WASHINGTON – Democrats are bracing for a more emboldened President Donald Trump now that his acquittal is at hand, beginning with Tuesday's State of the Union address before a nationally televised audience.
Rather than seeking to unify Congress and the nation with remorse, Democrats expect Trump to ratchet up his rhetoric of grievance on the eve of Senate impeachment votes that are all but certain to acquit him from charges of abusing power and obstructing Congress.
"Whatever happens, he claims that it's a victory for him, in many instances when it's far from it. So that's what he'll say," Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., a 2020 presidential contender, said during a break in Monday's closing arguments by the prosecutors and the president's defense team.
"For a while he might almost be like a cartoon-figure president," said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., comparing the president to the Incredible Hulk breaking off chains. "The guardrails are gone."
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., seems to be expecting the worst. "Does the president know right from wrong? I don't think so. That's all I can say to you," she told reporters Thursday when asked whether Trump would be humbled by impeachment or empowered by the acquittal.
Pelosi's guests for Tuesday's speech are expected to be symbols of soaring health care costs and survivors of gun violence. In a sign they want to move beyond discussing impeachment, most Democrats who have announced that their guests are similarly focused on health care as the issue they want to put forward.
Republicans do not want Trump to use his State of the Union platform as a grievance cudgel against Democrats, but they also know that their views of decorum are often ignored by this president. "We're not done tomorrow, and I don't think it's appropriate for him to bring up," Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., said. "But he is his own person."
Lankford wants Trump to keep the impeachment talk to political rallies. "I don't think the State of the Union is the place for it," he said.
Some Republicans and Democrats held out hope that Trump would use the annual address in a manner similar to Bill Clinton, who in 1999 delivered the address in the middle of his presidential impeachment trial.
Over 77 minutes Clinton focused entirely on policy, never mentioning his trial. Trump will not formally have been cleared, but the president knows the outcome is preordained. He has usually stuck to the script in his prepared remarks at his first three joint addresses to Congress, relishing the chance to have the political stage all to himself.
He could choose to seize the moment and air his frustrations with Pelosi for leading the House to make him only the third president to have ever been impeached.
"The vote will not have occurred yet. I hope not, I hope he doesn't do that. I think that would simply inflame things further, but I have no idea," said Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, who caucuses with Democrats.
Regardless, King is expecting Trump's next few weeks to be particularly outlandish.
"Principally because he's expressed no remorse or understanding that he did anything wrong," he said. "So why should he hold back? That's what worries me."