State of the Union puts Trump into a rare situation: a diverse audience
WASHINGTON — When President Trump stands at the House rostrum for his first State of the Union address Tuesday, he will gaze upon an audience that puts human faces on the country’s fractured and polarized political climate.
Trump has often been accused of catering his administration to white conservative voters who helped him win the presidency. Tuesday’s annual address represents a rare moment where he will speak to a crowd with as many foes as friends.
The plush seats of the House chamber and the visitor’s gallery above will be filled not only with ardent Trump supporters, but a potpourri of Trump critics: lawmakers he has name-called on Twitter, Democrats who have called for his impeachment, members of congressional committees investigating his campaign’s contacts with Russia, and women legislators wearing black to support the ongoing #MeToo movement fighting sexual assault and harassment.
Many Democratic lawmakers, including some in the Massachusetts delegation, have invited guests hurt by Trump’s most controversial policies.
The guests include immigrants whose residency status Trump has thrown into flux, sexual assault victims, and technology executives opposed to repealing Net neutrality rules. Massachusetts Democrat Joseph Kennedy III has invited Staff Sergeant Patricia King, a transgender member of the military who may no longer be able to serve under Trump’s executive order banning transgender personnel.
“When the president looks up at our guests, I want him to see the face of a mom who was forced to decide between reporting abuse and making sure her daughter was fed,” said Katherine Clark, the Melrose Democrat. Clark is bringing Anny Gonzalez, an airplane cleaner at Logan International Airport who reported persistent sexual harassment at her job.
“The #MeToo movement has to be about creating a safe environment for victims to come forward, establishing accountability, and demanding action from our leaders, including, and especially, our president,” Clark said.
Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey will be one of several members wearing a purple ribbon to highlight the opioid crisis.
“It has been a year since President Trump promised to put real resources toward combatting the opioid crisis,” Markey said Monday. “We owe it to [victims] to remind President Trump at the State of the Union of his promises and fight as hard as possible for the funding they need.”
The president’s speech is expected to focus on the themes he has made a priority throughout his administration, such as reducing legal and illegal immigration and rolling back business regulations. Trump will tie the current stock market rally to the GOP’s tax cuts, the crowning legislative achievement of his administration to this point.
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Monday the current state of America is “incredible” and Trump’s speech will reflect that theme.
“There are some great things happening in this country, and I think you can expect to hear the president talk about a lot of those — not only what we’ve been able to do in the first year, but all of the great things that we’re going to do in the next seven years after this,” Sanders said.
During his campaign, Trump talked about America’s impending doom because of immigration and violence in its urban centers. He cast himself as a powerful figure who, alone, could fix crime, immigration, even the global conflicts that have frustrated America for decades.
At his inaugural address, he talked about the “carnage” facing Americans who had their lives “stolen” from gangs and drugs. In a February 2017 speech to a joint session of Congress, Trump reiterated similar themes.
A year later, the message is expected to be more uplifting. Sanders said Monday the official theme of the speech was “building a safe, strong, and proud America.”
“Look, we’ve got an economy that is booming. ISIS is on the run. We’re remaking the judiciary in a way that actually believes in upholding the Constitution,” Sanders said.
One group who will not attend Tuesday’s speech: several black members of the House of Representatives. Of 11 lawmakers who had announced they will skip the State of the Union to protest Trump by Monday evening, more than half were members of the Congressional Black Caucus, including civil rights legend John Lewis.
In statements explaining their decision, they cited Trump’s propensity to show hostility toward nonwhite groups throughout his life, such as his refusal to unequivocally condemn white supremacists marching in Charlottesville, Va.
More recently, Trump made vulgar comments in a recent immigration meeting that played on racist stereotypes about black immigrants and caused a firestorm in the middle of a key negotiation.
“To go would be to honor the president and I don’t think he deserves to be honored at this time after being so hateful toward black people and then black countries,” said Representative Frederica Wilson of Florida.
Wilson was the House member who got in a verbal back-and-forth with Trump and chief of staff John Kelly after she said she heard the president make inconsiderate remarks in a phone call to the widow of an Army Special Forces officer killed during a raid in Niger.
Trump “has brought the White House to the lowest and I don’t think he needs to be honored with my presence,” she said on CNN.
In the audience will be Republican lawmakers, many of whom will face reelection this year after one of the most contentious first years of any presidency.
The GOP has a majority in both chambers, but many have often stayed silent regarding Trump’s controversial conduct and as special counsel Robert Mueller investigates whether Trump’s confidants colluded with Russia.
The president has, at times, shown a willingness to stay on script, speaking in the lofty presidential language that Americans have become used to for commanders-in-chief. At other moments, Trump has veered off message, playing to the whims of the audience in a style reminiscent of his raucous campaign rallies.
Some say this Jekyll-and-Hyde approach has dampened the significance of formal events such as the State of the Union, because Trump is liable to contradict himself later.
“Caution: Trump will read from a teleprompter at the SOTU. It will be passable, though extreme,” tweeted John Weaver, the Republican strategist who has been vocal about his distaste for Trump. Some “will once again say he’s turned the corner, he’s met the minimum threshold, etc. and normalize his behavior. Don’t fall for it. Not for 1 second.”
Kennedy, the Brookline Democrat, is set to deliver the Democratic Party’s official response to Trump’s speech Tuesday, but he will hardly be the only liberal responding.
Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders will read a response on Facebook Live, House Representative Maxine Waters will speak on Black Entertainment Television, and Elizabeth Guzman, the first Latina elected to the Virginia House of Delegates, will give the Democrats’ Spanish-language response.
The late night talk shows will be hosting State of the Union-themed events. Of particular note: ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel will be interviewing Stormy Daniels, the pornographic film star who reportedly had an affair with Trump and was reportedly paid more than $100,000 to keep quiet.