Trump’s Address Highlights Divisions With Hill GOP

His speech downplayed or contradicted several positions congressional Republicans hold dear.

At the post-inaugural luncheon on Jan. 20, 2017. Seated, from left to right: Mrs. Ryan, Ms. Iris Weinshall, Sen. Chuck Schumer, Mrs. Blunt, First Lady Melania Trump, President Donald J. Trump, Vice President Mike Pence, Karen Pence, and Speaker of the House Paul Ryan And Sen. Blunt speaking
Chet Susslin
Jan. 20, 2017, 5:59 p.m.

Donald Trump’s first presidential speech laid bare stark differences with his party on Capitol Hill, even as Republican lawmakers applauded the short and populist address that opened their unified control of Washington.

Both in its emphasis and what it omitted or downplayed, Trump’s inauguration speech was a sign that the new White House and Capitol Hill Republicans could face political collisions on trade, diplomacy, the path forward on infrastructure, and more.

Trump made no mention of health care, even though Republicans have made repealing Obamacare their biggest opening priority. Nor did the speech offer pledges on cutting spending and limiting government—the issues that most animate Hill conservatives such as members of the House Freedom Caucus.

On foreign policy, the speech did indeed vow to “unite the civilized world against radical Islamic terrorism,” using a phrase that Republicans often chided Obama for avoiding.

But it also sounded isolationist notes that some Republicans, particularly the current crop of party leaders, have traditionally not supported.

On trade, Trump pushed the aggressively protectionist vision that animated his successful campaign.

“We must protect our borders from the ravages of other countries making our products, stealing our companies, and destroying our jobs. Protection will lead to great prosperity and strength,” he said.

That splits Trump from the many GOP lawmakers who have historically backed free trade.

“There was some of that that I might have framed a little bit differently,” Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker told reporters.

Corker, however, suggested that Trump might govern somewhat differently than he spoke.

“But I know where he is going because of the time that I have spent with him and the time that I have spent with the other people in his Cabinet,” he said. “I heard what was said, but I have a sense that on the trade issues, they are going to be much more oriented towards it than their words have indicated in the past.”

Steve Bannon, Trump's chief strategist, told National Journal that the inauguration speech was designed to lay out principles, not policies.

"When the president was writing the speech, he wanted to give a basic overview of this movement he’s leading," Bannon said in an interview. He added that there is "plenty of time to talk about policy every week—you get to do this once every four years."

But there’s plenty of potential for conflict over both principles and policy specifics.

Trump gave a full-throated endorsement of his plans for a massive infrastructure package, a top Bannon priority that could create divisions between the White House and Republican lawmakers over timing and how to fund it.

“We will build new roads, and highways, and bridges, and airports, and tunnels, and railways all across our wonderful nation,” Trump said.

Rep. Luke Messer, the fifth highest-ranking House Republican leader, said he took Trump's promises on that subject as a challenge to Congress, especially since congressional Republican leaders have said explicitly that infrastructure is not a priority.

"No question it was a call to action, and it seemed to me it raised the priority of transportation on our agenda. ... It's currently a priority for the president and I suspect it will end up being a priority for all of us. He has the bully pulpit to help set those priorities and he began that today," Messer said.

"To fulfill those promises we're going to have to get on our pony and go to work to figure out how we do it. I think what you're going to see out of us here in the beginning days of the session is to try to keep those first promises of the Trump campaign,” he said in the Capitol after the inauguration.

Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn, however, brought Trump's lofty promises back to reality, noting that the Senate would likely continue to put infrastructure legislation on the back burner unless Congress or the administration can figure out a way to fund it.

"I just think the biggest question is, 'How do you pay for it?'" he said. "We've got $20 billion in debt so that's going to be the biggest challenge. I think everybody loves infrastructure, and it's important, but how you pay for it is a critical fact."

Bannon said Friday that passing a $1 trillion infrastructure plan was a "very high priority," and would come after Congress addresses Obamacare and tax reform.

The newly redesigned whitehouse.gov website states that the Trump administration wants to "take advantage of" the country's shale, oil, and natural-gas reserves and use that revenue to "rebuild our roads, schools, bridges, and public infrastructure."

No president had said the word "infrastructure" in an inaugural address until Trump, according to The Washington Post.

But while the speech was a reminder of fault lines among Republicans, lawmakers were largely willing to paper over those differences Friday as the Obama era ended.

“I think what he did today is what he has done his entire campaign. He speaks in a broad brush and then he has experts and Congress to make sure that the fine strokes are within the frame that we get to see,” said Republican Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina.

Sen. Cory Gardner, a supporter of the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal that Trump has savaged, said it remains to be seen how Trump will put his trade principles into practice and emphasized common ground on broad themes.

“What we have is a president who has talked about making sure that our trade agreements are fair and that they focus on America, and that we shouldn’t be giving other people deals that we ourselves aren’t benefitting from, and that’s something I think that is important,” Gardner said.

“But we will see as it is fleshed out in greater detail what exactly it means,” he added.

Rep. John Shimkus suggested that Trump was speaking in part to his early supporters.

“My observation was he was speaking to all the folks on the Mall, and the folks that were with him early. That was a message to them, saying that he was the same guy he started campaigning as,” the Illinois Republican said. “It was almost a campaign speech.”

Jason Plautz contributed to this article.
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