White House

State of the Union: An impeached president goes before his accusers

Donald Trump first impeached president to run for reelection

President Donald Trump is seen in the House chamber during his State of the Union address along with Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Vice President Mike Pence on Feb. 5, 2019. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

President Donald Trump will kick his reelection campaign into high gear Tuesday in perhaps the most awkward of places: Inside the Democratic-controlled House, where he became only the third president in U.S. history to be impeached.

The 45th chief executive formally launched his bid for a second term last summer with a rally in Florida. But his fourth address to a joint session of Congress — and third State of the Union — will put him face-to-face with the House Democratic caucus that rebuked him, guaranteeing a made-for-television clash that seems a fitting Season 4 premiere for a presidency that continues to operate stunningly like a reality television show.

Seated over Trump’s left shoulder will be Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat who decided she had no choice but to launch an impeachment inquiry after concluding he had gone too far with Ukraine’s new president. Also expected to be in the chamber is the lead House impeachment manager in the Senate trial, House Intelligence Chairman Adam B. Schiff, also a California Democrat. 

The president’s chief defenders — GOP Reps. Mark Meadows of North Carolina and Jim Jordan of Ohio, along with Senate Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham of South Carolina — will provide fodder for split-screen reactions to capture all the partisan grins and growls.

The spectacle, also coming one night after the Iowa caucuses officially kicked off the Democratic presidential contest, provides the president the opportunity to do in person what his aides and surrogates claim he’s been doing with Democrats since he was sworn in: Fight back.

Unlike Bill Clinton, who delivered his 1999 State of the Union in the midst of his impeachment trial — and made no mention of it — Trump is expected to hit the subject head-on.

“I think it’ll be more than just a passing reference — this is another one of his perceived high points,” said William L. Rosenberg, a political science professor at Drexel University. 

How the speech resonates with the public could depend on how ongoing accusations and investigations of Trump play out.

“In some respects that’s going to develop based on other things that are going to come out” about Ukraine and other inquiries, said Donna Hoffman, a political science professor at the University of Northern Iowa. 

A senior administration official previewing the address said “it’s never safe to assume anything,” when asked how impeachment might factor into Trump’s comments.

The official said an upbeat speech of “relentless optimism” will focus on progress in the blue collar economy, trade victories with China and the new pact with Mexico and Canada. Health care will be a key part, too.

Experts are split on whether the president will try to appeal to moderate voters as he seeks a second term. But they agree tensions will be high as the impeached chief executive stares down his political foes and they have a chance to jeer him on live television.

Nasty or nice?

During his previous appearances in the chamber, the president has avoided using his favorite terms to describe the opposition party, like “radical left Democrats.” But he has used that term for months to hammer Pelosi’s caucus over impeachment, adding a new charge at a recent campaign rally in Toledo, Ohio, after he ordered a drone strike that killed top Iranian military commander Qassem Soleimani. Democrats, he claimed, “have expressed outrage over the termination of this horrible terrorist.”

“You are going to have the clear contrast in the views of the powers of the presidency and Congress hanging over the entire thing,” said James Thurber, an American University government professor. “I don’t think the president will address those differences clearly, but I anticipate his views about the powers of his office will be there, in so many words. It’s the night after Iowa. Normally, a president wouldn’t mention that in his message, but with this one, you just never know.”

The “contrast” stems from not just impeachment but Trump’s reelection bid. 

“To my knowledge this will be a first: a president delivering a State of the Union to the Congress, [who is] beginning his reelection campaign, in a House that has voted recently on his articles of impeachment,” said G. William Hoagland, a former aide to then-GOP Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee.

“I expect it to be a very tense and even more cantankerous audience than normal, divided between the Republicans and Democrats,” Hoagland said.

All eyes, at first, will be on the usual handshake between the president and speaker as he arrives in the chamber. 

Pelosi has a penchant for needling the president, who often reacts with rants and attacks her as “Nervous Nancy.”

He’s unlikely to repeat that inside the House chamber, but the odds are high he will use a favorite rally line, that Democrats are “wasting everybody’s time” with impeachment and are beholden to socialists.

The speaker gives as good as she gets.

During a Jan. 15 news conference announcing House impeachment managers, Pelosi underscored the significance of the moment with references to Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and Thomas Paine’s description of “the times that try men’s souls.”

“It’s always about marking history, using time,” Pelosi said. “On Dec. 18, the House of Representatives impeached the president of the United States, an impeachment that will last forever.”

Such comments appear to rile the president.

“In a certain way, they are traitors, when you think about it,” Trump said during a Jan. 14 Milwaukee rally.

Previous presidents facing reelection battles have used their end-of-term States of the Union to extend an olive branch.

“The question is do you at least see some effort to work together,” said Cody Keenan, a former speechwriter for President Barack Obama and visiting professor at Northwestern University. “If he had one grace note, one moment of benevolence and charity, that helps him exponentially, and that’s something people would be talking about,” Keenan said.

In early 2012, Obama drew a standing ovation from both sides of the  chamber when he called for an overhaul of how Washington works. That was similar to President Bill Clinton’s 1996 reelection year address, when he declared, “The era of big government is over.”

Analysts don’t expect that from Trump.

“The president’s best strategy is to go big. Talk about what he’s accomplished,” said Michael Steel, a former adviser to then-Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s 2016 White House bid. “He should lay out a positive agenda for the future.”

Such an approach, he said, could “make Washington Democrats look petty and small.”

He expects Trump to preview policies likely to appear in his budget request the following week that are politically popular: tax cuts, infrastructure spending and construction of a border wall.

Hoagland anticipates Trump will emphasize deregulation and regulatory changes, particularly on prescription drugs.

White House aides would not rule out a pitch for tax cuts tailored to the middle class.

Trump’s Milwaukee speech may have offered a preview, as he characterized the Democrats as on a mission to raise taxes.

When asked about a payroll tax cut and an expanded earned income tax credit, which generally benefits lower income individuals, National Economic Council Director Lawrence Kudlow said tax cuts to help middle-class economic growth are “still our goal,” but any reductions may depend on GOP control of the House.

“It’ll come out some time later during the campaign. No discussions of specifics,” Kudlow said in a Jan. 15 interview on CNBC.

Kudlow said a proposal might be unveiled “later in the summer.” A summertime announcement would carry echoes of a similar proposal floated ahead of the 2018 midterm elections, when Republicans lost the House.

Because the president’s policy decisions often are driven by the priorities of his conservative base, going “big” could also involve promises with those voters in mind.

When addressing conservative audiences over the past year, the president has repeatedly returned to anti-abortion messaging.

“Virtually every top Democrat also now supports late-term abortion, ripping babies straight from the mother’s womb right up until the moment,” Trump said at a rally last month.

Loose cannon

It’s probably easier to guess what won’t be in the speech, said American University’s Thurber.

“There won’t be any talk of balanced budgets, the deficit, or the debt,” he said. “And I don’t think he can talk about draining the swamp like he did in 2016, because of the number of people he’s hired that lobbied the agencies they’re now working for.”

Hoagland, now with the Bipartisan Policy Center, added to that list.

“I doubt we will hear about ‘repeal and replace,” he said, referring to the Affordable Care Act that Republicans tried but failed to terminate in 2017. Nixing the law and replacing it with a yet-to-be-crafted GOP alternative, Hoagland said, “is not polling so well these days.”

And on what might be a scant legislative year, Trump will look “backward and forward,” said Georgetown University’s Mark Rom, an associate professor and political analyst, predicting a boasting of accomplishments, plus outlining “the dystopian hell certain if any of his Democratic opponents are elected.”

Niels Lesniewski and Mike Magner contributed to this report.

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