Suspense precedes Trump speech
WASHINGTON — The White House has promised that President Donald Trump’s first address to Congress will be forward-looking and about the “renewal of the American spirit.”
Tuesday’s speech will give Trump an opportunity to stand before millions of viewers around the United States and the world, and to reframe his presidency after an opening in which he’s rattled world leaders, railed against leaked information, antagonized the media and seen his effort to halt some immigration thwarted by the courts.
He is expected to mention his less contentious policy moves — such as his nomination of Judge Neil Gorsuch for the Supreme Court and signing of a series of executive orders to rein in government.
But presidential counselor Kellyanne Conway told Watters’ World on the Fox News Channel, “The Trump address won’t be boring because Donald Trump’s not boring.”
Trump captured the White House with his say-anything style at raucous campaign rallies and his red “Make America Great Again” ball cap.
He has shown he can stick to a script, but not necessarily the one people expected. His inaugural address, typically a moment for optimism, was a dark sketch of what he called the “American carnage” ravaging the country. And his speech at the Republican National Convention last summer offered a similarly apocalyptic pledge to save the U.S. from Hillary Clinton’s record of “death, destruction, terrorism and weakness.”
“We keep waiting for the pivot, but it hasn’t yet materialized,” said Aaron Kall, director of debate at the University of Michigan.
There also are questions about how Democrats will display their opposition Tuesday night to the president, especially if they are emboldened by the vocal Trump opponents who have turned out in force at legislators’ town-hall-style meetings in their home districts over the past few weeks.
Democrats have made a point of inviting immigrants and other foreigners to attend Trump’s speech as a choreographed counterpoint to his exclusionary immigration policies.
There is no shortage of bad blood between the Democrats and Trump. He has mocked their Senate leader, Charles Schumer of New York, as the “head clown,” as a “lightweight” and for crying “fake tears” on behalf of those blocked from entering the U.S.
Likewise, the president still has work to do within his own party.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, when asked recently what he wanted to hear from Trump on Tuesday, told a Chamber of Commerce crowd in Kentucky: “A tweet- free, optimistic and uplifting message about where America needs to go.”
While the traditions of Congress demand manners and cordiality, plenty of drama has unfolded over the years in the interplay between presidents and legislators during State of the Union speeches and other formal addresses, such as Tuesday’s.
During President Barack Obama’s September 2009 address to a joint session of Congress on health care, Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., shouted, “You lie!” It was seen by many as a breathtaking show of disrespect. Groups of Republicans also showed their displeasure with Obama in more subtle ways, by snickering and not applauding.
Michael Waldman, chief speechwriter for President Bill Clinton, said Trump can easily “blow up a speech” with just a few deviations from the text on his teleprompter.
Waldman said pointed opposition from Democrats could throw Trump off his game, as well.
“How will he respond when several hundred Democratic members of Congress are not giving him the love he’s hoping for from the audience?” Waldman asks. “There’s never been anybody who’s stood there before, who’s responded to audiences with as much extemporaneous venom.”
Kall said heckling from Democrats or others in the chamber could be just the thing that energizes Trump and gives his speech extra zing.
Tuesday’s speech will be Trump’s first visit to the Capitol since his inauguration. He visited once during the transition and testified before congressional panels a few times in his years as a businessman.
He also met Republican lawmakers a number of times while he was a candidate, and those meetings mostly were received well. Lawmakers would often remark on how different he was in person than the personality they saw on TV.