Donald Trump and his top advisers have begun mapping out the themes for his inaugural address next month, as the president-elect has tapped Stephen Miller, his incoming senior White House adviser for policy, to write the historic speech.
Early discussions of the address have focused on laying out some of the structural problems facing the country, and then framing Trump’s first-term agenda in more nationalistic than ideological terms. Among the half-dozen areas that Trump is considering issuing a collective call to arms to address are the nation’s education system, infrastructure, border security, the state of the military and the economy, in particular, the outsourcing of jobs.
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The choice of Miller, the 31-year-old who wrote most of Trump’s major prepared speeches in 2016, including his Republican national convention address that was criticized as overly dark, is of no surprise to Trump insiders. Miller played an unusually multi-faceted role on the campaign: a behind-the-scenes policy adviser, Trump’s chief speechwriter and a speech-giver himself, becoming a skinny-tie-wearing fixture over the summer at Trump rallies as a warm-up act.
“Steve’s a machine,” Jason Miller, a Trump aide, said of Miller’s prolific writing abilities (the two men aren’t related). “I’ve literally seen him knock out three speeches in a day.”
Miller, who spent part of last week with Trump in Mar-a-Lago, has consulted people both on and off the campaign as he puts together an initial draft of the speech, including Trump’s incoming White House chief strategist Steve Bannon.
Miller now faces a tall task, as he races to not only plot out a historic speech, but develop Trump’s policy agenda for his first 100 days in the White House and hire staff to implement it. In addition to that, transition officials said Miller has been busy in recent weeks with Trump’s “thank you” tour, drafting remarks as the president-elect hopscotched to various states he carried in November before turning his attention to the inaugural.
Trump is interested in adding his own touches onto the traditional inauguration day. Two people familiar with the discussions said that one idea that had been bandied about is having Trump bypass, at least temporarily, the traditional congressional luncheon following the swearing-in, and instead have the new president wade into the crowd or join the parade.
Although it is not clear how seriously the idea is being considered, its populist symbolism would be dramatic: Trump turning his back on political insiders on Capitol Hill in favor of the people who elected him.
“This is the people’s president,” Trump’s campaign manager and incoming White House counselor Kellyanne Conway said last Thursday on Fox News.
The extent to which Trump plans to put his own imprint on America’s grandest and, perhaps, proudest tradition — the peaceful transfer of power — is the object of fascination less than a month until he will be sworn in as the 45th president.
Christopher Ruddy, the CEO of Newsmax Media and a friend of Trump’s, said that Trump will be “the most impromptu president anyone ever can remember. I think that this speech would be an opportunity to share not just his ideas but his style and his approach.”
“I have heard that they want this inaugural to be different and reflect the fact that he would be the first citizen president,” said Ruddy, who had dinner with Trump this past week in Florida.
In some ways, Trump so far seems to be adhering more to tradition than might be expected after his norm-busting candidacy. An inaugural official said Trump intends to stay at the Blair House, the same place where previous incoming presidents have in recent decades, the night before his swearing-in instead of his hotel down the block from the White House. Trump also plans to begin inauguration day with a church service at St. John’s Episcopal, near the White House, as other incoming presidents have, the official said. Plus, the Radio City Rockettes, who performed at Bush’s inauguration, are confirmed to appear at Trump’s.
The inaugural committee has announced Trump will attend only two official inaugural balls, plus one for first-responders and the military, a reduction from how many Obama attended eight years ago.
But it is the speech itself that is most anticipated — and will likely be most remembered.
Trump’s convention address, which Miller also took the lead in writing, was reviewed poorly by some for its ominous tone — the talk of rising crime and spreading terror, and Trump’s declaration that, “I alone can fix it.” But when Democratic pollster Peter Hart tested the core message of Trump’s speech, he found it performed far better among independent voters than the key passages of Hillary Clinton’s better-reviewed convention address.
Trump and his team are thinking about rehashing some of those diagnoses in the inaugural address, highlighting struggling schools, dangerous bridges, and outdated planes and ships for the military. The concept under discussion is then to pivot to a non-ideological solidarity to fix those issues together.
Such language would represent a shift for Trump. While he talked about problems in the country often in the trail, he typically cast solutions in more partisan and personal terms.
Miller is known as the Trump speechwriter whose own voice is closest to Trump’s. Many of the passages of Trump’s Miller-drafted speeches sound the way Miller himself speaks.
Last February, on a Breitbart radio interview with Steve Bannon, Miller, who spent years working for Sen. Jeff Sessions, Trump’s choice for attorney general, said of the current system of free trade: “The jobs left, the wages left, the incomes left — and they never came back. And Only Donald J. Trump is going to bring them back.”
Miller had joined the campaign only weeks earlier. In the following months, he and Trump bonded on flights around the country, as they would workshop policy pronouncements and speeches, as Miller would rewrite passages mid-air.
Peter Wehner, a Bush speechwriter and Trump critic, said that an inaugural address is “fundamentally different” from combative campaign rhetoric.
“A campaign message is taking place in the context of a conflict and you have an opponent and you’re trying to defeat that person,” Wehner said. “An inaugural speech is the exact opposite of that. That’s the one moment where you really need to go in the opposite direction and try to bring the country together.”
Wehner said it is also a chance, before a worldwide audience, to “distill the essence of what you want your presidency to be.”
Trump officials have been tight-lipped about any inauguration messaging although they’ve promised that “unity” will be a major theme, even as Trump continues to re-litigate his electoral victory on Twitter.
Ken Kachigian, the speechwriter who wrote Ronald Reagan’s first inaugural, said he got the assignment in November, had his first meeting with Reagan in mid-December and wrote a rough draft over the holidays.
“It would be a pretty good idea for him to have a draft on Trump’s desk right after the New Year,” Khachigan advised Miller. “It’s exciting. It’s stressful. It’s a high bar. The most important thing is you don’t want to let the president down.”
One sub-drama is whether Trump will use a teleprompter. He bashed the devices on the trail for months during the primaries — suggesting they be outlawed at one point — only to begin using them at almost all his rallies late in the general election.
Reagan was the last president not to have used a teleprompter for an inaugural address.
Josh Dawsey contributed to this report.