“American taxpayers generously send those same countries billions of dollars in aid every year,” he said. “That is why, tonight, I am asking the Congress to pass legislation to help ensure American foreign-assistance dollars always serve American interests, and only go to America's friends.”
Trump set aside the most inflammatory language he has used about North Korea and its pursuit of nuclear missiles that could reach the United States. The president was vague but threatening. “Past experience has taught us that complacency and concessions only invite aggression and provocation,” he said. “I will not repeat the mistakes of past administrations that got us into this dangerous position.”
The president also set aside inflammatory language about the Russia investigation, steering clear of it altogether. There was no repetition of his insistence that he did not collude with Russia to interfere in the election, no railing against Democrats, and no threats, veiled or otherwise, against Special Counsel Robert Mueller, the Justice Department, or the FBI.
Given how much Trump relishes the freewheeling rally stage and his equally freewheeling Twitter account, it remains somewhat jarring to see him deliver a standard speech—especially one that clocked in at an hour and 20 minutes, the second longest in history, verging into Bill Clinton-level loquaciousness. Trump has mastered some elements of the form. His reading from a teleprompter has gotten somewhat less stiff, and he reduced his many informal and awkward ad-libs. He also made liberal use of Lenny Skutniks—the invited guests used as exemplars of certain policies and traits. Many of the finest moments of the night came when the president spoke about these people.
Yet Trump struggles for the unifying, uplifting tone that presidents tend to favor in State of the Union addresses. It’s simply not a mode that suits him well.
“All of us, together, as one team, one people, and one American family,” Trump said. “We all share the same home, the same heart, the same destiny, and the same great American flag. Together, we are rediscovering the American way.”
But he followed this almost immediately with a carefully sharpened and deftly wielded jab at athletes who kneel during the national anthem, a reprise of a theme from the late summer, and he followed that with a list of fairly divisive, partisan points, including regarding judicial nominations and the Second Amendment.
Trump returned to the quest for inspiration as he closed the speech, with a long if generic paean to the American spirit. That coda helped underscore the strangeness of watching Trump in the setting of the State of the Union. Only the “USA” chant that went up in the chamber as he finished marked it as a distinctively Trumpian occasion.