This is Trump’s first speech to Congress with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) literally looking over his shoulder. It was originally scheduled for Jan. 29, but Pelosi refused to let Trump use the House chamber while the government was partially shut down. The speech is now occurring during a three-week reprieve in which Congress is supposed to figure out how to fund the government and secure the southern border in a way that both Trump and Democrats can support. That tension hanging over the speech will only add to the already fraught political climate in the room.
Here are six things to watch for during Trump’s speech:
1. Will Trump double down on his demand for a wall?
As congressional negotiators try to avert another shutdown by making a deal on border security, Trump has made it clear that he could declare a national emergency if he doesn’t get a border wall out of it. How much of the speech will be Trump making his case to the American people yet again that the border is in crisis and the only way to solve it is by building a wall?
If he does make a strong case for the wall, how will Republicans respond? Many of them don’t want to have this fight any longer. Will they give a wall a rousing standing ovation as the Democrats sit stone-faced? Or will they just politely clap? That could say a lot about the mind-set of Republicans when it comes to building Trump’s wall.
2. Will Democrats stand for anything?
The Trump White House is touting this State of the Union as a message of unity and bipartisanship. Those are themes that are difficult not to applaud for, but it’s hard to imagine any Democrats standing for anything Trump has to say. Maybe, maybe they’ll stand when he touts passage of the criminal justice bill and opioids package as examples of what can be accomplished when the parties work together.
But when he says, according to an excerpt of his prepared remarks, “Together we can break decades of political stalemate. We can bridge old divisions, heal old wounds, build new coalitions, forge new solutions and unlock the extraordinary promise of America’s future. The decision is ours to make,” will any Democrats give that a standing ovation? The words are likely to ring hollow to most Democrats in the room.
A number of Democrats who boycotted Trump’s speech last year plan to do so again. Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) said in a statement: “The thought of spending Tuesday night in the House Chamber listening to the reckless, self-centered man who occupies the White House holds no interest for me. Just like in past years, I plan to skip a speech that will be filled with lies, deception and divisiveness."
3. What will the expression on Pelosi’s face be?
Pelosi is the consummate professional, and she’s unlikely to show her emotions. But from her perch beside Vice President Pence, staring at the back of Trump’s head and into a sea of her colleagues, will she be able to avoid a smirk, an eye roll or a grimace? She’ll most likely sit there stoically, not betraying her inner monologue. But it’ll be fun to imagine what she’s thinking, especially since she’s still riding high after Trump allowed the government to reopen without his border wall money.
4. Who are the guests?
Members of Congress are allowed to bring guests to watch the State of the Union from the wrap-around balcony that overlooks the floor, and usually their invitations are symbolic of current politics. The same is true of the White House’s guests, who are invited to sit with the first lady to watch the address.
The Trump’s guests, announced Monday night, provide a hint at some topics the president will touch on in his speech. For instance, there’s a family whose loved ones were killed by an illegal immigrant; a man convicted on drug charges released early due to criminal justice reforms; a woman who struggled with opioid addiction; and a little boy named Joshua Trump who has been bullied at school because of his name.
Some of the guests announced by Democrats send a very pointed message to the president. There are two associated with the Parkland, Fla., high school massacre: Cameron Kasky, a student who survived the shooting and became an anti-gun-violence activist, and Manny Oliver, whose son Joaquin was killed. Several lawmakers are bringing transgender service members. There’s an immigrant mother who was separated from her children at the border last summer, individuals furloughed during the shutdown and young immigrant “dreamers.” Washington Post colleague Elise Viebeck has more details about all the guests here.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) is bringing Ana Maria Archila, one of the women who, in the midst of the Brett Kavanaugh accusations, confronted Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) as he was getting into an elevator to tearfully describe to him their own experiences with sexual assault. After the encounter, carried live on television, Flake demanded a one-week FBI investigation into Kavanaugh before the Senate voted on his Supreme Court nomination. Flake ultimately supported him, but it was a watershed moment.
Speaking of Kavanaugh ...
5. How will lawmakers greet Kavanaugh?
Assuming he attends, as most Supreme Court justices do, Kavanaugh will be in the chamber Tuesday night for Trump’s speech. Now, there’s a good chance he has no direct interaction with any Democrats. Typically, lawmakers who want face time with the principals who parade down the center aisle stake out a seat early in the day. I don’t imagine many Democrats are going to be falling over themselves to get a chance to shake Trump’s hand on national television. But just Kavanaugh’s presence could be uncomfortable for some. Additionally, how will Republicans greet him? Will there be a lot of back slapping and handshakes? And how will Kavanaugh respond to their greetings?
6. Will anything unexpected happen?
State of the Unions are pretty straightforward affairs. They follow the same script year after year, no matter who the president is. Trump’s first two joint-session addresses were by and large unexciting, save for when he led an extended standing ovation for a soldier’s recent widow. But otherwise they were cookie cutter. Trump read from a teleprompter. Republicans clapped. Democrats did not.
But with a new crop of lawmakers in the audience, and a broad spectrum of guests in the gallery with a lot of grievances, it’s not hard to imagine an outburst or other disturbance. Though probably not.