

Carol Felsenthal is a lifelong Chicagoan and self-proclaimed political junkie. She writes occasionally for Politico Magazine and The Hill. Her books include biographies of Bill Clinton, Katharine Graham, and Alice Roosevelt Longworth. Among her many stories for Chicago are memorable profiles of Michelle Obama and Bruce Rauner. Follow her on Twitter at @csfelsenthal.

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