A president rarely has stepped forward to address a Joint Session of Congress at a more promising time. Or a more perilous one.
Donald Trump on Tuesday can fairly boast that the State of the Union in many ways is strong, with steady economic growth, historically low unemployment and a stock market that keeps breaking records. But it is also a time of grave danger for his presidency, as his lawyers negotiate the ground rules for his interview with a special counsel investigating allegations of election fraud and obstruction of justice.
Not since Bill Clinton delivered his State of the Union address in 1999, as his impeachment trial was underway in the Senate, has a president spoken amid such personal and political tumult. Then, in his speech, President Clinton decided to ignore entirely the scandal that threatened to end his presidency. (The Senate acquitted him a month later.)
Will Trump follow Clinton’s example? Or will he repeat his denunciations of the Russia investigation as a “hoax” and a “witch hunt?”
That’s one of a half-dozen things we’ll be watching for when President Trump marks the end of a year in office with his first formal State of the Union address. For starters….
1. Which Trump shows up?
Trump’s dark, defiant Inaugural address last January left even the former presidents on the dais looking stunned. “This American carnage stops right here and stops right now,” he declared. Trump did nothing to acknowledge Hillary Clinton, the election rival seated behind him who had won the popular vote. He did little to reach out to voters who hadn’t supported him.
A different Trump showed up when he addressed a Joint Session of Congress a month later. He was sunnier and more conciliatory — more “presidential,” some pundits opined. He opened his speech by acknowledging Black History Month. He condemned recent attacks on Jewish community centers and cemeteries. “I am here tonight to deliver a message of unity and strength,” he said, “and it is a message delivered from my heart.”
Will the conciliatory Trump or the defiant one arrive at the Capitol on Tuesday? Teleprompter Trump or reality-TV Trump?
Aaron Kall, editor and co-author of The State of the Union Is ...: Memorable Addresses of the Last Fifty Years, says Trump would be wise to adopt the traditional model of outreach. “President Trump certainly has the ability to deliver another speech like that and pivot toward the center ahead of the midterm elections,” Kall says. “But the question remains whether he has the discipline and patience to successfully execute this political strategy.”
2. What's the agenda?
The State of the Union is an opportunity for presidents to outline their legislative goals for the year. Trump isn’t likely to read a laundry list of nuts-and-bolts measures, as some presidents have done; that’s not his style. White House officials say he will spotlight a few priorities, including an infrastructure initiative and an immigration overhaul. Both were signature pledges of his during the 2016 campaign.
He has previewed some details already. At a White House meeting with mayors last week, the president said the plan to help build roads, bridges, airports and sewers would be even bigger than promised. Pegged at $1 trillion during the campaign, it will “actually probably end up being about $1.7 trillion,” he said, though how the funding would work isn’t yet clear.
The White House also released the outline of an immigration plan. Under his proposal, 1.8 million so-called Dreamers and other illegal immigrants would be allowed to get on a path to citizenship — immigration hardliners denounced that as “amnesty” — while $25 billion would be allocated to tighten border security, including building a wall along the southern border. Democrats don’t like that, or his demand for new limits on legal immigration.
The immigration impasse was one factor that contributed to a three-day government shutdown last week. Current short-term funding runs out next week, when the whole debate could ignite again.
3. How does Congress react?
Congressional Republicans are all but guaranteed to cheer the president. But some congressional Democrats are making their view of him clear by announcing they won’t show up, among them civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis of Georgia. He also skipped Trump’s Inauguration last year.
Others plan to send a message without saying a word. Some Democratic congressional women say they will wear black outfits to the State of the Union, as many Hollywood women did at the Golden Globe Awards, to protest sexual harassment and show solidarity with the #MeToo movement. There’s a personal point: Trump has been accused of sexual misconduct.
(Democratic congresswomen sought to make a silent statement at last year’s speech, too, wearing white, the color of the suffragettes, as a show of solidarity for women’s rights.)
Will there be words of protest, too?
In 2009, Rep. Joe Wilson, a South Carolina Republican, sparked a firestorm when he shouted “You lie!” at President Obama during a September speech to a Joint Session of Congress. Passions are likely to run high this year, too, on the floor and in the gallery. Some congressional Democrats have used their guest ticket to invite Dreamers, those young people brought illegally to this country as children, and victims of sexual assault.
At last year’s speech, “boos” could be heard when Trump announced creation of an office to serve Americans who were victims of crimes by immigrants.
4. Who's that with Melania?
President Reagan started a State of the Union tradition when he invited Lenny Skutnik to sit next to Nancy Reagan at the 1982 State of the Union address. The Congressional Budget Office employee had plunged into an icy Potomac River two weeks earlier to rescue a passenger in a plane that had crashed. Since then at the annual address, presidents have spotlighted American heroes, especially those who reinforce some policy point he is trying to make.
Among those expected to have the prime seats near first lady Melania Trump are individuals whose lives have been touched by the nation’s devastating opioid addiction crisis, which Trump has called a public health emergency. There also are likely to be special guests who are benefiting from the good economy and that $1.5 trillion tax cut Trump signed into law last month.
5. What do Democrats say?
After Trump speaks, Massachusetts Rep. Patrick Kennedy will deliver the official Democratic response. Elizabeth Guzman will give the Democrats’ Spanish-language response; in November she became the first Hispanic female immigrant elected to the Virginia House of Delegates.
The choice of Kennedy, the scion of the Kennedy dynasty from a solidly blue state, is a sign that Democrats want a partisan call to arms, not a moderate’s appeal to reach across the aisle, as they look ahead to the midterm elections in November. The three-term congressman is seen as a rising star but not as a presidential prospect for 2020.
It’s not surprising that one of those prospects — Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker and California Sen. Kamala Harris, to name just a few — wasn’t chosen for the featured role. Democratic leaders may have seen it as just too treacherous to choose among them.
Of course, they just might be willing to respond afterwards anyway.
6. Is that an elephant?
The elephant in the room, or the chamber, would be the Russian investigation.
The inquiry by special counsel Robert Mueller into Russian meddling in the presidential election and possible collusion by Trump's team has been a persistent cloud over the president. That cloud has gotten darker after a series of developments, including a plea deal with former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn and the indictment of former campaign manager Paul Manafort.
Trump has denied participating in any collusion and derided the idea that he has obstructed justice. “You fight back, oh, it’s obstruction,” he said mockingly to reporters last week. He has promised to cooperate with the inquiry, and he has insisted he is ready to be questioned under oath. But he has also questioned the basic conclusion of U.S. intelligence agencies that there was meddling by the Russians, and he has blamed Democrats for ginning up what he calls a phony scandal.
In 1974, when President Richard Nixon was ensnared in the Watergate investigation, he used the State of the Union address to call for an end to the investigation. “One year of Watergate is enough,” he declared, then added: “And I want you to know that I have no intention whatever of ever walking away from the job that the people elected me to do for the people of the United States.”
He resigned seven months later.
For Trump, Bill Clinton’s decision to ignore a brewing scandal would be a wiser course, Kall says. “It will be tempting to label the Russia investigation a witch hunt and fake news, but he should resist,” he said of Trump.