The Donald prepares for his State of the Union Speech – the world holds its breath, sort of

The Donald prepares for his State of the Union Speech – the world holds its breath, sort of
US President Donald J. Trump answers questions from reporters during a meeting on fighting human trafficking on the southern border in the Cabinet Room of the White House in Washington, DC, USA, 01 February 2019. EPA-EFE/OLIVIER DOULIERY

On Tuesday 5 February, Donald Trump will deliver his next State of the Union Speech, the one he wasn’t allowed to give, by order of Nancy Pelosi, during the partial government shutdown. And now he will – but what in the world will he say?

The US Constitution spells it out this way in Article II, Section 3: “He shall from time to time give to Congress information of the State of the Union and recommend to their Consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.” Very simple, short and sweet.

There is nothing in that sentence that says the president must stand before a joint sitting of both houses of Congress, with the television cameras broadcasting all of it, and with various individuals plucked from obscurity and seated near the First Lady for a presidential shoutout as a way to hammer home some punchline in the president’s speech. In fact, through much of the 19th and early 20th centuries, the address was written and delivered to Congress for the senators and congressmen to read at their leisure. No ceremony, no pomp and circumstance.

But not any more. Now it is a big, televised event, with the visitors’ gallery filled with foreign diplomats, invited VIP guests, and the various shoutout lightning rods, while all of the members of both houses, the vice president, the Supreme Court justices, cabinet officials, the most senior admirals and generals, all crowd the chamber floor. Snugly.

One cabinet secretary does not attend. This is a custom developed to ensure governmental continuity in the event of a terrible calamity such as a fatal building collapse, a bomb, a deadly terrorist attack, something awful like that; something that would require a least one senior official in the formal line of succession to take charge of things after taking the oath of office – things such as being next to the military officer carrying nuclear launch codes football.

So, this Tuesday evening, 5 February, at 9pm Washington time (4am, Wednesday, South African time), Donald Trump will enter the chamber of the House of Representatives as the sergeant at arms shouts out, “Madame Speaker: The President of the United States!” There will be applause by half the room, while the other half will try to figure out where they can look without being visibly furious.

Trump will stand before the room at the ceremonial raised dias, look at his printed copy and – presumably – the two transparent TelePrompter screens and begin. At that moment, millions of people will be wondering whether it will be one of those campaign-style-red-meat-to-the-crowds stem-winders with some of his usual attack lines, or, just perhaps, a presidential address that at least attempts to speak to everyone in the country, and beyond.

So, what could he say at this moment? Well, he could be gracious and thank the nation for rallying to the opportunities a growing economy has afforded the country and his pleasure in seeing business rise to new challenges. He could outline the rollback of regulation, the ongoing negotiations with China over trade, the just-completed rewrite of Nafta with Mexico and Canada, the second presidential summit with North Korea’s Kim Jung-un in Vietnam on the horizon, the tough but successful conversations with America’s Nato allies over their contributions to mutual defence, the tense but – possibly – hopeful situation in Venezuela, the challenges of a stable Middle East and the need to contain the actions of Iran even as US troops begin to depart from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan, and the difficulties in maintaining a stable relationship with Russia.

He could speak to the urgent need to find a mutually acceptable set of compromises with Democratic Party leaders to provide the country effective, state-of-the-art border security, the opportunity for a historic reconstruction of the nation’s immigration system, including the circumstances of the Dreamers and the other, similar groups’ pathways to legal permanent residence, and, most important, a comprehensive approach towards the millions of undocumented aliens now living in the country. He could invite both parties – and recognised experts – to work out the details of this historic, grand compromise, beyond partisan lines and rancour.

The president might choose at this moment to unveil an outline of a long-promised national infrastructure renewal programme that targets airports, highways, canals, bridges, pipelines, harbours, the national electrical grid, the future circumstances of lightning-fast national broadband connectivity – and passenger rail services to rival those already in operation in China, Japan, and many western European nations. He could spell out how there will be special funding mechanisms, broad public-private partnership opportunities under this plan, and that there will be the appointment of an authoritative, highly respected infrastructure czar whose job will be to ensure this vision becomes reality by the time Trump’s second term of office ends.

He could even take a moment to nod towards Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer to say he is deeply aware that elected officials from both parties represent the nation’s citizens and that successfully addressing all of these challenges will require finding avenues of co-operation as both the presidency and Congress have sacred constitutional duties to perform their roles in a system of shared, yet separated, powers. He could add that he pledges to do his best to carry out this pledge, going forward, and invites others to join him in this great, solemn responsibility.

If he were to choose this path, the people for the shoutouts might include the CEO of a small American hi-tech company actually setting up a plant in the US, a Dreamer young person who is a decorated soldier (it’s a two-fer), a legal immigrant who has built a thriving business in an inner city neighbourhood through grit and hard work, and a special representative from Pyongyang, people like that.

Remember the first time this was done, Ronald Reagan had Lenny Skutnik, a printer at the Government Printing Office, stand and be recognised for his role in rescuing passengers from a plane that had just crashed into a bridge over the Potomac as it then fell into the mid-winter icy water. Skutnik was a non-political national hero who was the perfect everyman who did what was necessary without worrying about the consequences. (By the most amazing coincidence, the author and his wife actually saw the entire incident from our apartment window in downtown Washington, that very evening.)

If one reads the newspapers in Washington, the calculated leaks about the speech are that the president plans a visionary, positive speech.

The Washington Post reported on Saturday:

President Trump intends to offer an ‘aspirational’ and ‘visionary’ path for the nation at the State of the Union on Tuesday, White House aides said, even as his relations with lawmakers have soured over his threats to use executive power to bypass them.

In his third prime-time address to the nation from the House chambers, Trump will call on Congress to work with him on initiatives around infrastructure and healthcare, while also reaffirming his strategy to toughen immigration enforcement, confront China on trade and actively intervene in the political upheaval in Venezuela, aides said in previewing the speech Friday.

Trump will make an appeal for bipartisan support, the aides said, despite the heightened acrimony in the nation’s capital as the White House has engaged in a fierce standoff with Democrats over the president’s efforts to build a border wall. The speech comes after Trump began his third year in office last month during a partial government shutdown that ended only after the president set a Feb. 15 ultimatum to get his wall — with a threat to declare a national emergency if he is rebuffed.

“ ‘Together we can break decades of political stalemate,’ Trump plans to say, according to an excerpt of his prepared remarks offered by a senior administration official who spoke on the condition of anonymity. ‘We can bridge old divisions, heal old wounds, build new coalitions, forge new solutions and unlock the extraordinary promise of America’s future. The decision is ours to make.’”

Damn. If those truly are his words, it might be a whole new restart to a presidency in this new era of divided government.

Nevertheless, the Post also reported that the president was still ambivalent about using state of emergency authority to fund his longed-for wall, something that would be a real nose-thumbing to the Democrats – and some Republicans as well. As the paper also reported:

“ ‘I don’t want to say,’ Trump said at a midday photo op, when asked about that possibility. ‘You’ll hear the State of the Union, and let’s see what happens.’”

Aha! As we all know by now, once Donald Trump gets started, the little devil that perches on his left shoulder usually whispers into his ear and says, “Go on, go ahead, tell the base what they really want to hear: all the horror tales about the savage, brutal illegal immigrants coming to engage in rapine and pillage; the smuggled drugs and trafficked women bound up with electrical tape; and the barbaric hordes eager to steal jobs that real Americans should have. Tell them, too, that this has cost the taxpayer $8,658,485,332.67. Tell the audience that Nancy and her gang want totally open borders, and she is hoping all those drug-infested immigrants will become Democratic voters just as soon as the fake IDs can be printed by Nancy’s friends in the deep state. The base will love it.”

Then that mini-devil will take a breath, scratch his tail, wiggle his pitchfork around and continue, murmuring, “Don’t forget to tell them about all the new steel plants and coal mines; the complete success with Chairman Kim; the total defeat of ISIS; the perfidious Iranians who are trying, by hook or by crook, to complete their nuclear weapons programme and threaten our staunch allies, Israel and Saudi Arabia; and the big, beautiful wall that is already being built, but that we need the rest of the money. If Congress doesn’t appropriate it, we shall be forced to make use of a declaration of a state of emergency, take the money from the Pentagon, and all of that will be on your head, Nancy!”

If this is where we are going, the shoutout human props will be a wounded ICE agent, shot while single-handedly intercepting five tons of fentanyl being smuggled into the country across the Arizona Desert; an angelic-looking mother and her five winsome children whose husband was murdered by a pack of M13 illegal immigrants while he was working at his second job in a convenience store on the graveyard shift because Nafta sent his job to Mexico, and a man whose job was just barely saved in the nick of time by ending useless regulations about smoke emissions from his steel plant. And don’t forget the heroic soldier (and his mother), just back from Syria in time to celebrate his 98-year-old mother’s birthday in a little town in New Hampshire, who will stand at attention while on crutches. Take that, Nancy and Chuck! Take that.

Meanwhile, following the speech, the Democrats have announced that Stacey Abrams – the former minority leader of the Georgia House of Representatives who narrowly lost the gubernatorial race in that state last autumn – will deliver the Democratic rebuttal to Trump. It will be fascinating to see if her rebuttal will be spun by Republicans as if her speech is an official endorsement of all those extremist Social Democratic horrors so beloved by the Breitbart folks and the other alt-right outposts for their ability to stir up that base of theirs.

Naturally, fortified by copious amounts of very strong coffee, Daily Maverick will be getting up to watch the show, and we will let everyone know which road Donald Trump decides to travel. Just don’t bet your home on that high road, regardless of what the leaks are whispering. DM


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