Some supporters fear Trump will lose hard edge in State of the Union speech

Jan 30, 2018
  • By Michael D. Shear and Julie Hirschfeld Davis
  • The New York Times
ERIC THAYER/NYT
President Donald Trump arrives back at the White House in Washington, Jan. 26, 2018. Trump plans an optimistic State of the Union address promoting priorities like overhauls of infrastructure and immigration, but there are no guarantees when the president faces a television camera.

“American carnage” appears to be out. Bipartisanship is in. And not everyone is happy about it. 

When President Donald Trump delivers his first State of the Union address Tuesday, his most fervent supporters are anxious that he will squander the most high-profile moment of his presidency with a soft speech that bends more to the predilections of the political establishment in Washington and less to the populist army that sent him there to drain the swamp. 

Trump has always veered between ideological extremes in his speeches: He railed against “American carnage” in his inaugural address last year, then gave a speech to a joint session of Congress a few weeks later that seemed restrained and conventional compared with the chaotic first weeks of his tenure. He has delivered partisan red meat at his campaign-style rallies, promising to rip up NAFTA and demand better treatment for the United States around the world, but at a gathering of the globalist elite in Davos, Switzerland, last week, he spent most of his speech trumpeting the United States as a place to do business. 

Stephen Miller, the president’s senior policy adviser, is in charge of writing this year’s address, which could foreshadow the inclusion of the kind of hard-edge, anti-immigrant language that was a hallmark of Miller’s speeches for Trump during the 2016 presidential campaign. 

But even so, the hard-line nationalist wing of Trump’s coalition is worried that he is about to go soft again — to reach for bipartisanship instead of ideological purity and talk about cooperation with Democrats when he should be attacking the corruption of Washington, especially in the immigration battle brewing in Congress. 

“The question is: Will he display a resolve and a commitment to pursue his immigration goals, or will he start channeling Jeb Bush again?” said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates for restrictive immigration policies that Bush opposed as Florida governor and as a candidate in the Republican presidential primary against Trump. 

“What I would like to see is a speech that is strong in its principles but not obnoxious in its tone,” Krikorian said. “That’s something President Reagan always mastered, but Trump hasn’t figured out yet.” 

There is reason to think that Krikorian and other like-minded conservatives are right to be concerned that their preferred version of Trump will not show up Tuesday night. State of the Union speeches are always a tug of war among White House factions. And White House officials have strongly signaled that this will not be the kind of immigration stemwinder that Miller is famous for. 

Instead, they say, it will be “optimistic,” though officials caution that the ultimate delivery of the speech — and whether it follows the script that will scroll through the teleprompter — is ultimately up to Trump. 

Newt Gingrich, the former Republican House speaker who has advised Trump, said the president was shifting gears, eager to promote the booming economy and the enactment of his tax plan without combative language that could muddy his message. 

“They’re moving a little bit from ‘Trump the fighter’ to ‘Trump the winner,'” Gingrich said Monday. “There’s more of a sense of, ‘Look, I’m the president of the United States. I don’t need to pick a fight.'” 

While some of Trump’s advisers will pine for a darker and more strident tone from the president, White House officials say they are aiming for a more inclusive speech — in tone if not in substance. In addition to Miller, the speech has been put together with Vince Haley, another speechwriter, and Rob Porter, the president’s staff secretary, who coordinated input from other parts of the government. 

At the White House and among Republicans on Capitol Hill, there is a keen awareness that Trump benefits from extraordinarily low expectations of his ability to stay on message and deliver a coherent speech, given his tendency to ramble off script and insert divisive notes, insulting asides and mystifying non sequiturs that almost always overshadow the topic at hand. 

Given that, officials believe, the president will be judged a success in many quarters as long as he reads faithfully from his script, resisting the urge to respond to perceived slights or settle scores and instead sticking to a positive message that can resonate with a wide swath of Americans. 

“The president is looking forward to the midterm elections in November and his own election in 2020,” said Corey Stewart, a Tea Party Trump backer from Virginia who is running for Senate in the state. “He knows that he’s going to have to get his base out, but also expand it by talking about non-red meat issues.”  

Stewart, who drew national attention in 2007 as a county official for his crackdown on illegal immigration, said Trump might use Tuesday’s speech to seem more moderate on the issue as a negotiating tactic. 

“I’m not going to judge him until there’s an outcome,” Stewart said of the immigration debate. “He’s a master negotiator. He plays with Democrats. I’m going to judge him on what he does in the end.” 

Whatever the rest of the speech is like, much of it is designed to give Trump a chance to brag by recounting the successes of his first year: the confirmation of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, a rollback of regulations, the passage of a $1.5 trillion tax overhaul and stock market gains. Aides said Trump did a practice run in the White House Map Room on Monday afternoon. 

Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, an outspoken conservative Republican, said he was willing to accept a more dignified tone from Trump on Tuesday night as long as the president stuck to the conservative principles that got him elected. 

“I think it’s real clear,” Jordan said. “Let’s keep focused on what the American people sent us here to do: Drain the swamp, drain this place and remember that we work for the families that sent us. If we do that for the next year, we’ll be just fine.”  

Officials said the president plans to formally ask Congress for a bipartisan effort to address the nation’s crumbling infrastructure with a plan of at least $1 trillion financed by the federal government, states and private industry. 

That message could rally even some of the more conservative members of his party. 

“I expect him, because it’s his style, to go off the teleprompter a few times,” said Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky., a member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. He said a plan for fixing broken bridges and roads would be “a great way to start building a bridge to the other side of the aisle.”  

Sarah Huckabee Sanders, White House press secretary, on Monday announced 15 people who will be guests of the president and the first lady at the speech, continuing a State of the Union tradition that dates back to Ronald Reagan’s invitation of a hero who helped save victims of a Washington plane crash a few weeks before. 

The Trump guests include a welder from Ohio who will benefit from the president’s tax cuts; a firefighter who battled a monster blaze in California; the parents of children killed by MS-13 gang members; and a police officer who adopted an opioid-addicted baby in New Mexico. 

Sanders declined to provide details Monday about what Trump planned to say. But she added, coyly, “It will obviously be must-watch TV.”