“Visionary” and “uplifting” and “bipartisan.” Those are just a few of the adjectives President Donald Trump’s aides are using to describe the State of the Union address he will deliver Tuesday evening.
None are words typically associated with the 45th chief executive, who once stood outside the Capitol and spoke about “American carnage” during his inaugural address. Yet a senior administration official told reporters to expect a “traditional” address from a president who is anything but.
Trump is expected to stand in the House chamber and boast about the state of the U.S. economy. That part of the address will also include the president making a claim sure to put GOP members on their feet applauding and cause Democrats to sink into their seats. That’s because Trump will describe his time in office as, in the words of White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders on Tuesday, “two of the most successful years under a first-term president.”
He also will make another pitch for his proposed southern border wall. His remarks will come 10 days before he must strike a deal with congressional Democrats to avert another partial government shutdown. Expect a chilly response in the chamber from Democrats as he talks about what he again says would be a “wall.”
State of the Union: A brief history
But there will be plenty more to keep an eye — and ear — on as Trump addresses a joint session of Congress.
The White House deployed several aides to the Tuesday morning cable news circuit to hype the big speech — though, following a decades-old, bipartisan tradition, they did not reveal much new about what their boss will say come 9 p.m. But they had plenty to say about Trump’s new top political foe, Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California and her fellow Democrats.
“Anybody who’s sitting there with their arms folded … looking like they sucked on … lemons, that’s not on him because he’s calling for unity, he’s calling for working together,” White House counselor Kellyanne Conway told Fox News of Democratic lawmakers. “They’re going to need to decide if they’re serious about that, as well.”
Conway — and the rest of the politically interested world — will be watching the speaker throughout what aides say will be a slightly shorter address than the previous two Trump has delivered in the House chamber. Conway wondered aloud Tuesday morning if Pelosi will be able to “resist the usual raised eyebrows and rolling eyes,” adding: “I’m very curious to see how she’s going to react, sort of when she’ll applaud, when she’ll stand up, when she will … resist looking like somebody who’s wearing her heart on her sleeve.”
It’s safe to bet that Democrats seated opposite her place behind Trump will be looking to her for cues for their reactions, as well.
Bipartisanship or bravado?
White House aides say the president will call for bipartisanship on major legislation, but analysts expect Democrats to continue resisting his agenda. A true call for greater cooperation would include some indication from Trump on how he might bend on specific issues so GOP-Democratic deals would even be possible.
That means a “unity” speech would not be a simple declaration that the opposition party needs to come around to the president’s way of thinking about everything from the economy to immigration to national security and foreign policy. But Trump has never shown an interest in doing that.
“Look, I don’t think that the president’s message is going to be different than the one he’s been talking about since he started campaigning,” Sanders told CNN Tuesday morning. “He’s going to lay out the case.”
Trump didn’t seem to be in a new bipartisan mood late Tuesday morning when he tweeted that Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer was “already criticizing my State of the Union speech, even though he hasn’t seen it yet.” The counterpuncher in chief charged Schumer with being “upset that he didn’t win the Senate, after spending a fortune, like he thought he would.”
I see Schumer is already criticizing my State of the Union speech, even though he hasn’t seen it yet. He’s just upset that he didn’t win the Senate, after spending a fortune, like he thought he would. Too bad we weren’t given more credit for the Senate win by the media!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 5, 2019
Without a doubt, the night’s most explosive political moments will come when Trump turns to his border wall pitch and views on immigration policy. Expect Republican members to shower him with applause and a few standing ovations as he speaks of what he calls a humanitarian and security “crisis,” and when he drops some version of his “walls work” line.
Don’t expect the president to alter his border wall rhetoric for the prime-time address. Here was Sanders about 12 hours before he will enter the House chamber: “I don't think the wall is up for debate.”
“Democrats ... voted and supported building a wall and putting a barrier on our border. They’ve been doing it for decades,” she said. “Only since Donald Trump became president, they decide to oppose it.”
Democrats, however, view the wall within a broader context that includes the president’s hardline rhetoric about illegal immigration since he was a presidential candidate. To them, his words about illegal immigrants make building a border barrier to keep them out “immoral” and antithetical to their view of America’s traditional values. In short, the government might have reopened, but little has changed.
And that lack of change could lead Trump to declare a national emergency — or clearly state he will do so if a House-Senate border security spending panel cannot strike a deal he will support that includes wall funding by next Friday. Should the president do that Tuesday night, it would likely be met with an uncomfortable reaction from Republicans inside the chamber.
A steadily increasing number of Republican lawmakers are urging the president against a national emergency declaration, worried about its legality and setting a precedent of future — including Democratic — presidents doing so when they are unable to convince Congress to approve a top agenda item.
But there are other topics that might keep Republicans in their seats. That list includes Syria and Afghanistan, two hotspots from which the commander in chief is expected to make his case to end American’s post-9/11 “endless wars,” as a senior administration official called them. Trump wants to bring U.S. troops back from those countries, but many GOP lawmakers warn threats in both places are too great to do so.
Trump aides and critics alike call him a “gut player.” And his raucous political rallies show how he reacts to the crowd that he’s addressing. He also relishes working without a script, ad-libbing his way through rallies and impromptu question-and-answer sessions with reporters at the White House.
When the president goes off script, Democrats — and some Republicans — admit they cringe.
But Trump in recent days has talked about the tradition and stature the State of the Union carries, and he mostly stuck to his prepared remarks during his first official SOTU last year and a speech to a joint session of Congress in 2017.
Conway expects the same Tuesday night, with her boss sometimes going off script “for emphasis.”
“He has his own personal flourish,” she said. “But remember that address itself has a heavy hand from the president in it. He Sharpied it all up at different times. These passages are his own. … He had so much input into it that there’s really no reason to ad-lib.”