The Memo: Republicans hope for calm amid storm at State of the Union

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When President Trump journeys to the Capitol on Tuesday to deliver his first State of the Union address, some members of his party know exactly what they want to happen: As little as possible.

“I hope the speech is uneventful in a good way,” said Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.), a moderate Republican who has previously criticized the president. “Last year, he addressed Congress and that speech was reasonably measured. I hope that is what happens again.”

But as Dent and others acknowledge, there is no telling how Trump will behave at any given moment. 


That is particularly the case when the president feels embattled. 

Tuesday’s address will come with Trump under a cloud of new allegations that he sought to fire special counsel Robert Mueller last year. He also remains mired in low approval ratings.

But Trump’s defenders say he has a stronger case to make than many in the media will admit. 

Trump repeatedly insists that he deserves more credit than he has received for a robust economy. The passage of tax cuts late last year also helped undercut arguments that his relationship with Republican lawmakers was hopelessly dysfunctional.

As is always the case with Trump, however, there is the chance of unexpectedly grabbing headlines with an off-the-cuff remark jabbing at his opponents or one that seems ill-suited to the solemnity of the occasion.

“He has to not take the bait from Democrats,” said John Feehery, a GOP strategist who is also a columnist for The Hill.

Dent said that there were a number of issues he wanted to hear the president cover, including funding the government, a clearer vision of America’s place in the world, border control and a fix for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.

But he also emphasized that Trump would best serve those members of his own party who are facing reelection in November if he put on his most conventional face. (Dent himself will retire at the end of his current term.)

“I believe the midterm election will be a referendum on the party in power — and on the president and his conduct in office,” Dent said. “So to the extent that the president delivers a measured or careful address … that is the best thing he could do for Republican members. As opposed to [being] the president who is very impulsive, the way he is with his Twitter handle.”

Republicans who are hoping to see Trump offer an orthodox speech are taking heart from his address to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, on Friday. There, Trump softened one of his signature slogans, arguing “America First is not America alone” — echoing a line that is often deployed by the more moderate members of his administration, such as chief economic adviser Gary Cohn.

More generally, Trump emphasized that the United States was “open for business. We are competitive once again.”

But his restrained performance at Davos was overshadowed by a bombshell New York Times report — soon confirmed by other outlets — that Trump had wanted to fire Mueller in June, only being persuaded not to do so by a threat of resignation from the White House counsel, Don McGahn.

The report puts a fresh spotlight on allegations that Trump himself could have obstructed justice in the Russia probe. The president, asked about the Times story while in Davos, insisted that it was “fake news.”

Virtually no one, either among the president’s supporters or critics, expects him to make any reference to the Russia investigation during his State of the Union address.

Some Republicans argue that the complexities of the Russia probe mean less to voters than the combination of the strong economy and the recent tax cuts.

“People don’t care about it beyond Washington,” insisted Feehery, referring to the collusion investigation. “They care about their own economic lives.”

While that may be true of some voters, the economy has not lifted Trump’s poll numbers to any appreciable degree. 

Despite the relative strength of the economy, Trump’s job performance is approved of by only 40 percent of voters, according to the RealClearPolitics polling average as of Friday evening. Trump’s performance got a negative rating from 55.6 percent.

Democrats argue that the nation is so polarized — in large part because of Trump himself — that there may not be many persuadable voters for him to win over, even with a more modulated performance on Tuesday.

“Trump has failed to build his border wall, but he has built a great big wall between himself and the persuadable voters who live in this country,” said Democratic strategist Tad Devine. “Brick by brick, it’s going up, and it’s going up pretty fast.”

Republicans disagree, especially when it comes to the economy.

“He has a real chance to break through the news coverage to talk about how great the economy is, and how his administration has put policies in place that benefit the bottom line of Americans,” said Republican strategist Ron Bonjean, who worked closely with the administration in confirming Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court last year.

Other Republicans close to the White House talk about the speech in terms of the potential to show a “highlight reel” of achievements they believe are underplayed by the media. 

Some suggest he could also ratchet up the pressure on Democrats on the immigration issue, while also reaching out to more centrist members of the opposition party who could be open to a deal. 

“The president now has to put together a coalition that gets him to 60 votes on the immigration issue,” said one political operative with close ties to the White House.

But, as always with Trump, anything could happen. That, in itself, will be enough to keep both parties, and the broader political world, on tenterhooks come Tuesday.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.


Tags Charlie Dent Donald Trump economy Immigration Robert Mueller State of the Union Tax reform
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