WASHINGTON — President Trump says he’ll use his State of the Union address Tuesday to make a bipartisan appeal to Congress on immigration and infrastructure in the coming year.
But first, Trump isn’t quite done talking about the year that’s passed.
President Trump, flanked by Vice President Mike Pence and House Speaker Paul Ryan, delivered an address to a joint session of Congress on Feb. 28, 2017.
Jim Lo Scalzo, AP
Trump said Monday he will use his annual address to Congress to tout “our great success with the markets and with the tax cut”before tackling some of the things he’d like to achieve in 2018 — a list that includes infrastructure spending, an immigration bill and renegotiated trade agreements.
Those two objectives — looking both backwards and forwards, claiming credit for past accomplishments but also proposing new initiatives — have come to define the highly formulaic, ritualized speech to Congress.
They present a unique challenge for Trump, a president more accustomed to speaking in 280-character tweets, brief exchanges with reporters than an hour-long formal address. But he prime-time televised address also gives Trump an unfiltered opportunity to talk about his presidency without the distraction of daily headlines about the Russia investigation and White House intrigue.
“The president is going to talk about how America is back,” White House legislative director Marc Short told Fox News Sunday. The White House has declined to talk much about the policy specifics, although Trump continued a tradition he started last year by having lunch with network anchors to preview the speech.
Key talking points used by presidential aides over the past few days: A growing economy. Declining unemployment — particularly among African-Americans, A booming stock market. Victories against he Islamic State. And the appointment of conservative federal judges.
“Certainly, the economy will be front and center,” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told NBC News on Tuesday.
But the State of the Union speech isn’t just a report on the year that’s passed. The Constitution requires the president to give an annual report to Congress and “recommend to their consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.”
Trump has a weighty legislative agenda he’d like to get through a Republican-dominated Congress before November’s elections change the legislative math.
► Immigration: The White House released the outlines of a proposal Friday that would give immigrants who arrived in the United States as children legal status — with the possibility of citizenship in 10 to 12 years.
But that concession would come with strings attached: Trump wants $25 billion for border security and an end to two immigration programs Trump opposes: family-based “chain” migration, and the diversity visa lottery program, which admits immigrants from countries usually under-represented in other visa categories.
“For many, many years they’ve been talking immigration and never got anything done. We’re going to get something done, we hope. It’s got to be bipartisan, because the Republicans really don’t have the votes to get it done in any other way,” Trump told reporters Monday.
► Spending: The speech comes amid a showdown with Senate Democrats over government spending. The two sides are currently in a cease-fire negotiated through Feb. 8, when the government’s funding authority runs out for the fifth time since last October.
The spending and immigration debates have become intertwined, but Trump will likely use the urgency to fund the military to push Congress to resolve the standoff.
► National security: “One of our concerns is that we have these dramatic threats on the global scene, yet where we are in Congress is we still can’t even pass the spending bill that funds our military because Democrats are continuing to hold the military hostage to pursue another agenda,” Short said.
► Trade: Trump is expected to echo his remarks in Davos, Switzerland last week that the United States will insist on “fair and reciprocal trade” with other nations.
“It’s going to be, I think, a very important speech on trade. The world has taken advantage of us on trade for many years. And as you probably noticed, we’re stopping that. We’re stopping it cold. And we have to have reciprocal trade. It’s not a one-way deal anymore,” Trump said Monday.
► Infrastructure: The White House has been putting the finishing touches on a $200 billion infrastructure that, Trump has claimed, could leverage another $800 billion to $1.6 billion in state, local and private funds.
“He’s going to talk about the fact that America is open for business,” Short said. “And the president is also going to make an appeal to Democrats, to make an appeal to say, we need to rebuild our country and to make an appeal that to do infrastructure, we need to do it in a bipartisan way.”
Trump’s tone will be perhaps as carefully measured as the substance of his speech. While Trump is often combative in his relations with Congress — even members of his own party — State of the Union addresses often extol the virtues of bipartisanship.
Democrats are already questioning Trump’s call for bipartisanship, given a year of intense party battles over items like health care and tax cuts.
“There has been hardly a shred of bipartisanship in the Trump era, despite many appeals for it,” said Senate Democratic leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y. “President Trump was handed an already healthy economy by his predecessor. Like many things in his life, he inherited it.”
At a news conference prior to the speech, members of the Congressional Black Caucus were already clad in black suits they planned to wear in solidary with Democratic women supporting the #MeToo anti-sexual harassment campaign.
Caucus members also sported red buttons to honor the late Recy Taylor, a black Alabama woman who was raped by six white men in 1944. Her rapists were never brought to justice.
Some caucus members plan to boycott the address.
“This president has not honored nor respected the office of the presidency and has shown total disregard for our democratic institutions,’’ said Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif, who said she has attended every SOTU since 1998.
The State of the Union address has become increasingly polarizing in recent years, with members of the president’s party applauding enthusiastically and the opposition party largely sitting on its hands.
“I’m curious to see how much of this speech is to the base, and how much of it is to the country,” said Alison Howard of Dominican University of California, who has studied State of the Union addresses. “It’s not a rally. It’s not a campaign speech. It’s a constitutional duty.”
But the Trump campaign is blurring that line, turning the official speech into a fundraising opportunity. In a solicitation, the campaign told supporters that if they give at least $35, their name will appear on a live stream on the campaign’s web site.
“It’s not about just one of us,” the campaign’s fundraising pitch says. “It’s about ALL of us. Which is why your name deserves to be displayed during Tuesday night’s speech.”
Beyond the substance of the speech, the State of the Union Address has also become a forum for high political theater, marked by boycotts, protests, and opposition responses.
In one tradition instituted by President Ronald Reagan, presidents invite everyday American heroes to sit in the gallery with the first lady.
Sanders said Trump’s guests will include a welder who just bought his first home and is using tax cut savings to help finance his children’s education; parents who lost their children to the MS-13 gang; a blind, double amputee who re-joined the Marines after being injured in battle; and volunteers who did rescue work after floods, hurricanes, and wildfires.
One subject not likely to be mentioned: The ongoing investigation into the Trump campaign’s links to Russian agents attempting to interfere in the 2016 presidential election.
“We spend more time on that than we do any other topic, despite the fact that, time and time again, poll after poll says that, frankly, no one cares about this issue, and it’s certainly not the thing that keeps people up at night,” Sanders said Monday.
“We’d love to talk about all of the things that do. And my guess is, that will be the focus of the president’s State of the Union.”
Contributing: Deborah Barfield Berry