President Trump is set to renew his call for unity during Tuesday’s primetime State of the Union address, but prominent Democrats are already signaling they have no intention of reconciliation amid ongoing fights over border wall funding and Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia probe.
Historian Douglas Brinkley called Trump’s upcoming address — his first before a Congress not completely controlled by Republicans — “a strange and bizarre State of the Union.” It comes less than two weeks before a Feb. 15 funding deadline could lead to another partial federal government shutdown.
Among the president’s guests will be Delaware 6th-grade student Joshua Trump, who says he has been bullied at school because of his name. Family members of Gerald and Sharon David, the Nevada couple allegedly murdered last month by an illegal immigrant, will also be in attendance, as well as Alice Johnson, whom Trump granted clemency last year while she was serving a life-term sentence without parole for a nonviolent drug crime. Johnson had been incarcerated for nearly 22 years.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who has vowed never to fund a border wall, will be seated behind the president — a visual reminder of Trump’s emboldened political opposition, and the wins they secured across the country in last year’s midterm elections.
While White House officials cautioned that Trump’s remarks were still being finalized late Monday, the president was expected to use some of his televised address to showcase a growing economy. Despite the shutdown, the U.S. economy added a robust 304,000 jobs in January, marking 100 straight months of job growth. That’s the longest such period on record.
Trump and his top aides have also hinted that he is likely to use the address to announce a major milestone in the fight against the Islamic State group in Syria. Despite the objections of some advisers, Trump announced in December that he was withdrawing U.S. forces in Syria.
In a weekend interview with CBS News, Trump said efforts to defeat the IS group were “at 99 percent right now. We’ll be at 100.”
Speaking to Fox News on Monday, counselor to the president Kellyanne Conway said Trump will repeat two of the messages of last year’s State of the Union address: the need for the country to put aside partisan political differences, and the urgency of securing the southern border.
“He certainly will address the border wall, but also national security and border security — immigration overall. This is an address to the nation, but he’s in the chamber in front of the Congress that has failed to do its job for any number of years, if not decades, on getting us an immigration plan in our country that of course secures our southern border, but also tackles the chain migration, the visa lottery system, TPS [Temporary Protected Status recipients], DACA, the Dreamers, all these things that this president has put forward.”
Trump in January announced that, in exchange for $5.7 billion in border wall funding, he was prepared to back a three-year extension of protections for 700,000 immigrants who came to the country illegally as children and were shielded from deportation under the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.
The White House would also extend protections for 300,000 recipients of the TPS program — which protects immigrants from designated countries with conditions that prevent nationals from returning safely. Democratic leaders rejected the offer immediately.
Conway continued: “Most importantly, in this State of the Union, the president is calling for an end to resistance and retribution politics, and calling for cooperation and compromise. He really wants to unify the nation as its commander-in-chief and its president — the leader of the nation, not the leader of a political party. And he’s really using very specific examples of how Congress and he have done this already, and how he’d like to do it in the near future as well.”
But, she added, Trump will not back down on his pledge to build a wall on the nation’s southern border.
“Call it what you want — call it a wall, call it a physical barrier. … It must be a physical barrier that you can’t crawl under, climb over, drive through, or walk around,” Conway said. “We need to impede and deter these drugs, the human trafficking, the people coming over here and risking these small children.”
Speaking exclusively to “Fox News Sunday,” a top Democrat on the bipartisan congressional committee negotiating a border security compromise indicated that his party would support “some sort of enhanced barrier” — but not a “wall” like the one Trump has demanded.
Texas Democratic Rep. Henry Cuellar said that ultimately the “local Border Patrol chief” should “have the say-so” on the matter. The chief of U.S. Border Patrol during Barack Obama’s presidency said on “Tucker Carlson Tonight” in January that walls “absolutely work” and that there is no real argument against building and implementing one.
“You’ll hear the State of the Union, and then you’ll see what happens right after the State of the Union.”
And the current Border Patrol chief, Carla Provost, told Fox News last year: “We certainly do need a wall. Talk to any border agent and they will tell you that.”
Under pressure from conservative backers, Trump refused to sign a government funding bill that did not include money for the border wall late last year. With hundreds of thousands of Americans missing paychecks, Trump ultimately agreed to reopen the government in January for three weeks to allow negotiations on border security to continue.
But with the new Feb. 15 funding deadline looming, Trump has teased the possibility of declaring a national emergency to secure wall funding if Congress doesn’t act, though it appeared unlikely he would take that step Tuesday night. Advisers have also been reviewing options to secure some funding without making such a declaration.
“You’ll hear the State of the Union, and then you’ll see what happens right after the State of the Union,” Trump told reporters.
In the audience will be several Democrats running to challenge Trump in 2020, including Sens. Kamala Harris of California, Cory Booker of New Jersey, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York.
Cabinet officials, members of Congress, military leaders, top diplomats and Supreme Court justices will also all be in the same place at the same time for all the world to see — creating a series of security challenges for multiple law enforcement agencies, led by the U.S. Secret Service.
The tradition and familiarity of the event poses its the biggest security challenge; it’s basically the same every year, officials said. And there are only so many ways officials can vary traffic routes or arrivals and departures.
“You have to be creative,” Wes Schwark, assistant to the special agent in charge of the Dignitary Protective Division, said in an interview with The Associated Press. “You try not to stick our head out in the same place twice.”
The streets around the building are frozen and secured. The Capitol Plaza is locked down and those inside are limited from moving around the building. The president and his entourage typically gather in a room off the House floor to await their entrances to the House chamber.
Metro stations are checked, counter-sniper teams with long-arm rifles perch on rooftops, bomb-sniffing dogs, uniformed officers and plainclothes agents patrol. Traffic is locked down. The House Chamber is swept randomly and consistently for explosives.
But even the security of the event had been politicized. Last month, as part of a back-and-forth with the White House over the federal government shutdown, Pelosi suggested that unpaid federal agents could not reliably secure the State of the Union address. DHS officials, speaking to Fox News, rejected that contention.
Vermont Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders announced Monday that will deliver his own response to Trump’s State of the Union. Sanders, who is considering a 2020 presidential run, similarly delivered his own rebuttal to Trump’s nationally televised primetime address on border security last year.
Meanwhile, a Democratic star, Stacey Abrams, will deliver the party’s response to Trump. Abrams narrowly lost her bid in November to become Georgia’s first black governor, and party leaders are aggressively recruiting her to run for Senate. Abrams has repeatedly questioned the legitimacy of her defeat.
There were other indicators that Democrats have no intention of heeding Trump’s call for unity. New York Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s guest for the speech is a woman who cornered former Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake on live television to protest his support for now-Associate Justice Brett Kavanaugh.
Ana Maria Archila, who lives in the progressive firebrand’s New York District, said this week she will wear white and a pin that the congresswoman gave her that says, “Well-behaved women rarely make history.”
And Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman, D- N.J., invited Victorina Morales, a Guatemalan woman living in the U.S. illegally who reportedly was fired from the Trump National Golf Club.
Administration officials, meanwhile, say the White House has also been weighing several “moonshot” goals for the State of the Union address. One that is expected to be announced is a new initiative aimed at ending transmissions of HIV by 2030.
Trump has a track record of announcing lofty goals during the traditional speech. In his Jan. 30, 2018 State of the Union address last year, Trump set out a range of objectives, many of which his administration and Congress achieved.
For example, Trump vowed to “work to fix bad trade deals and negotiate new ones.” The White House renegotiated a revised North America trade pact that scored wins for autoworkers and dairy farmers, although the deal needs approval from Congress.
And Trump got South Korea to agree to a rewrite of a 2012 trade deal in which Seoul submitted to quotas on its steel and aluminum exports to the United States and modestly opened South Korea’s auto market to U.S. automakers. Trump’s effort to reset trade with China, meanwhile, has resulted in both nations increasing the tariffs that importers pay.
Similarly, Trump promised to “embark on reforming our prisons to help former inmates who have served their time get a second chance.” In December, Trump signed into law the First Step Act, a major overhaul of the criminal justice system which gave federal judges more leeway when sentencing some drug offenders and boosted prisoner rehabilitation efforts.
It reduced life sentences for some drug offenders with three convictions, or “three strikes,” to 25 years. Another provision allowed about 2,600 federal prisoners sentenced for crack cocaine offenses before August 2010 the opportunity to petition for a reduced penalty.
Trump also told Congress that those “who are terminally ill should not have to go from country to country to seek a cure — I want to give them a chance right here at home. It is time for the Congress to give these wonderful Americans the ‘right to try.'”
Congress passed such legislation, and Trump signed it into law in May. The bill helps people suffering from deadly diseases access experimental treatments.
But not all of the president’s proposals from last year’s address were realized in 2018. His plans for comprehensive immigration reform, for example, collapsed despite numerous GOP-led efforts. And perhaps more evidently, his call for unity and bipartisanship fell largely on deaf ears.
“Tonight, I call upon all of us to set aside our differences, to seek out common ground, and to summon the unity we need to deliver for the people we were elected to serve,” Trump said last year.
Fox News’ Catherine Herridge, Adam Shaw, and The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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