The attendees were slow to file into the Bronx GOP headquarters Tuesday night for President Trump’s first address to Congress. The office, tucked in a Republican-leaning neighborhood inside a largely Democratic New York City borough, is lined with faded portraits of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. Campaign signs saying “Win One For the Gipper” and “We Salute Our Troops” are pinned next to newer Trump-Pence placards.
Fred Brown, chairman of the National Black Republican Council, was one of the first to arrive. He said he was looking for Trump to address Obamacare, tax reform, and immigration. And he especially hoped the president would act more presidential. “He needs to stick to the issues tonight,” Brown said.
John Martin was more skeptical. Martin runs communications for the Bronx GOP, but he’s also a Never Trumper. He says he still hasn’t warmed to the President and questions his conservative bona fides, but he still says he’s rooting for him. Before the address, Martin said he hoped the president would talk about a comprehensive immigration plan while addressing deficits and the debt. “I hope he does well,” he said.
The room soon filled up with roughly a dozen local Republicans gathered over two cheese pizzas and a case of White Castle sliders. The TV — first turned to CNN — was soon changed to Fox News minutes before the president began walking toward the dais. “Look at that suit!” one woman exclaimed as he entered.
As he stood behind the podium, Martin joked: “It’s pretty surreal, watching Trump up there. It’s like a bad movie.”
Throughout the night, Trump largely got a receptive and approving audience here. There were claps for the president’s line about building a “great, great wall” at the Mexican border and for his statement on protecting the nation from “radical Islamic terrorism.”
Some of them jeered Democrats for not standing up and applauding when Trump talked about supporting law enforcement and imposing a five-year ban on executive officials becoming lobbyists. The biggest applause line came when Trump said: “My job is not to represent the world. My job is to represent the United States of America.”
Steve DeMartis, a call center supervisor and Bronx native, routinely clapped after many of Trump’s remarks, particularly when he mentioned a “merit-based immigration system.”
“He hit a lot of hot-button issues with me,” DeMartis said, which included Trump’s comments on using only American steel for U.S.-built pipelines. (That line got also got a “Woo-hoo!”)
Elizabeth English, 55, said she was happy the president sounded more compassionate in his approach to immigration.
“I liked that he basically said, ‘If you’re a law-abiding citizen, we’re not out to get you,’” English said, although she was unsure whether she supported a new office in the Department of Homeland Security that deals with victims of crime by immigrants. But English added: “I’m glad he didn’t go off the rails.”
Mike Rendino, 42, chairman of the Bronx GOP, said he thought the president “hit it out of the park.” He said he hoped Trump would try to send a unifying message in his speech and was heartened early on when the president talked about threats to Jewish centers over the last few weeks as well as the fatal shooting of an Indian man in Kansas.
Martin, however, said he was happy that the President didn’t openly disparage anyone but thought it was “ridiculous” that he was talking about immigration being part of an increase in crime rates around the U.S. He also thought the President would have a tough time getting much of his agenda through Congress.
“He’s overpromising,” said Martin, 38. “He has his work cut out for him. It’s good he’s thinking big, but it’s not a conservative platform.”
But largely, the Trump supporters here praised the address Tuesday night, saying that it sounded the kind of presidential notes they were looking for. Before he filed out, Brown made it a point to tell me: “This set the standard. He hit all the right notes. Tell the Democrats to divorce the Democratic Party and get on board.”