WASHINGTON – When President Donald Trump delivers his annual State of the Union address on Tuesday, a Democrat will be seated at the rostrum over his shoulder for the first time.
The presence of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi will bring into fresh relief not only the Capitol’s power shift, with the opposition party now able to thwart the president’s agenda, but also the converging pressures on Trump that have brought his presidency to a crossroads.
Trump dealt himself a political defeat with the 35-day government shutdown. He has secured no funding to construct a border wall and is preparing to declare a national emergency to fulfill his campaign promise. He is newly at odds with the nation’s intelligence chiefs and some senators in his own party. The Russia investigation, which has ensnared several of the president’s allies, appears to be nearing its conclusion. New congressional oversight investigations will start soon. And the race to defeat him at the ballot box has kicked off in earnest.
“This is a watershed moment,” said Chris Whipple, author of “The Gatekeepers,” a history of White House chiefs of staff. “Time is running out. This is a last chance to really get things right.”
The challenges mount at a moment when Trump is as unencumbered and isolated as ever. Inside the White House, aides describe a chaotic, freewheeling atmosphere reminiscent of the early weeks of Trump’s presidency.
Power has consolidated around presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner, a senior adviser who is functioning as a de facto White House chief of staff. With counterweights like ousted chief of staff John Kelly now gone, some advisers say the West Wing has the feel of the 26th floor of Trump Tower, where an unrestrained Trump had absolute control over his family business and was free to follow his impulses.
Mick Mulvaney, who has replaced Kelly in an acting capacity, has said he is trying to manage the staff but not the president, according to administration officials. He has told friends that he shuttles in and out of the Oval Office and meets alone with Trump twice a day — once in the morning and once in the evening, for about 15 minutes each. Asked at a recent dinner whether he was acting as a gatekeeper, Mulvaney laughed and said, “I’m not trying to stop him from doing things,” according to the officials.
“I don’t think he’s even trying to mask the fact that he is operating as the head of a family-owned business instead of the head of one of the most powerful countries in the world,” said Omarosa Manigault Newman, who starred on Trump’s NBC reality show, “The Apprentice,” and worked for him in the White House before having a public falling out with the president after she was fired.
Trump’s popularity, meanwhile, is at an ebb. Polls show many more Americans blame him for the shutdown than Democrats, and growing majorities disapprove of his job performance — despite Trump’s stewardship of a robust economy and his declared intentions to withdraw U.S. troops from unpopular foreign wars.
This raises the question of whether Trump on Tuesday might use his annual address to a joint session of Congress — and to a prime-time national TV audience — to make a course correction and seek to expand his appeal or to burrow in on conflicts with the opposition party, chiefly over illegal immigration and border security.
Trump said last week that his “State of the Union” would be about “unification,” but that theme belies the president’s combative instincts and the indifference — even hostility — he has shown toward congressional negotiations.
“He may mouth bromide of national unity, but if he points to people in the gallery and says, in effect, immigrants of color are coming to kill you, that would undermine whatever pretense,” said Michael Waldman, who as chief White House speechwriter helped pen President Bill Clinton’s State of the Union in the wake of two government shutdowns between 1995 and 1996.
“At other points, presidents facing dropping poll numbers have chosen to be very conciliatory or very optimistic,” Waldman said. “That would surprise everyone here. I don’t know that it’s in Trump’s repertoire. When he does it, it feels like he’s reading under duress from the teleprompter — and everybody knows when he gets back to the White House, he’ll start tweeting again.”
Although the fight for a border wall has been a chief focus of Trump’s for the past two months, his advisers said his address would not be an immigration-centric jeremiad, but rather would set a governing agenda for the year ahead. For instance, Trump plans to talk about infrastructure development and prescription drug pricing, two issues with broad bipartisan appeal, according to a senior White House official.
The president also is expected to talk about foreign affairs and highlight his administration’s recent moves in Venezuela to force President Nicolás Maduro from power, as well as Trump’s ongoing trade negotiations with China and his planned summit later this month with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
Meanwhile, conservative leaders are urging Trump to weave in heavy language on abortion after Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam sparked national outcry last week for comments interpreted as defending infanticide. The senior official said Trump is likely to bring up the issue, which aides described as an effective way to energize his political base after he caved to Democrats in January to end the shutdown.
“For Trump, right now, this is ‘go time,’ ” GOP pollster Frank Luntz said. “This speech, on this night, is not what you are against. It is what you are for. Tell the American people what you want to do and why.”
Yet, Trump’s natural disposition is to fight, and this is an especially adversarial moment for the president as he battles for building a wall at the U.S.-Mexico border and chastises congressional Democrats and the news media.
Trump has said he is on the verge of declaring a national emergency, which would trigger executive powers to attempt to redirect some federal funds toward border wall construction without approval from Congress.
“We’ve set the stage for what’s going to happen,” Trump said last week.
Any such move is likely to draw legal challenges and spark a political firestorm, and some administration lawyers have questioned the president’s authority to do so, but plans have been developed for an emergency declaration nonetheless.
Mulvaney has told Trump a national emergency would be “viable” and has looked for pools of public money to exercise the option. Officials at the Army Corps of Engineers have reviewed draft declarations while identifying at least three companies that might be able to begin work on the wall under no-bid contracts, according to people familiar with the administration’s planning.