Trump’s State of the Union Speech Unlikely to Bring Harmony

WASHINGTON — President Trump is to deliver what aides called a message of bipartisan unity on Tuesday night in his first address to Congress in the new era of divided government, but any hope of harmony was dispelled long before he left the White House.

The president and Democrats spent the hours before his State of the Union address exchanging political fire, making clear that whatever ritualistic calls for across-the-aisle cooperation he would issue later in the evening were unlikely to transform an environment that has turned increasingly toxic.

Still stung by his failure to use a partial government shutdown to pressure Congress into paying for his border wall, Mr. Trump has hardly been in the mood for collaboration with the other party, anyway. As he and his team have drafted his address in recent days, he has groused about the text, complaining that it is too gentle on Democrats, according to people briefed on the matter.

[Follow our live briefing of President Trump’s 2019 State of the Union Address.]

The president has sought to sharpen various lines, and while aides have urged him to congratulate Speaker Nancy Pelosi on her ascension after the November midterm elections, which handed control of the House to Democrats, they were not entirely clear that he would. Ms. Pelosi has been his most frustrating antagonist since the start of the new year, at one point even disinviting him from delivering the State of the Union address unless he reopened the government, which he then did.

Democrats did not wait for the address, scheduled for 9 p.m. Eastern time, to challenge him.

Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the minority leader, took to the Senate floor to declare that Mr. Trump’s presidency was failing and troubled by chaos, and that any promises he would make were hardly credible. Anticipating calls for unity, Mr. Schumer mocked the idea that Mr. Trump was capable of bringing the country together.

“It seems every year the president wakes up and discovers the desire for unity on the morning of the State of the Union, then the president spends the other 364 days of the year dividing us, and sowing a state of disunion,” Mr. Schumer said. He added, “The blatant hypocrisy of this president calling for unity is that he is one of the chief reasons Americans feel so divided now.”

Mr. Trump fired back at Mr. Schumer via Twitter.

“I see Schumer is already criticizing my State of the Union speech, even though he hasn’t seen it yet,” the president wrote. “He’s just upset that he didn’t win the Senate, after spending a fortune, like he thought he would. Too bad we weren’t given more credit for the Senate win by the media!”

Mr. Schumer responded with a tweet of his own: “Thanks for watching my speech but you must have missed this line: ‘Even more empty than his policy promises are President Trump’s calls each year for unity.’”

The president’s address to Congress, his first since Democrats won 40 extra House seats and control of the chamber in November, comes at a time of deep polarization in Washington.

After presidents suffer setbacks in midterm elections, they often reach out to the victorious opposition with words of conciliation, however artificial or short-lived they may be. In Mr. Trump’s case, he opened this period of partisan power sharing with a relentless confrontation over his proposed border wall, resulting in a record-breaking 35-day partial government shutdown.

That impasse nearly cost Mr. Trump his opportunity to deliver his State of the Union address, as Ms. Pelosi refused to let him come to the House chamber as long as federal agencies were closed and workers unpaid. Mr. Trump backed down and accepted a measure reopening the government for three weeks, but negotiations in the interim have made no more progress toward winning money for his wall — and the government could close again on Feb. 15.

Given that, Mr. Trump’s calls for unity were almost surely destined to fall on deaf ears. Even Republicans have publicly rebuked him lately for his plans to withdraw troops from Syria and Afghanistan, and party leaders have pressed him not to declare a national emergency bypassing Congress to build the wall.

Drafts of the speech included a portrait of menacing immigrants endangering Americans and a sharp challenge to Congress to build the wall. Among the guests invited to sit with the first lady, Melania Trump, during the speech are three family members of a couple killed last month in their home in Reno, Nev., allegedly by an illegal immigrant.

The guest list, as under previous presidents, was intended to make various political points. Also included on it were a drug offender released under a criminal justice overhaul Mr. Trump signed into law; the manager of a lumber plant that has reopened; a member of the Pittsburgh synagogue where 11 members were killed by a gunman last fall; and a police officer who was shot while responding to the synagogue shooting.

Also invited was Joshua Trump, a sixth-grade student from Wilmington, Del., who “has been bullied in school due to his last name,” according to the White House.

Democrats were making points with their guests, as well.

Among those invited were air traffic controllers who went unpaid during the government shutdown, illegal immigrants who worked at Mr. Trump’s properties and transgender soldiers who will be banned under the president’s new policy.

In his speech, Mr. Trump planned to assail Democrats like Gov. Ralph Northam of Virginia for comments in support of easing restrictions on late-term abortions, a nod to Mr. Trump’s conservative base. The speech drafts did not include any mention of the racist medical school yearbook picture that has threatened Mr. Northam’s political career, and aides have cautioned the president about raising that issue.

During a break in practicing the speech on Monday, Mr. Trump popped into a White House briefing that some of his aides were holding with allies expected to carry his message, and grew animated talking about Mr. Northam’s comments about abortion, according to one person in attendance. Mr. Trump called it a form of “late, late” term abortion that amounted to infanticide. He then mimicked Mr. Northam, the attendee said, running through what he had said about dealing with unwanted pregnancies after a baby is born.

Vice President Mike Pence, who was in the meeting, indicated that foreign policy will play a bigger role than anticipated in the address, citing a section about the turmoil in Venezuela, where Mr. Trump has called on President Nicolás Maduro to step down.

The president is also expected to talk about his goal of bringing an end to the “endless wars” in places like Syria and Afghanistan, and he will most likely talk about the threat he sees from Iran and his efforts to negotiate with North Korea.

While the president’s speech was drafted with a message of unity, that will not mean florid language about a lasting political peace, so much as pointing to areas of common cause that the White House can forge with Democrats, according to one official familiar with the discussions.

“The president’s going to lay out some of the great successes that we’ve had over the last two years and paint a picture of what we can do for this country if we come together, if we work together over the next two years,” Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, said Tuesday on Fox News.

But that does not mean that the president will yield ground on priorities that mean the most to him, particularly the wall. Asked about bipartisan opposition to any emergency declaration, Ms. Sanders said, “If people don’t want to see an alternative direction, then sit down at the table, negotiate a deal that actually protects our borders, that protects citizens of this country.”

Maggie Haberman contributed reporting.

Follow Peter Baker on Twitter: @peterbakernyt.

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