Shutdown debate heats up Trump’s powder keg of a State of the Union


On November 30th, House Speaker Paul Ryan invited President Donald Trump to, two months later, deliver his first State of the Union address.

A frenzied period, culminating in a shutdown of the federal government, briefly imperiled the speech and could irrevocably influence its tenor and reception. Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney accused Democrats of wanting to hurt Trump and see the president give the address under a shutdown. The only time in history such a speech was postponed occurred under President Ronald Reagan in 1986, after the space shuttle Challenger disaster.

{mosads}The government shutdown ended and Trump’s speech will go on as scheduled, but the divisiveness and partisan politics surrounding the shutdown and immigration reform battle threaten to overshadow the address and complicate an intended presidential olive branch to Democrats. With another contentious deadline looming on February 8th, leverage and bargaining power will be important to both sides of the political aisle. This could make it difficult for Trump to strike a more bipartisan tone Tuesday night.


Trump could actually use the end of the government shutdown and perception that Senate Democrats capitulated to his political advantage. The presidency of Bill Clinton experienced two shutdowns in late 1995, with the second and lengthier one bleeding into early January of 1996. On January 23rd, Clinton delivered his address and publicly recognized Richard Dean from the first lady’s box in the House Chamber. Dean was a Social Security Administration employee and hero that saved several lives during the bombing of the Federal Building in Oklahoma City.

The practice of presidents honoring guests began in 1982 with Ronald Reagan singling out Air Florida plane crash hero Lenny Skutnik. Clinton took the tradition one step further by using Dean, who had been furloughed during the shutdown, as a poster child for why Congress should “never, ever shut the federal government down again”. Trump could employ a similar tactic by inviting a sympathetic guest from the armed forces or government who was negatively impacted by the shutdown to drive home an identical message. This would put tremendous pressure on Democrats to avoid another extended impasse in February and weaken their negotiating position on immigration reform.

In addition to the impact of shutdown politics on Trump’s address, the delicate subjects of immigration and sexual misconduct further raise the specter of controversy and drama.

The president was audibly booed during his address to a joint session of Congress last year when he brought up VOICE, a new crime office that would focus on violence committed by undocumented immigrants. In response, several Democrats are bringing Dreamers as their guests to this speech. Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.), for instance, has invited Cindy Garcia, whose husband, Jorge, was recently deported to Mexico after living in the United States for nearly 30 years without any criminal record. Trump will no doubt counter with a special guest that has a backstory supporting the case for improved border security.

The issue of sexual misconduct will similarly be on full display during the State of the Union address. Hillary Clinton wore a white pantsuit to Trump’s inaugural address and dozens of women in the House Democratic Caucus wore white during Trump’s 2017 address to a joint session of Congress in honor of women’s suffrage. This time they plan to wear black to show solidarity with victims of sexual misconduct, following Hollywood’s lead at the recent Golden Globe Awards.

Trump has been accused of sexual misconduct by more than a dozen women, but contends the numerous allegations are baseless. Some Democratic House members have invited victims of sexual assault to the address to highlight the issue. There have even been discussions about bringing some of Trump’s own accusers to the speech. Trump did something similar to Hillary Clinton, inviting her husband’s accusers to attend the second presidential debate in St. Louis.

Uncertainty remains surrounding the final guest list, but the potential for fireworks and sideshows is very real.

High-profile disputes in the House Chamber during similar speeches are not without precedent. Congressman Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) shouted “You lie!” at President Barack Obama during an address to a joint session of Congress on health care reform in 2009. Wilson was later formally punished for the outburst via a House resolution of disapproval. During Obama’s 2010 State of the Union address, Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito mouthed the phrase “not true” in response to presidential criticism over the recently issued Citizens United ruling concerning campaign contributions and the First Amendment. In both instances, controversies in the gallery overshadowed the speech content and bizarre media cycles emerged for an extended period of time.


The first year of the Trump presidency has been chaotic and unpredictable. The inaugural address was short yet bleak and nationalistic in its appeal. Conversely, Trump’s address to a joint session of Congress just a month later was upbeat and conciliatory. The rubber match is a total wild card that’s impossible to completely predict.

If Trump originally planned on giving a mostly conventional address that included outreach to Democrats and moderates, with the intention of increasing the size of his political coalition in the run-up to the midterm elections, the rancor and ugliness of the government shutdown potentially alters this calculation because there is a lot riding on the outcome of the immigration reform debate next month.

The necessary accelerants to produce a powder keg of a speech with accompanying chaos and political fallout is clearly in place on Tuesday night. If nothing else, this should ensure a large audience on the edge of their seats wondering what to expect next.

Aaron Kall is the director of debate at the University of Michigan and editor/co-author of “The State of the Union Is … Memorable Addresses of the Last Fifty Years.”

Tags Barack Obama Bill Clinton Bill Clinton Debbie Dingell Donald Trump Donald Trump Donald Trump presidential campaign Hillary Clinton Joe Wilson Look Ahead: SOTU 2018 Mick Mulvaney Paul Ryan Politics Presidency of Donald Trump State of the Union United States

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