Previewing the State of President Trump’s Union
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- “Facts are stubborn things.” — John Adams
The president of the United States has spent his first two years in office waging an unrelenting war on facts, in part because it allows him to position himself as the final arbiter of truth in a world awash in instant information. “Just remember: What you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening,” he told a friendly gathering of military veterans last July.
But when Donald Trump delivers his State of the Union address on Tuesday evening, he’ll be a messenger hamstrung by recent setbacks that began with the midterm elections and have since proved difficult to surmount precisely because his political opponents, some members of his own party, law enforcement, corporations, critics and voters have embraced a reality — and a fact pattern — largely beyond his control.
In that context, Trump’s visit to Capitol Hill will reflect how much he’s willing to accommodate the forces arrayed against him and whether he has the ability to set aside his ego and use this moment to escape a number of self-created policy traps. It’s unlikely to go well. Trump is a 72-year-old man unaccustomed to reflection or adaptation; he’s essentially the same person he was several decades ago.
When Trump lost the government shutdown battle last month, he was outmaneuvered by a woman on his left (House Speaker Nancy Pelosi) and slagged by another one on his right (conservative pundit Ann Coulter, who labeled him a “wimp”). Special Counsel Robert Mueller also continues to pursue his investigation into the Trump team’s intersection with Russia. All of that is a recipe for feeling emasculated and cornered, which typically causes Trump to lash out rather than extend olive branches (hence his threats to blow up immigration and border negotiations with Democrats by declaring a national emergency; hence continued labeling of the Mueller probe as a “witch hunt”).
Still, facts, and events in the real world, weigh against the president’s ability to chart his own course — including delivering a State of the Union address that sets the stage for further combat and defiance. To wit:
The Midterms: Trump ran a scorched-earth campaign and the GOP still lost control of the House, pure and simple. Trump has less legislative latitude than before and is now exposed to more aggressive oversight.
Court Filings: Mueller’s team and federal prosecutors in Manhattan filed a pair of sentencing memos in December outlining crimes committed by former Trump advisers Michael Cohen and Paul Manafort. Along with the more recent indictment of another Trump adviser, Roger Stone, this paperwork has given the public a narrative — grounded in facts — that shows just how seriously Russian interests compromised the Trump campaign and may have imperiled national security. It’s there to be read, no speculation necessary. And the Trump administration remains a hotbed of financial conflicts of interest.
Immigration and the Border: Trump has made immigration reform a core goal of his White House and forced the shutdown in the service of that. But he has substituted sensationalism and bigotry for policy, and tying phantom drug, terrorism and migration epidemics to his arguments hasn’t persuaded enough opponents and supporters to make room for a vanity project: building a wall along the southern border.
Business: Take note of companies like Harley-Davidson and General Motors basically ignoring the president’s mandates as they deal with the consequences of his trade war with China or decide for themselves how best to manage their affairs. Businesses are enjoying Trump’s deregulation push, but some industries he vowed to save, like coal, remain distressed. Manufacturing is doing better, but the Rust Belt still suffers. This and more is laid out by my Bloomberg Opinion colleagues in a mosaic of metrics.
The Economy: Read my colleague Matthew Winkler’s assessment of how Trump compares with his predecessors on this front. One of the president’s signal policy victories — a massive federal tax cut — gave corporations and markets a short-term boost. The long-term benefits remain to be seen. Unemployment continues to fall (a long-standing trend that preceded Trump’s tenure) and the tax cut’s gains may have reached workers’ wallets. But as my colleague Mark Whitehouse notes, that might be a “sugar high.” As Bloomberg News’s Peter Coy points out, the broader stimulus from the tax cut has dissipated and the fiscal deficits it spawned may be around for a long time.
Court System: Trump and the GOP have successfully reshaped the federal courts. They’ve also made two significant Supreme Court appointments with possibly more to come. But the cramdown they engineered to secure Brett Kavanaugh’s job may have left scars among women voters that Republicans will have to contend with for years. Cramdowns tend to be a standard Trump approach, however, and that bodes poorly for his political future.
National Security: Forcing the denuclearization of North Korea and stemming Iran’s nuclear ascent have been two key goals for Trump. But North Korea is hanging on to its nuclear weapons, and Iran isn’t building a bomb just yet, according to Trump’s own intelligence officials. Trump’s response? He tried to discredit his team’s bona fides. Meanwhile, Trump has been weirdly cozy with Russia, which the facts suggest is a wee reckless.
Health Care: Trump didn’t build the team or digest the policies that would have given him the leverage and insight he needed to overturn the Affordable Care Act in 2017. The White House hasn’t gone public with a fresh health-care push since that would suggest it has learned its lessons, and the ACA still lacks a solid foundation. Pharmaceutical companies have played Trump recently on drug prices, but that may change.
Education: Trump signed his first and only significant piece of education legislation last summer, giving states greater control over career and technical education programs. The House plans to scrutinize the Education Department’s deregulation of for-profit colleges and overhaul of sexual assault rules on campuses. The White House has little else to show for itself thus far, and Trump wants to reduce the federal government’s role in education, regardless.
So on to the State of the Union, which arrives a week late because of the government shutdown. Trump’s handlers have said that the theme of Tuesday evening’s address will be “choosing greatness” and that it will emphasize bipartisan approaches. Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway said the address will be “uplifting.”
It may be a safe bet that the president, however much he tries to build bridges on Tuesday night, will eventually revert to form. He is weakened, and he has little room to maneuver other than to provoke disorder. Expect him to start lashing out after the State of the Union’s warm glow disappears.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Timothy L. O’Brien is the executive editor of Bloomberg Opinion. He has been an editor and writer for the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, HuffPost and Talk magazine. His books include “TrumpNation: The Art of Being The Donald.”
©2019 Bloomberg L.P.