Rep. Tom Emmer was on his feet, clapping and cheering, for most of Donald Trump’s first address to Congress as president. Rep. Keith Ellison spent nearly all of it in his seat, stone-faced.
That’s the image that sums up Trump’s speech, which found Republicans repeatedly roaring their approval of the new president, and Democrats largely sitting in silence and disbelief.
The Trump that arrived on Capitol Hill on a rainy Tuesday night, however, sounded a little different than before. In an hourlong speech, the president laid out a nationalist, populist agenda with few new items, but he surprised politicians and the press with a more measured tone that was missing from his combative campaign speeches and his bleak inaugural address.
Minnesota’s Republicans hailed Trump’s shift in tone — seeming relieved for once to not have to be asked about his rhetorical missteps and bizarre non sequiturs — and claimed the president laid out a vision that Democrats would be hard-pressed to disagree with.
Democrats, meanwhile, were skeptical of this version of Trump. When they weren’t disagreeing with him, Democrats didn’t have bad things to say about Trump’s goals of putting people back to work, improving trade deals and rebuilding the country’s infrastructure. But they highly doubt he can make good on those promises.
‘A great tone’
Minnesota’s two most senior Republicans had starkly different stances on Trump during the campaign: Emmer was perhaps the candidate’s most visible defender in Minnesota, while Rep. Erik Paulsen kept his distance, finally affirming in October that he wouldn’t support Trump.
But both had very positive things to say about the content of Trump’s speech and the better, if unfamiliar, tone. Emmer noted with great enthusiasm that the president began his speech noting Black History Month and condemning recent vandalism of Jewish cemeteries.
“I thought it was a great tone. It’s a message that was just amazing,” Emmer said. “It was a tone that somebody next to me said, I was waiting to hear that during the campaign.”
“You had a president tonight that a lot of people did not expect,” he continued. “People who said that’s a little unusual for him. Better now than never.”
Paulsen said Trump’s tone “was measured. I think he’s shifting into governing mode, and I was really encouraged that he was outlining some substantial initiatives.”
There was plenty for Republicans to like during the speech. Trump called the Affordable Care Act a “disaster” and outlined some reforms and he vowed to strongly enforce immigration law — and to build the wall — while increasing funding to the military. (Trump did only utter the phrase “deficit” once — as in, a trade deficit, not a budget one.)
Paulsen was particularly pleased that Trump specifically mentioned reforming the regulatory process at the Food and Drug Administration, a priority of the medical device industry which has a strong presence in his 3rd Congressional District. (He was not a fan, however, of Trump’s condemnation of the now-dead Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact.)
In the Republicans’ view, Trump’s speech was an “olive branch” to Democrats, and they believe the pressure is on the minority party to work with the new president and the GOP majority.
Democrats are still reeling from the elections, Paulsen said. “But the reality is… we’re moving forward, we’re going to start to get things done, and it takes bipartisan work.”
“We don’t accomplish anything divided,” Emmer said. He criticized Democratic leadership as “pied pipers” and said he was looking for a figure like Tip O’Neill — the famed Democratic House leader who worked with Ronald Reagan — to emerge.
“If [Trump] maintains this tone,” Emmer said, “it’s going to be awful hard for people not to want to work with him.”
Trump-country Democrats skeptical
Democrats don’t need a long memory, though, to recall the past eight presidential addresses, after which Republicans scoffed at Barack Obama’s calls for the two parties to work together.
Now, plenty of Democrats are gung-ho on blocking this president’s agenda at every turn. And even those inclined to look for common ground with him — like the Minnesotans whose districts Trump won easily — still came away from his speech disappointed.
Rep. Rick Nolan, whose 8th District Trump won by 15 points, said afterward, “I don’t know what to think. He says some things you like. They don’t necessarily square with a lot of things he’s said before.”
“Even when he’s saying things you like and want to hear — U.S. steel, better trade deals, better jobs, better infrastructure, stop the wars, protect people’s salaries, pensions, and benefits — I like it, I just don’t trust it.”
Rep. Tim Walz, another Democrat from Trump country, said he’s looking for common ground with Trump — he stood up and cheered when the president called for paid family leave — but said he failed to provide details on how he’d accomplish his goals.
An address to Congress, Walz said, is a chance for a president to provide specifics. “There was not a lot of detail, there was a lot of rhetoric,” he said.
“He ran through a list,” Walz continued. “You could’ve added cookies to that, if you’re going to tell people what they wanna hear. You have a responsibility to say how you’re going to pay for that.”
Continuing the resistance
While other lawmakers clapped or looked at their phones during the speech, Sen. Al Franken sat in the third row of the House chamber, taking notes on a legal pad.
“I took down some things I agreed on,” Franken said, showing a yellow page with questions and bullet points in black ink. “Drug treatment. That was good. I hope he follows through with it.” (He added that he stopped taking notes at some point in the speech.)
Franken was chiefly concerned with the president’s language on Obamacare, saying the policy points he outlined — praised by Republicans — aren’t anything new and won’t be enough to meaningfully replace Obama’s health care law.
“They all stood up and cheered but I still think they don’t have a plan,” Franken said. “I don’t think they agree on a plan. That was an area where they had six, seven years to come up with some kind of replacement and nothing, no plan I heard raised, has anywhere near a critical mass of agreement.”
Reps. Keith Ellison and Betty McCollum, representing Minnesota’s bluest districts, indicated in statements that they hardly saw an olive branch extended from the commander-in-chief, and will continue to resist his agenda.
“The priorities offered by President Trump and supported by the Republican Congress take America backwards,” McCollum said. “My Democratic colleagues in the House and Senate are ready to stand and fight.”
Ellison indicated he would not work with the president unless he changes not just his tone, but his actions.
“As long as the President is committed to dividing Americans and making life more difficult for millions of Americans, I will remain committed to standing in his way,” he said. “You can count on that.”