Photo: President Donald Trump addresses a Joint Session of Congress on Feb. 28. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Trump's Speech to Congress Mixes Bleak Outlook with Populist View

By Chris Johnson, Washington Blade

President Trump's wide-ranging speech Tuesday in the House gallery of the U.S. Capitol drew on many of the positions he expressed during the presidential campaign, such as rebuilding America's infrastructure, expelling undocumented immigrants and rebuilding the military. All those goals stemmed from a perception -- largely deemed incorrect or exaggerated -- of the failing state of America.

"For too long, we've watched our middle class shrink as we've exported our jobs and wealth to foreign countries," Trump said. "We've financed and built one global project after another, but ignored the fates of our children in the inner cities of Chicago, Baltimore, Detroit -- and so many other places throughout our land. We've defended the borders of other nations, while leaving our own borders wide open, for anyone to cross -- and for drugs to pour in at a now unprecedented rate. And we've spent trillions of dollars overseas, while our infrastructure at home has so badly crumbled."

But that's about to change, Trump said, because last year "the earth shifted beneath our feet" with a "rebellion" that led to his election that will fundamentally change America for the better.

"The chorus became an earthquake - and the people turned out by the tens of millions, and they were all united by one very simple, but crucial demand, that America must put its own citizens first because only then, can we truly make American great again," Trump said.

Trump's speech consisted of a litany of his proposals, such as building a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border, tax reform and new tariffs on foreign imports. Amid the perception Republican efforts to undo Obamacare have petered out, Trump renewed his call to repeal and replace health care reform, but with a plan he says will expand access to health care by allowing the purchase of plans across state lines, instituting tax credits and expanding health savings accounts. (Many LGBT advocates have sought to preserve Obamacare, among other reasons, because it contains non-discrimination protections for LGBT people in health care.)

Perhaps in an attempt to temper opposition to his presidency, Trump drew heavily on populist rhetoric, saying the nation would move toward the principle of "Buy American, and Hire American" as he urged Congress to pass legislation that would repair and expand the nation's infrastructure.

"My administration wants to work with members in both parties to make childcare accessible and affordable, to help ensure new parents have paid family leave, to invest in women's health, and to promote clean air and clear water, and to rebuild our military and our infrastructure," Trump said.

Trump's words in favor of expanding infrastructure and manufacturing in the United States, such as his commitment to build future pipelines with American steel, were among the few lines during the speech that got Democratic lawmakers to rise from their seats and applaud. Notably, House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) was among those applauding the words from Trump.

Despite his call to repeal Obamacare, Trump also won applause from Democrats for pledging to bring down the costs of prescription drugs.

One week after his administration rescinded guidance prohibiting discrimination against transgender students in schools, Trump made no reference in his speech to LGBT rights nor did he invoke the words "religious freedom," which is considered code for social conservatives in support of anti-LGBT discrimination.

But Trump, when advocating for school choice and charter schools, did offer the line, "education is the civil rights issue of our time."

Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, said Trump's words on education make no sense given the actions he's taken in his short term in office.

"My guess it didn't matter what he said tonight," Keisling said. "He's reading it off of his teleprompter, somebody gave him a speech and then who knows what he'll say tomorrow, but I know what he said last week, and what he said was transgender students don't get civil rights, so it's pretty hollow."

Although Trump didn't explicitly denounce LGBT people or rights, he did seek to demonize other minority groups, such as undocumented immigrants, which he said have contributed to violent crime in the country.

"As we speak, we are removing gang members, drug dealers and criminals that threaten our communities and prey on our citizens," Trump said. "Bad ones are going out as I speak tonight and as I have promised."

Previewing an upcoming update to his immigration ban widely viewed as discriminatory against Muslims, Trump stoked fears about terrorists coming into the United States to inflict harm on the American people.

"It is not compassionate, but reckless, to allow uncontrolled entry from places where proper vetting cannot occur," Trump said. "Those given the high honor of admission to the United States should support this country and love its people and its values. We cannot allow a beachhead of terrorism to form inside America -- we cannot allow our nation to become a sanctuary for extremists."

Audible groans could be heard among Democrats on the floor of the House gallery when Trump announced he would create in the Department of Homeland Security an office called VOICE, or the Victims of Immigration Crime Engagement. The office, he said, will provide "a voice to those who have been ignored by our media, and silenced by special interests."

To make his point about the dangers of illegal immigration, Trump invited as among his guests Susan Oliver and Jessica Davis, whom he said were married to police officers who were "viciously gunned down by illegal immigrants with a criminal record and two deportations." Despite opposition to Trump's immigration policy, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle clapped when the president called for recognition of their fallen husbands' memory.

But Democrats also took advantage of inviting guests to the joint session of Congress to make a statement opposing Trump's policy. At least five women wearing hijabs were seen in the House gallery, likely in protest of Trump's immigration ban targeting seven Muslim-majority nations. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) invited as a guest Jose Antonio Vargas, a gay journalist and undocumented immigrant who had advocated to allow DREAMers and other immigrants remain in the United States.

Trump also paid homage to the late U.S. Associate Justice Antonin Scalia, whom he credited with being "forever a symbol of American justice" despite his reputation for anti-LGBT rulings. The appointment to the Supreme Court of U.S. Circuit Judge Neil Gorsuch, Trump said, would be appropriate to fill the seat of Scalia.

Democratic National Committee Chair Tom Perez told the Washington Blade on Capitol Hill after the speech Trump's invocation of Scalia to describe Gorsuch is why LGBT people should take away "continued fear" from Trump's speech.

"Look who he has nominated to the Supreme Court," Perez said. "He's nominated someone whose mentor is Antonin Scalia. That's all we need to know about what this president thinks about LGBTQ rights."

Rea Carey, executive director of the National LGBTQ Task Force, said in a statement Trump's speech "vividly illustrates" the extent to which the president is "out of touch" with people's lives.

"In his world, everything he does is 'great', when the reality is that his policies are causing pain, suffering, and uncertainty for millions, and most often for the most vulnerable," Carey said. "In just 40 days, he has aggressively used his executive powers to demonize and dehumanize immigrants, Muslims, and trans youth -- and he's just getting started. One thing that is certain though is that every time he opens his mouth, more people want to join the resistance movement against his extremism."

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson attends the daily White House press briefings and is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association.This article originally appeared in the Washington Blade and is made available in partnership with the National Media Association.
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