The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump to call for ‘comity’ in State of the Union, but rivals scoff amid heightened political warfare

President Trump reacted Jan. 31 to Democrats tapping 2018 Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams for a response to his Feb. 5 State of the Union address. (Video: Reuters)

Facing growing political head winds, President Trump on Tuesday will try to convince the nation that his presidency remains strong and viable in a State of the Union address that aides described as a sincere appeal to broaden his governing coalition.

But Trump is also expected to reaffirm his demand for Congress to support his hard-line immigration agenda and offer a robust defense of foreign policy initiatives that have engendered fierce criticism from Democrats who have asserted newfound power to try to blunt his agenda.

The dynamic suggests that any attempt from the usually truculent president to proffer a nod to bipartisanship and cooperation during his prime-time remarks is almost certain to be short-lived and viewed as duplicitous by his critics.

Trump “thrives on inflaming, and when he does otherwise, it seems inauthentic and unpersuasive,” said Peter Wehner, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center who served as a speechwriter for President George W. Bush.

“I don’t imagine, even if he makes an appeal to unity, that it will work,” Wehner added. “Even if he hits the right notes and the right appeal, Trump will undo it within days by a Twitter attack against Democrats or the special counsel.”

Wehner was referring to special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, whose investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, and the potential involvement of Trump’s campaign, is reportedly nearing completion.

Trump’s third speech to the nation from the House chamber comes during a moment of heightened political warfare and intense confrontation — even by Trump’s combative standards. The address was delayed after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) last month withdrew her initial invitation to Trump to deliver the speech Jan. 29 because of the five-week partial government shutdown. Pelosi rescheduled the address after the government reopened on a three-week stopgap spending bill.

Trade deals, immigration reform, and prescription drug legislation: Which of Trump's State of the Union proposals actually got done? (Video: Joy Sharon Yi/The Washington Post, Photo: Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

Yet since then, congressional negotiators have struggled to forge a path forward to avert another potential shutdown when the funding legislation expires Feb. 15. Trump has called the talks a “waste of time” because Democrats have said they will not support a bill that includes money for his proposed wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.

The president has threatened to declare a national emergency to redirect Pentagon funding for the project, although aides said he is not expected to formally make that declaration during his speech.

White House officials insisted that Trump will not use the speech as a cudgel to pummel Democrats over the wall and play solely to his conservative base. The president certainly intends to make a robust defense of his immigration agenda, they said, but also will spend time discussing areas where he hopes to forge consensus, including around infrastructure projects and cutting the cost of prescription drugs.

“This president is going to call for an end to the politics of resistance, retribution and call for more comity,” White House senior adviser Kellyanne Conway told reporters Monday. “He’s calling for cooperation . . . and also compromise. And he’s going to point out a couple of examples in which this has happened on his watch.”

Conway was not specific, but she pointed to what the White House views as Trump’s accomplishments, including deregulation, the Republican tax-cut bill and a strong economy.

“The American people see the results,” she said.

But Democrats scoffed at the notion that Trump, coming off the shutdown, was to be taken seriously if he offered an olive branch during his speech. During remarks Monday on the Senate floor, Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) eviscerated Trump’s governing record and declared that the “state of the Trump administration is chaos.”

“What I expect the president to do is ignore reality and spin his own fiction,” Schumer said. “A looming question is just how many falsehoods, distortions and made-up facts will appear in the president’s speech?”

Stacey Abrams, the former minority leader of the Georgia House of Representatives who narrowly lost a gubernatorial race last fall, is slated to deliver the Democratic rebuttal to Trump.

“I would imagine what she’ll try to do is tell the country they’re a responsible governing party and make the case more about what they are for than what they are against,” Wehner said. “They won’t take a blowtorch to the president. . . . She’ll put forward a vision of unity not so much in rebuttal to Trump’s speech but to Trump’s presidency.”

In a background briefing for reporters, a senior Trump administration official said the president will offer an “inspiring vision of American greatness and a policy agenda both parties can rally behind.”

“Together we can break decades of political stalemate,” Trump is expected to say, according to an excerpt of his prepared remarks released by the White House. “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.”

Trump, aides said, will discuss the administration’s trade war with China, which Trump has suggested could be the focus of a potential summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping later this month in Asia. Trump also is tentatively scheduled to hold a second summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un this month, possibly in Vietnam.

During his national address last year, Trump highlighted the Kim regime’s brutality to build public pressure on Pyongyang, but this year, he is expected to hail progress in their nuclear weapons negotiations, even though experts have said North Korea has taken few tangible steps toward disarmament.

Trump will offer a “very American, can-do, optimistic approach,” said the senior administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to offer a preview of the address.

Aides said the president will obliquely address the government shutdown — during which 800,000 federal workers and hundreds of thousands of contractors were furloughed — by charting a path forward on the budget fight and his demands for a border wall, which he had insisted many times that Mexico would pay for.

Ahead of the speech, the White House announced Monday that Trump will nominate Interior acting secretary David Bernhardt, a former lobbyist, to take the job permanently — a bid to shore up an administration with a number of Cabinet-level vacancies that have alarmed lawmakers.

But the notion of newfound consensus in Washington appears remote. In a wide-ranging interview with CBS News, Trump accused Pelosi of tacitly supporting “human trafficking” because of her refusal to entertain funding for the border wall.

Polls show that Trump’s approval rating has ebbed as a result of the shutdown fight, with a recent Washington Post/ABC News survey showing that just 37 percent of the public approves of the president’s performance, with 58 percent disapproving.

Yet Trump has remained defiant.

“I think Nancy Pelosi is doing a terrible disservice to the people of our country,” he said. “She can keep playing her games, but we will win.”