WASHINGTON - President Trump went up to Capitol Hill Tuesday to present his agenda before 535 lawmakers in an age-old tradition that acknowledges they alone have the power to accept, revise or reject his proposals.
It should, in many ways, be a humbling experience, but humility is not exactly Trump’s strong suit.
Still, after a lengthy presidential campaign, in which he rarely acknowledged Congress’s constitutional role as he told voters he alone would fix all of our country’s problems, there he was making his sales pitch and pleading his case before the people’s legislature.
By now, lawmakers know what is in Trump’s agenda. Indeed, they were already working on many of its chief provisions: tax cuts and tax reform, budget-cutting, and tinkering with Obamacare to repeal its worst provisions and replacing them with something better, cheaper and fairer.
So there was very little that was new in his hour long recitation of the issues he wants to deal with over the next four years.
What was new, apparently, was the way he presented his case, avoiding his usual bombastic rhetoric that ignited his political base who swept him into power.
His approval polls had fallen to 39 percent. His Cabinet members were contradicting him left and right. His ban on Muslims entering our country was tied up in the courts, and some of his supporters were asking him to tone down his rhetoric. Even his advisers wanted him to appear more presidential. He got the message.
In a private interview with TV news anchors, before his address to Congress, Trump said he was now open to a bill to overhaul illegal immigration law that would provide a pathway to legal status, though not citizenship, to those who have not committed a serious crime.
“The time is right for an immigration bill as long as there is compromise on both sides,” Trump said.
So he entered the House chamber with a dramatically different approach to his presidency to “deliver a message of unity and strength” and to announce that there was “a new surge of optimism” across the land.
The Washington Post’s front page headline proclaimed the next morning: “Trump details vision in milder tones.” The New York Times: “Trump Offers Up A More Hopeful Vision.”
But in other ways Trump was still Trump, spouting the same dark opinions that have little or no basis in fact. He is still maintaining that immigrants take jobs away from native Americans, and lower their wages.
“By finally enforcing our immigration laws, we will raise wages, help the unemployed, save billions of dollars, and make our communities safer for everyone,” he said.
But according to a report from the National Academies of Sciences, immigrants have had “little to no negative effects” on wages or the jobs of native born workers in the U.S.
“A 2015 study by the nonprofit American Immigration Council concluded that “immigrants are less likely to commit serious crimes or be behind bars than the native-born…”
The study made clear that this was also the case for both legal immigrants and illegal migrants.
But Trump was still promoting and peddling fear, a strategic political pillar of his presidential campaign. “The murder rate in 2015 experienced its largest single year increase in nearly half a century,” he said.
This is accurate but extremely misleading. The FBI says there were 15,696 murders in 2015, but a very large proportion of them took place in a relatively small number of major cities, like Chicago and Baltimore.
But in 1991, the FBI reported that there were 24,703 murders.
Trump is still insisting that global trade is responsible for America’s job losses. “We’ve lost more than one-fourth of our manufacturing jobs since [President Reagan’s] NAFTA was approved,” he told Congress.
But as I’ve reported in this column before, the decline in factory jobs since 2000 is largely due to the increased use of technology, robotics and automation throughout our manufacturing industries.
Manufacturing output in America hasn’t declined, it has risen dramatically. It’s just that fewer workers are needed to churn out more cars and thousands of other products.
Meantime, Trump has his work cut out for him in his administration which has often been wildly off-message, or correcting its chaotic, contradictory statements.
At the beginning of his campaign, Trump made it clear that all 12 million illegal immigrants will be deported. But now he is backing away from that impossible pledge.
Last week, in the midst of a major roundup of illegals by immigration officials, Homeland Security Secretary John F. Kelly said, “There will be no — repeat no — mass deportations.”
That’s one campaign pledge in the ash heap of history. What’s next? Trump’s $25 billion wall along our 2,000 mile border with Mexico? We can only hope.