Five things to watch at Trump’s State of the Union

President TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden campaign slams Facebook after thousands of ads blocked by platform's pre-election blackout Mnuchin says he learned of Pelosi's letter to him about stimulus talks 'in the press' Harris to travel to Texas Friday after polls show tie between Trump, Biden MORE will deliver his second State of the Union address Tuesday at a time when he’s facing mounting political problems that have besieged his administration.

The president’s approval numbers are just now starting to show signs of recovery from the devastating hit he took during the record-long government shutdown that emboldened Democrats and exposed divisions within the GOP.

The sting of the shutdown has been exacerbated by special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) MuellerCNN's Toobin warns McCabe is in 'perilous condition' with emboldened Trump CNN anchor rips Trump over Stone while evoking Clinton-Lynch tarmac meeting The Hill's 12:30 Report: New Hampshire fallout MORE’s investigation into his presidential campaign’s ties to Russia, with the probe nearing a boiling point.

Here are five things to watch for in Trump’s speech.

Getting back on track


Tuesday night’s speech presents a much-needed opportunity for Trump to hit the reset button.

Aides say the president plans to deliver an “optimistic” address that will highlight what he sees as his achievements, while laying out objectives for the coming year. The remarks will be in line with the traditional, scripted format of past State of the Union addresses, the aides said, rather than Trump’s penchant for personal attacks and long-winded asides.

If Trump accomplishes that goal, it will likely come as a relief to many congressional Republicans who have grown increasingly concerned with the direction of his presidency.

The 35-day shutdown that ended Jan. 25 left Trump politically weakened as the 2020 race starts gaining steam. His approval rating is under water by more than 14 percentage points, the widest gap in about a year, according to the RealClearPolitics average.

Mueller recently dealt Trump another blow by indicting the president’s onetime adviser Roger StoneRoger Jason StoneTrump grants clemency to five nonviolent offenders Trump remarks put pressure on Barr DOJ veteran says he's quitting over Barr's 'slavish obedience' to Trump MORE, and former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen is set to testify to Congress on Friday behind closed doors — two developments that could put the president in legal jeopardy.

On top of that, recently published tell-all books and a damaging leak of internal White House schedules have raised questions about whether Trump has the confidence of those around him.

Still, the speech almost certainly will not be a panacea for Trump’s challenges. The nation remains as polarized as ever and any bipartisan praise the president has received for his previous two speeches to a joint session of Congress has been short lived. 

Tackling the shutdown fight

Trump is coming to Congress during crunch time for budget talks, with a Feb. 15 deadline to avert another shutdown.

In the lead-up to the address, Trump has slammed bipartisan negotiations as a “waste of time” and chastised Democrats for opposing his demand for $5.7 billion in border wall funding.

The president and his aides have instead hinted he may use Tuesday’s speech to lay the groundwork for declaring a national emergency that would allow him to sidestep Congress and build new portions of a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Trump told reporters last week when asked about the declaration to “listen closely” to the upcoming speech. But a senior administration official who previewed Trump’s remarks on Friday would only say that immigration will be “the top priority” of the address.

A declaration would likely spark a political backlash by riling Democrats and even some Republicans. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellMnuchin says he learned of Pelosi's letter to him about stimulus talks 'in the press' On The Money: Trump makes a late pitch on the economy | US economy records record GDP gains after historic COVID-19 drop | Pelosi eyes big COVID-19 deal in lame duck Lawmakers say infrastructure efforts are falling victim to deepening partisan divide MORE (R-Ky.) has reportedly warned Trump privately that such a move could divide his own party. There’s also the near certainty of legal challenges to declaring an emergency.

The senior administration official said Trump, “in a spirit of trying to reach across the aisle to advance the interest of all Americans, is going to try to provide a bipartisan way forward” on the immigration stalemate.


Potential olive branch to Democrats


The dynamic in the House chamber could not be any more different from Trump’s previous State of the Union.

Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiMnuchin says he learned of Pelosi's letter to him about stimulus talks 'in the press' On The Money: Trump makes a late pitch on the economy | US economy records record GDP gains after historic COVID-19 drop | Pelosi eyes big COVID-19 deal in lame duck Pelosi challenger calls delay on COVID-19 relief bill the 'privilege of politics' MORE (D-Calif.) will be seated behind him on the dais and several seats will be filled by Democratic lawmakers looking to defeat him in 2020.

Trump’s team has indicated the president may make overtures to Democrats by delivering a “unifying” message that contains proposals they could support, such as reforming prescription drug pricing, a commitment to end AIDS in the U.S. by 2030 and an infrastructure package.

But it’s unclear how much of the speech will be dedicated to bipartisan themes compared with appeals to Trump’s base, typically the president’s go-to move in times of crisis.

The president is expected to make remarks about abortion, which would thrill conservatives at a time when they have denounced several state-level bills and laws offered by Democrats designed to ease restrictions.

Aides have also hinted that Trump is willing to needle Democrats. White House adviser
Kellyanne ConwayKellyanne Elizabeth ConwayMelania Trump gives rally remarks in rare joint appearance with the president Melania Trump focuses on coronavirus in return to campaign trail McEnany appears on Fox in 'personal capacity' as Trump campaign adviser MORE told reporters on Monday that Trump will “call for an end to the politics of resistance, retribution and call for more comity,” spelling out the last word “c-o-m-i-t-y.”

Political watchers will be keeping an eye on 2020 Democrats in the chamber — Sens. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenWarren has expressed interest in being Biden's Treasury secretary: report The Democrats' 50 state strategy never reached rural America What a Biden administration should look like MORE (Mass.), Cory BookerCory Anthony BookerDemocratic senators unveil bill to ban discrimination in financial services industry Obama endorses Espy in Mississippi Senate race Durbin says he will run for No. 2 spot if Dems win Senate majority MORE (N.J.), Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisHarris to travel to Texas Friday after polls show tie between Trump, Biden Harris more often the target of online misinformation than Pence: report Maya Rudolph says she loves playing Kamala Harris on SNL: 'Feels like being on the side of the good guys' MORE (Calif.) and Kirsten GillibrandKirsten GillibrandOcasio-Cortez says she doesn't plan on 'staying in the House forever' Internal Democratic poll: Desiree Tims gains on Mike Turner in Ohio House race Hillicon Valley: Facebook, Twitter's handling of New York Post article raises election night concerns | FCC to move forward with considering order targeting tech's liability shield | YouTube expands polices to tackle QAnon MORE (N.Y.), among others — to see how they respond to Trump’s barbs and comments on immigration, abortion and other hot-button topics.


Explaining Middle East moves

With tens of millions of Americans expected to tune in, the State of the Union will give Trump his biggest platform yet to explain his recent actions in the Middle East that have befuddled many in Washington and abroad.

The president has not delivered a major address explaining his decision to withdraw 2,000 U.S. troops from Syria. Many will be watching to see if he announces additional details, such as a timeline for withdrawal, or offers a broader outline of U.S. strategy in the region.

The Trump administration has also sent signals about winding down the 18-year war in Afghanistan, as talks with the Taliban advance.

But Trump told CBS News on Sunday he plans to leave an American troop presence in Iraq “to be able to watch Iran,” which angered Iraqi officials who have been quietly negotiating with the U.S. over the possible deployment, raising more questions about his plans.

The president’s moves in the region have frustrated Republicans on Capitol Hill and fueled intraparty divisions. The GOP-controlled Senate last week voted overwhelmingly to advance a measure opposing troop drawdowns in Syria and Afghanistan.


Setting the stage for North Korea talks

Another major announcement Trump has teased is a second nuclear summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

Trump told CBS News on Sunday that the meeting “is set” and that he would reveal the details “probably” during the speech “or shortly before.”

“There’s also a very good chance that we will make a deal,” Trump said of the planned summit with Kim, which is expected to take place this month.

The president could use part of his address to try to win over skeptical lawmakers, who heard from Trump’s own intelligence chiefs last week that North Korea is unlikely to give up its pursuit of nuclear weapons.