It is difficult to think of a speech that contained greater unintended irony. The most divisive president for a generation stood in the House chamber and appealed for national unity.
The leader who gave us the government shutdown and who has used petty insults as his calling card issued this plea:
“We must reject the politics of revenge, resistance and retribution and embrace the boundless potential of cooperation, compromise, and the common good.”
That took some chutzpah. You could see over Trump’s shoulder the new Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, shake her head in despair - perhaps even in grudging admiration - at the political tricks being played in front of the newly Democrat-controlled chamber.
For this was - wait for it - an impressive speech by President Trump. At least, impressive in this narrow sense: He did not appear to be beleaguered and defensive. He did not seem humiliated or on the verge of being politically and legally imperilled by the Mueller Report.
There was even genuine news contained within it. He announced the date and location of the second summit with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un. It will be held in Vietnam at the end of this month.
And Trump confirmed recent reports that the US is in talks with the Taliban, negotiations that he called “constructive.” He pointed out that America has spent trillions of dollars and lost thousands of lives in wars across the Middle East and beyond. As he put it, “As a candidate for president, I loudly pledged a new approach. Great nations do not fight endless wars.”
He appeared to be forming the early narrative for his bid for re-election: Ending America’s foreign entanglements, claiming credit for America’s economic strength, attacking socialism, and pleading for his wall along the southern border.
His core message was to suggest that America is on the cusp of greatness again. As Trump put it, “We must choose between greatness or gridlock, results or resistance, vision or vengeance, incredible progress or pointless destruction. Tonight, I ask you to choose greatness.”
It was a pitch for the continuing support of the ultra patriotic base that has stayed at his side through the last two years.
Democrats were quick to ridicule the speech and dismiss its contents as meaningless. It’s true that Trump was light on policy. But in actual fact, they should be a little scared. For Trump is going nowhere and he will fight in 2020 as if his very freedom depends on it. And with Mueller now breathing down his neck, that may very well be the case.