President Trump, known for his free-wheeling, off-the-cuff speaking style, stayed surprisingly on-script as he delivered his first prime-time address from the Oval Office on Tuesday.
In a crisp, fitted suit jacket, sensibly colored tie and starched white shirt – an outfit so out of character that it appeared as if it was borrowed from the guy who occupied that chair a presidency ago – he appealed to the American public to support the building of a beloved border wall to end a “humanitarian and national security crisis on our southern border.”
Trump the showman who’d rallied his base more than once with Nancy Pelosi jokes and warnings about Mideastern terrorists hiding in border-bound caravans was nowhere to be seen. In his place was a stoic fellow who stared straight into the camera, an American flag and pile of mysterious medals right behind him in the camera frame.
He even channeled an emotion he’s not known for: empathy. This was a humanitarian crisis, he told us somberly.
Immigrants are in danger, he said toward the start of his nine-minute speech. (Nine minutes? When has Trump ever had the podium and spoken for under 20?) They’re being raped and beaten by their traffickers, children are suffering, families have nowhere to go because, like a Courtyard Marriott during the holiday season, the U.S. is full at the moment.
For a few brief moments it appeared Trump was going to use this very serious setting from which his predecessors addressed the public about the Cuban missile crisis, the invasion of Iraq and the killing of Osama bin Laden to announce a turnabout in his immigration policy plans, or on the flip side, declare a state of emergency over the influx of illegal immigrants to get funding for his $5-billion border wall.
One thing was clear, this Trump was not going to lead a chant or crack a nasty joke about “Crooked Hillary” or “MS-13-Lover Pelosi” as he starred straight into the camera and recited statistics from a teleprompter: 1 in 3 women who make the journey to the border are raped by traffickers. It’s a “cycle of human suffering” that Trump said he’s committed to end.
There was plenty of hand-wringing in the media in the 24 hours between the time the White House announced plans for the address and the broadcast itself. Debates raged across social and traditional media about whether networks and trusted news platforms should carry the speech live. As recently as 2014, CBS, NBC and ABC declined to air an address from President Obama because his announcement of an immigration policy plan was said to be too politicized for that type of forum.
But perhaps you’ve heard: Trump isn’t like any other president before him so The Rules don’t apply, especially when ratings are at stake.
Trump played the part of a concerned national leader for a while. A familiar message, however, began to emerge halfway through the address. Be afraid. Very afraid.
Drugs and criminals are pouring over the border. We need a wall, and we need it now. He began breathing heavily through his nose, the way he did during those tense debates with Hillary Clinton back in 2016, as he ramped up the urgency of combating the threat at our borders.
He reeled off the horrors one after another:
An illegal immigrant shot and killed a law enforcement officer.
Another illegal immigrant raped, murdered and beat a woman with a hammer.
And there was the case of the beheading and dismemberment.
And the M-13 gang beating and stabbing of a 16-year-old girl.
The message: Thousands more lives will be lost if we don’t act right now!
There was no mention of the thousands of federal employees who haven’t or won’t be paid during the shutdown, or a chin-up pep talk for those being directly or indirectly affected by the crisis.
Turned out it was the same speech he’s been giving about the bogeyman at the border since those red hats first made their debut, only with a tighter script and a narrower tie.
If this was the moment Trump was supposed to appeal beyond his base, well, no one really thought that was going to happen. But if he hoped to tap his showmanship skills to regain support among Republicans alienated by the shutdown, it’s unlikely the fearmongering moved them. Unlike the new tie, it’s old hat by now.