Has Donald Trump gone soft?

Published 10:13 am Wednesday, March 1, 2017

WASHINGTON (AP) — Donald Trump finally gave Republicans what they’ve spent months begging him to deliver: a pivot to presidential behavior that revealed a softer side.

The question now is how long it lasts. Days, weeks, months — or simply until the next tweet?

Just a little more than a month into his presidency, the new president clearly wanted to use his first speech to Congress to reset the chaotic start of his administration.

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Gone was the dark tone that marked his inaugural address, replaced by optimism and pleas for bipartisan support. Standing before lawmakers, Supreme Court justices and military leaders, the famously unrestrained Trump was softer, sober and practically subdued.

“I am here tonight to deliver a message of unity and strength, and it is a message deeply delivered from my heart,” he said, in the opening of his hour-long speech.

His administration reveled in the rave reviews on Wednesday morning.

“What the American people saw is the president I serve with every day — broad shoulders, a big heart,” Vice President Mike Pence said, in an interview with NBC’s “Today Show.”

The White House delayed the signing of his revamped travel ban, saying they were still putting the final touches on the new executive order but also, presumably, to avoid competing with positive press from the speech. Republican leaders were scheduled to join the president for lunch at the White House to discuss how they move forward with key agenda items.

But though the prime-time address to Congress and the nation wrapped Trump’s signature nationalistic politics in presidential prose, it is unlikely to overcome the deep divisions created by his first few weeks in office.

For a candidate who sold himself as a master dealmaker, Trump has shown little inclination to get deeply involved with the kind of nitty gritty negotiating that defines the legislative process.

That’s left the Capitol reeling.

Republicans have united control for the first time in decades but no agreement over the specifics of long-promised plans to repeal “Obamacare” and revamp the tax code. The federal civil service is in not-so-subtle revolt. And weeks of protests and raucous town halls are putting fresh political pressure on lawmakers from both parties to resist his agenda.

Trump, meanwhile, faces record low approval ratings — just 44 percent of Americans approve of his job performance, according to a new NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey.

He needed to use his prime-time address to show he could steady his flailing White House and focus on the difficult work required to pass his legislative agenda. Trump is nearing the end of big achievements he can enact by executive order, forcing him to rely on Congress to turn the bold promises of his campaign into actual achievements.

So, he embraced his inner statesman.

The candidate who won the White House by taking a hard-line stance on immigration seemed to express openness to a bipartisan immigration bill.

The president whose administration spent much of its first weeks in office battling with the media, intelligence community, federal judiciary and even Hollywood celebrities asked for an end to “trivial fights.”

In his speech, he called on Washington to “work past the differences of party.” Less than 24 hours earlier, he’d blamed former President Barack Obama for town hall protests and security leaks and called House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi “incompetent” in a Fox News interview.

He said his generals, not the commander in chief, were responsible for a military raid in Yemen that killed a Navy SEAL. Hours later, Trump’s tribute to the slain solider, as his crying widow stood in the audience, became a signature moment of his address.

And after questioning the authenticity of a wave of bomb threats against Jewish community centers in a private Tuesday meeting with attorney generals, he opened his remarks by condemning the flood of anti-Semitic attacks and other racially motivated crimes.

For House GOP leaders, Trump came tantalizingly close to backing their plan to overhaul the tax code by imposing a new tax on imports while exempting exports. He appeared to lend support to the House Republican leaders’ plan for Obamacare, embracing the “tax credits” and health savings accounts that are a centerpiece of the GOP policy.

But on other issues, Trump offered barely a blueprint for his initiatives.

He repeated his campaign pledge to make a $1 trillion investment in infrastructure, adding no new details to a proposal that’s sure to face fierce resistance from budget hawks. Big promises to make childcare more affordable, ensure paid family leave, invest in women’s health and a major education bill were mentioned merely in passing.

There was no discussion of how his administration would fund any of the new — and expensive — programs, putting him in direct conflict with a Republican Party that has long focused on cutting the deficit.


Lisa Lerer covers politics for The Associated Press.