Trump Promises ‘America First’ in Defiant and Divisive Inaugural Speech
Anxious allies and a polarized country may find little solace in the new president’s isolationist speech.
By Dan De Luce
January 20, 2017
Under dark skies and drizzling rain, Donald Trump vowed after being sworn in as the 45th president of the United States on Friday to make a radical break with decades of U.S. policy, pledging to dump free trade, block immigration, and focus above all on “America first.”
Taking the oath of office after a bitter election campaign exposed a country riven by deep political divisions, Trump offered no olive branch to his political opponents and instead reached back to his divisive campaign rhetoric. Trump lost the popular vote by nearly 2.9 million votes, the largest margin ever for the winner in the Electoral College.
The real estate tycoon and former reality television host blamed Washington’s political leaders for neglecting ordinary Americans and said his movement “will determine the course of America and the world for many, many years to come.”
Trump’s 16-minute address, a mashup of his campaign stump talks and the ominous doomsday speech he gave at the Republican National Convention, lacked the customary eloquence and unifying tone of previous inaugural remarks by his predecessors. Instead, he again painted a dark picture of the country, where empty factories are “scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation” and inner cities are engulfed in violence and poverty.
“This American carnage stops right here and stops right now,” said Trump, wearing a red tie and a dark overcoat.
Trump signaled no retreat from his populist agenda on trade, immigration, and on scaling back commitments overseas. Apart from a passing mention of retaining old alliances, he painted a picture of a hostile world that would no longer be permitted to take advantage of America. Unlike other presidents in the modern era, he offered no pledge to preserve America’s global leadership in promoting peace, protecting human rights, or encouraging democracy and open markets.
“From this day forward, a new vision will govern our land. From this day forward, it’s going to be only America first,” Trump said.
“Every decision on trade, on taxes, on immigration, on foreign affairs will be made to benefit American workers and American families. We must protect our borders from the ravages of other countries making our products, stealing our companies, and destroying our jobs,” he continued.
The Trump White House announced right after his speech that the United States will withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a planned Asian trade pact that was the centerpiece of former President Barack Obama’s pivot to Asia but which was doomed in Congress.
The crowd was markedly smaller than the throngs that came out for Obama’s inaugural ceremonies in 2009 and 2013. A sea of “Make America Great Again” hats and “45” winter caps extending to the Washington Monument gave the subdued crowd gathered on the National Mall a reddish hue.
The U.S. Marine Band played patriotic music in a familiar ceremony carried out with precision. But the pomp could not hide the deep political divisions inside the Capitol building and across the country, aggravated by disturbing questions hanging over Russia’s interference in the election itself.
Trump took the oath after U.S. spy agencies found that Russia had meddled in the election to try to tip the scales in his favor and as reports emerged that law enforcement and intelligence agencies were investigating Trump’s aides and associates for alleged links to Moscow.
That alleged connection has some Americans worried. A protester from Chicago named Christopher stood near the Washington Monument, where he held a sign reading “Nyet My President.” He wasn’t planning to come to Washington, he said, until one man changed his mind: Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“I came to make my voice heard. He wouldn’t be here without Putin. I don’t want to see my country run by the next Putin,” Christopher said.
The contrast in Washington between those jubilant at Trump’s inauguration and those defiant was stark. The Mall, packed to the gills four years ago, was nearly empty, and many city streets were ghostly, save for sporadic clashes between police and rioters who smashed storefronts and bus stops. After Trump’s speech, police and rioters continued to battle it out, with cops launching percussion grenades just blocks from the White House.
The Women’s March on Washington, slated for Saturday and which has evolved into a vehicle for discontent at the new president, is expected to draw numbers that could dwarf the inauguration crowd.
In some parts of the city on Friday, thousands of protesters peacefully marched, carrying signs calling for “resistance.” Red-hatted Trump supporters and chanting protesters squared off, peacefully for the most part, in scattered corners of town.
Randy “Dog” Dugey and his wife, Karen “Flea” Dugey, rode their motorcycles down from Pennsylvania, two of dozens of “Bikers for Trump” celebrating the new president. The two had never been to an inauguration before but said that, given the shambles they felt America had become, it was time to attend.
“I’ve worked my whole life to have the government take half my paycheck,” Dog said. Trump, he hoped, wouldn’t give the American people a “handout but a hand up.”
Flea, who said she was a Democrat and briefly supported Hillary Clinton, registered this spring to vote for the first time — for Trump. Dog said he didn’t support Trump in the primaries but decided he was the “right person for the job.”
While Trump extolled the movement he created, others who feel threatened said they were galvanized with new energy. “Donald Trump doesn’t worry me as much as the people who follow him. The really extremist ones, who might take strong actions,” said Juan Bruno Avilo Jimenez, who came to the United States from Mexico in 2003 and advocates for immigrant rights.
“He made people wake up. Now we are going to reorganize ourselves, with many organizations fighting for rights,” he said.
In a speech that hardly touched on foreign policy and America’s global role in the world, Trump did not refer to the U.S. military mission in Afghanistan, where nearly 10,000 troops are deployed, or to the U.S.-led air war against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, where thousands of U.S. military advisors are on the ground. But he repeated his vow to take on Islamist extremists, promising to “unite the civilized world against radical Islamic terrorism, which we will eradicate from the face of the Earth.”
In the days leading up to the inauguration, there were signs that anxious allies were coming to terms with a new American president they had dreaded.
In November, France’s U.S. ambassador, Gérard Araud, had reacted to Trump’s victory with an ominous tweet, stating that the world as we know it is “crumbling before our eyes.”
On Thursday, Araud hosted an inauguration party with hundreds of guests, including Trump loyalist Richard Grenell, pictured beaming alongside the senior French diplomat.
Israel offered Trump a warm welcome. “A true friend of Israel will enter the White House today,” said Israel’s U.N. envoy, Danny Danon.
Britain and others offered perfunctory congratulations. “Look forward to continuing strong UK – US bond,” British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson wrote in a tweet to Trump.
The head of NATO reminded Trump of the alliance’s importance. NATO’s “strength is as good for the United States as it is for Europe,” Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said in a statement released shortly after Trump’s inauguration on Friday.
Newspaper headlines around the globe reflected the anxiety about where President Trump will lead the United States, from a possible shake-up of NATO to a reversal on climate commitments and a potential trade war with China.
“Take a deep breath, this is really happening,” the Buenos Aires Herald proclaimed. “‘We have no idea what this guy’s gonna do,'” fretted a headline in Britain’s Guardian newspaper.
In Moscow, Putin couldn’t find time to watch the ceremony, his spokesman said, but will read about it in the news.
Alexey Pushkov, the head of the foreign-policy committee in the lower house of the Russian parliament, called Trump’s swearing-in a momentous occasion. “After Mr.Trump inauguration his meeting with President Putin will be the most important event in world politics,” he tweeted. “A defining moment in history.”
Former Presidents Jimmy Carter, George W. Bush, and Bill Clinton attended the ceremony, in keeping with tradition. Hillary Clinton, whom Trump defeated in his upset November election victory, also was on hand, wearing an elegant white pantsuit and smiling, despite the angry tone of the campaign, in which Trump had called for her to be locked up in prison.
Trump arrives in office after a disorganized and chaotic transition effort, with many key senior positions still vacant and amid infighting over who should be appointed to hundreds of jobs across the government.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said Friday that his Democratic caucus would not stand in the way of confirming the first two of Trump’s cabinet picks later Friday: retired Marine Gen. James Mattis as defense secretary and retired Marine Gen. John Kelly as homeland security secretary.
The failure to fill other key jobs — including senior deputy posts — at the White House, State, Defense, and Homeland Security departments has raised fears in Congress that the Trump administration could be blindsided by adversaries or unexpected crises. As a result, Trump spokesman Sean Spicer said Thursday that about 50 officials from the former Obama administration would be asked to stay on temporarily due to the crucial nature of their jobs.
Trump’s populist appeals to put “America first” echoed the same slogan that appeared at the outbreak of World War II, with isolationists arguing against America entering the conflict in Europe. That movement was tinged with anti-Semitic overtones, including from its chief spokesman, the famed aviator Charles Lindbergh.
With Trump’s antipathy to free trade, his skepticism of traditional alliances, and his affinity for Putin, many around the world began looking to German Chancellor Angela Merkel to defend the post-World War II liberal order — a role typically played by an American president.
Merkel was the last foreign leader that Obama spoke to in his final hours in office. In a phone call Thursday, Obama and Merkel agreed that “close cooperation between Washington and Berlin and between the United States and Europe are essential to ensuring a sturdy trans-Atlantic bond, a rules-based international order, and the defense of values that have done so much to advance human progress in our countries and around the world,” the White House said in a statement.
Obama noted that “it was fitting that his final call with a foreign leader was with Chancellor Merkel, and he wished her the very best going forward.”
Molly O’Toole, Robbie Gramer, Emily Tamkin, Ruby Mellen, Kavitha Surana, and Colum Lynch contributed to this article.