I watched the president speak to Congress Tuesday night, and I heard a quieter version of the same man we have been hearing for months. I didn’t see the heavens open up and the proverbial light shine upon our feckless president, as some would lead us to believe. You could rightly claim he was more presidential than usual, that his tone and words were more genteel and thoughtful than they have ever been. He did open with a condemnation of hate crimes, although earlier in the day he implied that growing anti-Semitism could be false flags. He did attempt to portray a more optimistic vision for the country than he did during the inauguration, if your idea of utopia is a whiter nation and a more polluted planet. As one White House official described the speech, it was “nationalism with an indoor voice.” Ultimately, it was business as usual, minus the Twitter attacks and media bashing. The media, in turn, rewarded him. The praise lavished on him by some political pundits was downright embarrassing.
Mr. Trump read a teleprompter speech that was clearly written by someone else, and he stuck to the script. That’s a pretty low bar. If you actually listened to the content of what he said, nothing has changed. He’s still promoting a hard right agenda, and his anti-immigrant stance is as clear as ever. And there were falsehoods, or lies, embedded throughout the speech. But a disappointing number of pundits focused on style over substance.
The worst offense of the night, though, was the one for which he has garnered the most praise. To use the widow of a Navy SEAL so recently killed in action the way he did was shameless – not his big presidential moment, as some pundits gushed. He employed a grieving widow as a prop to produce political theater – a spotlight moment that Kellyanne or someone else in the White House correctly calculated would have a hallucinatory effect on the press, and the GOP. Carryn Owens was, to be sure, the epitome of bravery in that moment, and it was quite emotional. It was impossible not to feel her pain, as I’m sure the president and everyone in that room did. But what America witnessed was a widow’s wrenching grief on public display for Trump’s premeditated political gain.
An extended ovation for Mrs. Owens followed the president’s words. “Ryan died as he lived: a warrior, and a hero – battling against terrorism and securing our nation.” As his widow was beginning to cry, he said, “I just spoke to General Mattis who reconfirmed that, and I quote, Ryan was a part of a highly successful raid that generated large amounts of vital intelligence that will lead to many more victories in the future against our enemies.”
Whether the Yemen raid was a success, is up for debate. By many accounts, it was not; it was a mess. Chief Petty Officer William Ryan Owens, and some nine children were among the many dead. There are reports that the raid did not yield a treasure trove of intelligence as the White House claims. Owens’ own father has refused to meet with Trump, according to the Miami Herald. Imagine if Hillary Clinton had been in charge at the time, what Republicans would do to her.
Asking Mrs. Owens to sit in the balcony next to Ivanka Trump for this address to Congress was Trump’s attempt to demonstrate that the raid was a success, that Owens’ family does not blame the president, and that the president is a compassionate Commander-in-Chief. It was political, it was tacky, and it was simply unethical to put Mrs. Owens in the middle of an ongoing political debate. Mrs. Owens may disagree with me, but I wonder what her father-in-law would say.
It may be a relief to millions of Americans that Mr. Trump is capable of compassion. It may be a relief that he gave a classic, presidential speech in front of Congress with a handful of soaring phrases and attempts at unity. He knew his immediate audience, and he knew that he had to do damage control to gain the respect of the wider one. For that, he deserves credit. But to think that he has suddenly changed, that he isn’t still the unhinged, authoritarian man he was on Monday, is ridiculous and plays Americans for fools. After all, it’s his own supporters who always say don’t worry about what he says, pay attention to what he does. That’s advice we must continue to heed.