Early insight into the details of President Donald Trump’s first State of the Union speech suggests his Tuesday address will be restrained and placatory, challenging his penchant for angry outbursts and divisive rhetoric.
Media figures, meanwhile, will be challenged not to give him too much credit for that.
Unlike the off-the-cuff remarks Trump makes during his campaign rallies and press conferences, and the controversial tweets he fires off at all hours of the night, Trump’s State of the Union address has been meticulously prepared in advance and will presumably be read off a teleprompter.
That praise would be unwarranted, critics are saying ahead of the address.
Yet The Washington Post has already suggested that toned-down rhetoric in Trump’s speech could be “a chance for reset” in a Saturday article titled “Can a divisive president flip the script?”
There’s little evidence that he even wants to, regardless of what he says in his address on Tuesday. The Trump presidency has been marked by one divisive, exclusionary policy after another, and he continues to lash out at Democrats and other political nemeses on Twitter on a nearly daily basis.
Trump has already made it very clear who he is with his behavior and policies, former Bush speechwriter David Frum said on CNN Monday.
“Look, you can train a seal to sit on the side of a pool for an hour and behave itself,” he said in reference to Trump’s upcoming speech. “That doesn’t make it no longer a seal.”
Despite this, pundits and journalists continue to tell Americans they should feel hopeful when Trump meets the bare minimum of decorum in his speeches.
The Post published another widely panned op-ed on Saturday from CNN’s Fareed Zakaria, who wrote that Trump’s prepared speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, was “forthright, intelligent and conciliatory, embracing the world rather than condemning it.” His speech, Zakaria continued, should leave us encouraged that Trump isn’t out to “destroy” the American political system after all.
That’s a remarkably low bar for being encouraged. Zakaria’s upbeat outlook in light of the Davos speech came just days after reports emerged that Trump attempted to fire Robert Mueller, the special counsel overseeing the FBI’s investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election, last summer.
Even Zakaria conceded that the next day, Trump “might veer off in an entirely different direction.” By Sunday morning, the president was picking a fight on Twitter with rapper Jay-Z, seemingly over allegations that Trump had called Haiti and African nations “shithole countries.”
Like Zakaria, many media figures had similar praise for Trump last spring when he addressed a joint session of Congress for the first time and roused emotions by honoring the widow of a fallen soldier. The prepared speech was widely celebrated as a turning point for Trump, who was lauded for finally finding his footing in the political sphere.
“He became president of the United States in that moment, period,” CNN commentator Van Jones said.
“That was one of the most extraordinary moments you have ever seen in American politics,” he continued.
The White House website even has a page rounding up the positive praise for the February speech. It “Struck an Inspiring, Even Bipartisan Tone,” the Minneapolis Star Tribune wrote; a “Tone of Unity and Optimism,” according to the Deseret News; and was an “Optimistic Message to the Nation,” the Albuquerque Journal wrote.
But the new, presidential Trump didn’t last long. Less than a week later, Trump unleashed a series of tweets accusing former President Barack Obama of wiretapping him at Trump tower and called him a “bad (or sick) guy!”
Months later, media figures again praised Trump after he tweeted his sympathies and read measured remarks from a teleprompter following the mass shooting at a Las Vegas music festival.
“He has been very low key about this one, very presidential, if you will,” CNN’s John King said.
CBS News analyst Fran Townsend, a former homeland security adviser under President George W. Bush, made similar remarks.
“The president sounded very presidential. He often has been criticized for his tweets and unpresidential language,” she said. “This was [a] classic presidential moment.”
Again, that “moment” was short-lived. The next day, Trump famously threw paper towels at Hurricane Maria victims in Puerto Rico, then went on a Twitter tirade against “fake news” outlets who criticized his response to the disaster.
CNN commentator Chris Cillizza, who regularly gives Trump credit for well-delivered speeches, has pushed back against the criticism that his praise is misguided.
“But what if he is giving a solid speech? Why is that not worth noting?” he tweeted after Trump’s February address to Congress, later adding, “I ask again though: Why can’t Trump be praised for delivering a good speech full stop?”
Media critics were quick to give him an answer.
“At best, content like this is ephemeral garbage that lasts a news cycle and is forgotten, but provides traffic that supports the work of actual reporters,” Media Matters senior fellow Matthew Gertz wrote. “At worst, this sort of fact-free punditry creates false narratives that can alter the public’s perception of political figures.”