WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Donald Trump told Congress on Tuesday he was open to immigration reform, shifting from his harsh rhetoric on illegal immigration in a speech that offered a more restrained tone than his election campaign and first month in the White House.
Trump, in a prime-time address to a country that remains divided over his leadership, set aside disputes with Democrats and the news media to deliver his most presidential performance to date, seeking to regain the confidence of Americans rattled by his leadership thus far.
The president’s speech was long on promises but short on specifics on how to achieve a challenging legislative agenda that could add dramatically to budget deficits. He wants a healthcare overhaul, broad tax cuts and a $1 trillion public-private initiative to rebuild degraded roads and bridges.
Trump built a base of support behind his presidential campaign by vowing to fight illegal immigration. In his speech, he took a more moderate tone, appealing to Republicans and Democrats to work together on immigration reform.
He said it was possible if both Republicans and Democrats in Congress were willing to compromise, although he also said U.S. immigration should be based on a merit-based system, rather than relying on lower-skilled immigrants.
Comprehensive immigration reform eluded his two predecessors, Democrat Barack Obama and Republican George W. Bush, because of deep divisions within Congress and among Americans over the issue. Trump said reform would raise wages and help more struggling families enter the middle class.
“I believe that real and positive immigration reform is possible, as long as we focus on the following goals: to improve jobs and wages for Americans, to strengthen our nation’s security, and to restore respect for our laws,” said the Republican president.
Trump’s first month in office was dominated by a fight over his temporary travel ban on people from seven Muslim-majority nations, repeated attacks on the news media and harsh personal criticism of judges who blocked his immigration order.
In his speech on Tuesday, he appeared to look for a reset, trying to move past a chaotic period that sowed doubts about his ability to govern effectively.
“The time for trivial fights is behind us,” he said.
Financial markets showed a muted reaction as Trump gave few specifics or new details.
Early signs showed Trump’s speech drew a positive response. A CNN/ORC poll found 57 percent of viewers thought Trump’s speech was very positive and 69 percent said they felt more optimistic about the future of the country.
“He’s lost his foot and mouth disease,” said Tom Beckwith, 71, of Seminole, Florida. “This was a tremendous speech. He’s cured.”
Still, there was plenty of evidence of ongoing partisan divisions. In the chamber of the House of Representatives where Trump spoke, Democrats sometimes sat in silence and turned their thumbs down at his remarks. Many women lawmakers wore white in a subtle show of protest.
Democratic Senator Christopher Coons of Delaware called Trump’s speech one of “the most coherent public addresses he’s given in a month.”
But Coons said he viewed Trump’s forthcoming budget proposals as “gravely concerning,” citing the president’s plan for paying for a defense buildup by cutting foreign aid and other programs.
Much of Trump’s speech focused on solving problems at home in line with his “America first” rhetoric. Apart from criticizing Obama for increasing the national debt, Trump did not mention the federal budget deficit, which will severely limit any new spending programs.
On immigration, Trump again pledged to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border, but he made no mention this time of Mexico paying for it. He also said he would “shortly take new steps to keep our nation safe,” referring to a new executive order he is to sign to replace one embroiled in the courts.
Trump focused part of the speech on foreign policy, stressing his support for NATO but insisting allies pay more for their defense.
In a possible nod to his bid to warm relations with Russia, which he did not mention by name, Trump said: “America is willing to find new friends, and to forge new partnerships, where shared interests align.”
Trump has been criticized for his praise of Russian President Vladimir Putin. A U.S. congressional committee is investigating contacts between Trump’s election campaign and Russia to see if there were any inappropriate communications.
“We want harmony and stability, not war and conflict,” said Trump, who said, however, he would embark on a big defense buildup.
Trump said he wanted to provide “massive tax relief” to the middle class and cut corporate tax rates. But he did not offer specifics and failed to comment on the most pressing tax issue facing Congress, a proposed border adjustment tax to boost exports over imports.
Lawmakers have been looking to Trump for more leadership on an issue that has divided corporate America and Republicans in Congress.
Trump called on the Republican-led Congress to repeal and replace Obamacare with reforms that expand choice, increase access and lower costs.
Republicans remain divided on how to accomplish that goal and Democrats vehemently oppose tampering with a system that provides health insurance for millions of low-income Americans.
While Trump’s comments lacked detail, it was the first time he publicly supported tax credits to help Americans purchase their own coverage, a nod to health insurers who say they are necessary to keep people in the market.
Former Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear said in the Democratic response to Trump’s speech that “you and your Republican allies in Congress seem determined to rip affordable health insurance away from millions of Americans who most need it.”
In the most emotional moment of the night, Trump singled out Carryn Owens, the widow of U.S Navy SEAL William “Ryan” Owens, who was killed in a raid on al Qaeda in Yemen.
Owens, tears streaming down her face, clasped her hands and looked upward from her spot in the balcony as lawmakers and the president applauded her in the longest ovation of Trump’s hour-long speech.
Trump said the mission that her husband participated in obtained vital intelligence that could be used against Islamist militants, taking issue with news reports quoting U.S. officials who said little was gained from the raid.
Additional reporting by Richard Cowan, Ayesha Rascoe, Jeff Mason, Emily Stephenson, Doina Chiacu in Washington, Megan Davies in New York and Letitia Stein in Clearwater, Fla.; Editing by Peter Cooney