Trump's State of Union Promises Drama, Fresh Political Fireworks

(Bloomberg) -- Donald Trump’s second State of the Union promises to be one of the most dramatic moments in recent memory for the annual address to Congress.

The president will speak Tuesday evening to a House chamber full of Democrats jostling to challenge his re-election, with many female lawmakers planning to dress in suffragist white and his chief antagonist House Speaker Nancy Pelosi seated at the dais behind him. The appearance will be shadowed by the threat of another government shutdown.

He has hinted that he may make news -- a national emergency declaration on the U.S. southern border, a proposal on drug prices or on AIDS, or dates and locations for summits with the leaders of China and North Korea.

Trump's State of Union Promises Drama, Fresh Political Fireworks

Hanging over it all will be Robert Mueller’s investigation, which has so far resulted in indictments or guilty pleas from six Trump associates and has inched closer to the president with the recent indictment of longtime ally Roger Stone.

Aides previewing the speech portrayed it as optimistic and unifying -- the theme is to be “choosing greatness.” But the president’s entreaties to Democrats to date have been tactical and divisive rather than bridge-building. Trump’s case for a border wall is likely to figure prominently and he may turn to anti-abortion rhetoric to further rally his supporters.

“It’s a little bit of a late-in-life conversion, where now that the Democrats are in charge of the lower chamber it’s time to strike a chord of unity,” said Mark Hamrick, senior economic analyst at consumer financial services company “They’re going to say some things about the rhetoric of unity, but you can’t at once be dealing with these divisive issues and then talking about unity. It doesn’t pass the smell test.”

Melania Trump’s guests at the speech will include the family of a Nevada couple who were allegedly murdered by an undocumented immigrant last month and a Department of Homeland Security agent who works on human trafficking cases, according to the White House.

Pelosi’s guests will include two transgender U.S. Army officers; the father of a 14-year-old girl killed in the February 2018 school shooting in Parkland, Florida; Planned Parenthood President Leana Wen, and union leaders such as AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka.

The very timing of the speech underscores the rancor in the room. Trump is delivering the address a week late, after Pelosi rescinded an earlier invitation in the midst of the 35-day government shutdown. Legislation that re-opened the government will expire 10 days after Trump’s speech, raising the prospect of a second shutdown if the president can’t reach an accommodation with Democrats on border security.

Trump has also threatened to declare a national emergency, which he believes would allow him to bypass Congress and continue construction of a border wall. He could provide more signals of his intentions during his speech. The move is opposed even by some lawmakers in Trump’s party and would enrage Democrats, who have promised to fight the president in court if it happens.

Two-thirds of Americans don’t want Trump to declare a national emergency and 57 percent oppose another shutdown over the wall, according to a CNN poll of 1,011 adults conducted last week and released Monday. But the same poll shows Trump’s supporters overwhelmingly favor both options. And his approval rating held at 40 percent, suggesting his failure to secure wall funding in the first shutdown hasn’t done long-term damage to his standing with his political base.

A key ally, Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, warned Republicans in a speech Monday to back Trump in the wall fight.

“To every Republican, if you don’t stand behind this president, we’re not going to stand behind you, when it comes to the wall,” he said in Greenville, South Carolina. “This is the defining moment of his presidency. It’s not just about a wall, it’s about him being treated different than every other president.”

Aides said Trump will offer a vision for bipartisan solutions on matters including immigration, drug prices, HIV prevention, national security and infrastructure. He’ll seek to rally Americans around shared economic prosperity, renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement, the U.S. effort to depose Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro and forcing China to make concessions on trade. He’ll urge Democrats to focus on working with him on legislation instead of pursuing investigations of his business and administration.

“The president will say the state of our union is strong but the American people know the state of the Trump administration is in chaos,” Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer said on the floor of the chamber Tuesday morning.

Trump shot back on Twitter: “I see Schumer is already criticizing my State of the Union speech, even though he hasn’t seen it yet.”

Pelosi, in a message to fellow House Democrats on Monday night, said: “I am hopeful that tomorrow, we will hear a commitment from the president on issues that have bipartisan support in the Congress and the country, such as lowering the price of prescription drugs and rebuilding America’s infrastructure.”

Trump's State of Union Promises Drama, Fresh Political Fireworks

Some Republicans have criticized Trump’s efforts to draw down military forces in Syria and Afghanistan. And his public disputes with his own intelligence chiefs over his assessments of global threats may undercut Americans’ confidence as he prepares for a second summit with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un at the end of this month.

Both political parties seek to use the nationally televised moment to deliver their message to the public. For the Democrats in the audience, who don’t have a speaking role, that will come down to atmospherics.

As protocol dictates, the president will be flanked on one side by Pelosi, a California Democrat often disparaged by Republicans. Since her party won back the House in the November elections, she has been a steely nemesis to Trump. Pelosi has maintained unity among disparate congressional Democrats. Many of the newly elected lawmakers are determined to impeach Trump and hold firm against border wall spending, a symbolic red line for many in the party.

Pelosi will be seated behind Trump throughout the speech, in the television frame with a camera ready to capture her reaction to every Trump utterance. Democrats are calling on female lawmakers to wear suffragist white, providing another visual cue to highlight the historic number of women elected to Congress in November and the gender imbalance between the two parties.

The Democratic response to Trump will be delivered by Stacey Abrams, who excited interest from activists across the country in the fall when she was nearly elected the U.S.’s first African-American female state governor by voters in once-segregated Georgia.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.