By Peter Baker
President Donald Trump headed to Capitol Hill on Tuesday night to deliver what aides called a message of bipartisan unity in his first address to Congress in the new era of divided government, but any hope of harmony was dispelled long before he left the White House.
Trump, who has warred with Democrats for weeks over his plan to build a wall along the nation’s southwestern border, planned to use the nationally televised speech to present himself as a leader who can work across party lines even as he continued to press lawmakers to give him money for the barrier, according to aides.
“Together, we can break decades of political stalemate,” Trump was expected to say, according to an excerpt released in advance 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.”
Yet he signaled that he will not back off his hardline immigration policies that have divided the country. “No issue better illustrates the divide between America’s working class and America’s political class than illegal immigration,” he was to say, according to the excerpts. “Wealthy politicians and donors push for open borders while living their lives behind walls and gates and guards.”
The speech came at a pivotal moment halfway through the president’s term as he seeks to regain momentum following the midterm election defeat that handed control of the House to Democrats and his failed effort to use a partial government shutdown to extract money for the wall. Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic leader who has blocked his efforts to build the border barrier, will be sitting behind him for the first time on the House rostrum.
A newfound spirit of cooperation seemed elusive as the president and Democrats spent the hours before his State of the Union address exchanging political fire, making clear that whatever ritualistic calls for across-the-aisle cooperation he would issue later in the evening would be unlikely to transform an environment that has turned increasingly toxic.
Stumg by his retreat on the government shutdown, Trump has hardly been in the mood for collaboration with the other party, anyway. As he and his team have drafted his address in recent days, he has groused about the text, complaining that it is too gentle on Democrats, according to people briefed on the matter.
The president has sought to sharpen some of the lines in the speech, and while aides have urged him to congratulate Pelosi on her ascension to the speaker’s chair, they were not entirely clear that he would. Pelosi has been his most frustrating antagonist since the start of the new year, at one point even disinviting him from delivering the State of the Union address unless he reopened the government, which he then did.
During an off-the-record lunch for television anchors before the speech, Trump offered scathing assessments of a number of leading Democrats, including some lining up to run against him next year.
He dismissed former Vice President Joe Biden as “dumb,” called Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York a “nasty son of a bitch” and mocked Gov. Ralph Northam of Virginia for “choking like a dog” at a news conference where he tried to explain a racist yearbook photo, according to multiple people in the room.
Democrats did not wait for the address, scheduled for 9 p.m. Eastern time, to challenge him.
Schumer, the Senate minority leader, took to the Senate floor to declare that Trump’s presidency was failing and troubled by chaos, and that any promises he would make would hardly be credible. Anticipating calls for unity, Schumer mocked the idea that Trump was capable of bringing the country together.
“It seems every year the president wakes up and discovers the desire for unity on the morning of the State of the Union, then the president spends the other 364 days of the year dividing us and sowing a state of disunion,” Schumer said. He added, “The blatant hypocrisy of this president calling for unity is that he is one of the chief reasons Americans feel so divided now.”
Trump fired back at Schumer via Twitter.
“I see Schumer is already criticizing my State of the Union speech, even though he hasn’t seen it yet,” the president wrote. “He’s just upset that he didn’t win the Senate, after spending a fortune, like he thought he would. Too bad we weren’t given more credit for the Senate win by the media!”
Schumer responded with a tweet of his own: “Thanks for watching my speech but you must have missed this line: ‘Even more empty than his policy promises are President Trump’s calls each year for unity.’”
Trump arrived at this point in his presidency with the approval of just 37 percent of the public, according to Gallup. In the last four decades, the only times a president headed into a State of the Union address with as little or less support were in 1983 when Ronald Reagan was struggling with a painful recession and in 2007 and 2008 when George W. Bush was trying to turn around the Iraq war.
Trump is the only president in the history of Gallup polling to have never drawn the support of a majority of the public at any point in the first two years in office. But while he is the fourth president in a row to lose at least one house of Congress during a midterm election, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama both bounced back to win re-election and Trump has privately expressed confidence he will too.
After presidents suffer setbacks in midterm elections, they often reach out to the victorious opposition with words of conciliation, however artificial or short-lived they may be. In Trump’s case, he opened this period of partisan power sharing with a relentless confrontation over his proposed border wall, resulting in a record-breaking 35-day partial government shutdown.
That impasse nearly cost Trump his opportunity to deliver his State of the Union address, as Pelosi refused to let him come to the House chamber as long as federal agencies were closed and workers unpaid. Trump backed down and accepted a measure reopening the government for three weeks, but negotiations in the interim have made no more progress toward winning money for his wall — and the government could close again Feb. 15.
Given that, Trump’s calls for unity were almost surely destined to fall on deaf ears. Even Republicans have publicly rebuked him lately for his plans to withdraw troops from Syria and Afghanistan, and party leaders have pressed him not to declare a national emergency bypassing Congress to build the wall.
Drafts of the speech included a portrait of menacing immigrants endangering Americans and a sharp challenge to Congress to build the wall. Among the guests invited to sit with the first lady, Melania Trump, during the speech are three family members of a couple killed last month in their home in Reno, Nevada, allegedly by an immigrant in the U.S. illegally.
The guest list, as under previous presidents, was intended to make various political points. Also included on it were a drug offender released under a criminal justice overhaul Trump signed into law; the manager of a lumber plant that has reopened; a member of the Pittsburgh synagogue where 11 members were killed by a gunman last fall; and a police officer who was shot while responding to the synagogue shooting.
Also invited was Joshua Trump, a sixth-grade student from Wilmington, Delaware, who “has been bullied in school due to his last name,” according to the White House.
Democrats were making points with their guests, as well.
Among those invited were air traffic controllers who went unpaid during the government shutdown, unauthorized immigrants who worked at Trump’s properties and transgender soldiers who will be banned under the president’s new policy.
Democrats tapped Stacey Adams, who lost a close race for governor of Georgia in November, to deliver the official response, but others sought to get in on the action as well. Sen. Kamala Harris of California, who is running for president, delivered hers shortly before the speech while Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who may run too, planned to deliver his afterward.
In his speech, Trump planned to assail Democrats like Northam of Virginia for comments in support of easing restrictions on late-term abortions, a nod to Trump’s conservative base. The speech drafts did not include any mention of the racist medical school yearbook picture that has threatened Northam’s political career, and aides have cautioned the president about raising that issue.
During a break in practicing the speech Monday, Trump popped into a White House briefing that some of his aides were holding with allies expected to carry his message and grew animated talking about Northam’s comments about abortion, according to one person in attendance. Trump called it a form of “late, late” term abortion that amounted to infanticide. He then mimicked Northam, the attendee said, running through what he had said about dealing with unwanted pregnancies after a baby is born.
The president planned to use the address to highlight what he sees as the accomplishments of his first two years in office, including a growing economy with just 4 percent unemployment. He was expected to press Congress to approve his new trade agreement with Canada and Mexico updating the North American Free Trade Agreement.
He was not expected to outline the traditional laundry list of new initiatives, the way other presidents have, but he did plan to make a national commitment to end transmission of the virus that causes AIDS, with a goal of stopping its spread in the United States by 2030.
The president also planned to talk about his goal of bringing an end to the “endless wars” in places like Syria and Afghanistan, the threat he sees from Iran,his efforts to negotiate with North Korea and his bid to force President Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela to step down, according to aides.
While the president’s speech was drafted with a message of unity, that did not mean florid language about a lasting political peace, so much as pointing to areas of common cause that the White House can forge with Democrats, according to one official familiar with the discussions.
“The president’s going to lay out some of the great successes that we’ve had over the last two years and paint a picture of what we can do for this country if we come together, if we work together over the next two years,” Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, said Tuesday on Fox News.
But that does not mean that the president will yield ground on priorities that mean the most to him, particularly the wall. Asked about bipartisan opposition to any emergency declaration, Sanders said, “If people don’t want to see an alternative direction, then sit down at the table, negotiate a deal that actually protects our borders, that protects citizens of this country.”