How Trump pulled together his most presidential moment

Posted at 9:09 PM, Mar 01, 2017
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Twenty-five minutes before President Donald Trump was due to be introduced into the House Chamber for his first address to Congress, the speech he was set to deliver was typed, bound and in his hands for delivery.
But it was the delivery the President was hung up on.
Sitting in the back of his armored limousine next to his wife, rain pounding on the windows, Trump set to work practicing a few lines with the advisers he trusts most: his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and daughter, Ivanka. As the car rolled into a wet night toward Capitol Hill, Trump ran through the most important lines of his most important speech to date, looking to Kushner for approval.
What transpired moments later was Trump's most presidential showing to date, a disciplined address that had establishment Republicans breathing their first sigh of relief since Trump took office a month ago.
Until Trump mounted the rostrum in the House Chamber Tuesday evening, there was little certainty among Republican operatives and even some in the West Wing about how Trump would perform on the biggest night of his young presidency.
Weeks in the making, the speech had been written, rehearsed, overhauled and rehearsed again. But even with the text finalized and the pacing practiced, there were few outside Trump's innermost circle who could say with confidence he would be able to execute the type of commander-in-chief style speech that proved elusive on the campaign trail.
For a West Wing still reeling from reports of infighting and a pressure-cooker atmosphere, the speech provided an opportunity to disprove skeptics who see only dysfunction and disarray.
Trump himself began laying the groundwork for the speech's emotional zenith a month ago. As he phoned the wife of a Navy SEAL killed in the first counterterror raid he ordered as president, he broached the subject of inviting her to his address.
"I'm going to be giving this speech in February, if you would feel comfortable I'd love to have you as a guest," Trump told Carryn Owens, the grief-stricken widow of chief Ryan "William" Owens, on January 30, according to White House press secretary Sean Spicer.
White House military aides followed up with Owens in the ensuing weeks. Eventually, she said yes. On Tuesday, she brought her three children to the White House for a meeting with Trump before traveling to the Capitol for his speech. When Trump mentioned her slain husband, the applause lasted more than two minutes.
It was a stirring moment in a speech that had Trump declaring victory to friends on Wednesday.
"People are saying it was the best speech I've ever given," he told Newsmax CEO Chris Ruddy, who visited Trump in the Oval Office the day after the speech.
Trump began work on the address two weeks ago at his Florida estate Mar-a-Lago, where he spelled out to aides the broad themes he wanted included in his address. Over the next two weeks, Vice President Mike Pence, chief of staff Reince Priebus, chief strategist Steve Bannon and policy adviser Stephen Miller set to work forging a spate of broad ideas and themes into the hour-long address the President delivered Tuesday.
Aides insist the speech was entirely Trump's devising -- "We were more of a sounding board than anything else," said one top adviser -- but elements of his remarks contained clear fingerprints from his top aides.
A section on paid leave for new parents bore the hallmarks of Ivanka Trump, who moved to Washington when her father took office and has made women's pay a top issue. A passage on putting America ahead of other countries was evocative of Bannon's own nationalist proclamations. And Trump's five-point list for a health care plan mapped closely with House Speaker Paul Ryan's own desired replacement for the Affordable Care Act.
The result was an amalgamation of his administration's varied priorities -- and, to its authors, a sign that competing interests serving an unconventional President are nonetheless able to craft a cohesive and well-received product that reflects their boss.
Last night's speech was a "Trump original," said one White House official, who described a hurried preparation process in the hours before the speech was delivered.
In the White House Map Room, on the basement floor of Trump's residence, aides had erected a teleprompter for Trump to practice on throughout the day. As he darted from his practice sessions to the West Wing for meetings and bill signings, he made last-minute tweaks to the text.
"He would read it through and then stop and say, 'I want to add a line about this or tweak that or use this word and not that word,' " said one aide.
That's not unusual for presidents eager to set out a broad policy agenda on their biggest speech of the year. Bill Clinton was known to change the wording in his State of the Union addresses while riding along Pennsylvania Avenue to the Capitol. Barack Obama regularly cleared his schedule of meetings in the days leading up to his yearly addresses.
Trump, meanwhile, kept a jam-packed schedule on Monday and Tuesday, meeting with the various constituencies that have been filing through the West Wing since he took office a month ago.
Stepping away from his rehearsals Tuesday to meet for a traditional pre-speech lunch with television news anchors, Trump sought to scale up interest in his speech by floating the possibility he would endorse a bipartisan immigration reform plan that allows millions of undocumented immigrants to remain in the country.
A senior administration official on Wednesday characterized Trump's immigration comments to the anchors as a "misdirection play" meant to generate positive news coverage ahead of his highly scrutinized address. In the speech itself, Trump made only scant reference to legislative plans on immigration, saying only that such a compromise was possible.
With the lunch complete and the immigration story laid, Trump set back to work practicing his speech twice more before aides finalized the text.
After dinner with his family -- including a rare White House meal with his wife, Melania -- Trump changed out of the baggy navy blue suit he was wearing during the day into a more closely tailored gray jacket. He replaced his pattered red tie with more muted blue stripes. And then he headed out into the night.
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