After two years of bitter partisanship and personal attacks, President Donald Trump will call for unity and cross-party cooperation in Washington during Tuesday’s State of the Union address, a message likely to ring hollow with Democrats determined to block his push for a border wall.
Trump’s prime-time address comes at a critical moment in his presidency. He pushed his party into a lengthy government shutdown over border security, only to cave to Democrats. With another shutdown deadline looming, the president has few options for getting Congress to fund a border wall, and he risks further alienating his party if he tries to circumvent lawmakers by declaring a national emergency instead.
US President Donald Trump, flanked by speaker of the US House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi and US Vice President Mike Pence, takes the podium to deliver the State of the Union address at the US Capitol in Washington, DC, on February 5, 2019. (Photo by SAUL LOEB / AFP)
Trump was not expected to issue the emergency declaration in his speech, in part because he’s aware of GOP opposition and wants to avoid being booed in the House chamber. Still, the president planned to hammer his case that the situation at the southern border represents a security crisis for Americans.
“No issue better illustrates the divide between America’s working class and America’s political class than illegal immigration,” Trump will say, according to excerpts released ahead of his address. “Wealthy politicians and donors push for open borders while living their lives behind walls and gates and guards.”
As he stands before lawmakers, the president will be surrounded by symbols of his emboldened political opposition. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who was praised by Democrats for her hard-line negotiating during the shutdown, will sit behind the president as he speaks. Some Democratic women will be wearing white, the color favored by early 20th-century suffragettes. And several senators running for president will be in the audience, including Sens. Kamala Harris of California and Cory Booker of New Jersey.
Another Democratic star, Stacey Abrams, will deliver the party’s response to Trump. Abrams narrowly lost her bid in November to become America’s first black female governor, and party leaders are aggressively recruiting her to run for US Senate from Georgia.
In excerpts released ahead of Abrams’ remarks, she calls the shutdown a political stunt that “defied every tenet of fairness and abandoned not just our people, but our values.”
For a time, it was unclear if Trump’s annual address to Congress would happen. He’d been scheduled to speak to lawmakers last week, but Pelosi forced him to postpone while the shutdown persisted.
White House officials said Trump planned to highlight areas where he believes he can work with Democrats, including infrastructure and prescription drug pricing.
For Trump, the focus on reaching across the aisle is a tacit admission from the White House that Trump may need a course correction if he is to win re-election. His approval rating stands at just 34 percent after the shutdown, according to a recent survey conducted by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.
But even as his advisers touted bipartisanship, reality kept breaking through in the hours before Trump’s speech.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York accused Trump of “blatant hypocrisy,” saying the president may want to talk about unity on Tuesday but “spends the other 364 days of the year dividing us.”
Minutes later, Trump tweeted that Schumer was “just upset that he didn’t win the Senate, after spending a fortune.”
Against that backdrop, a bipartisan group of lawmakers is inching toward a potential agreement that would give Trump just a fraction of what he’s demanding. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who stood by Trump during the shutdown, said Tuesday that his top priority is forging a bipartisan House-Senate agreement, not placating Trump.
“I think the conferees ought to reach an agreement and then we’ll hope that the president finds it worth signing,” said McConnell, R-Ky.
While Trump was still putting the final touches on the speech Tuesday afternoon, he was expected to use some of his televised address to showcase a growing economy. Despite the shutdown, the US economy added a robust 304,000 jobs in January, marking 100 straight months of job growth. That’s the longest such period on record.
Trump and his top aides have also hinted that he is likely to use the address to announce a major milestone in the fight against the Islamic State group in Syria. Despite the objections of some advisers, Trump announced in December that he was withdrawing US forces in Syria.
In a weekend interview with CBS, Trump said efforts to defeat the IS group were “at 99 percent right now. We’ll be at 100.”
Foreign policy has been another area where Republicans have increasingly been willing to distance themselves from the president. Several leading GOP lawmakers have sharply criticized his plans to withdraw from Syria, as well as from Afghanistan.
Trump, in excerpts of his address, defended his moves, declaring: “Great nations do not fight endless wars.”
Trump is expected to detail other looming threats from abroad, including Iran and the tumult in Venezuela, where the US has called on embattled President Nicolas Maduro to step down. Trump may also preview plans to hold a second summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
Administration officials say the White House has also been weighing several “moonshot” goals. An announcement is expected on a new initiative aimed at ending transmissions of HIV by 2030. “He will be asking for bipartisan support to make that happen,” said White House counselor Kellyanne Conway.
Trump’s guests for the speech include Anna Marie Johnson, a woman whose life sentence for drug offenses was commuted by the president, and Joshua Trump, a sixth-grade student from Wilmington, Delaware, who has been bullied over his last name. They will sit with first lady Melania Trump during the address.