WASHINGTON (AP) — The bitter partisanship of the past two years was on full display Tuesday just hours before President Donald Trump was to call for optimism and unity in his State of the Union address.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York seems to have triggered the latest Trump twitter outburst when he said on the Senate floor that the president talks about unity in his annual addresses to the nation but “spends the other 364 days of the year dividing us.” He accused Trump of “blatant hypocrisy.”
Skepticism was already expected from both sides of the aisle for Trump’s televised address to lawmakers and the nation. Democrats, emboldened after the midterm elections and the recent shutdown fight, see little evidence that the president is willing to compromise. Even Trump’s staunchest allies know that bipartisan rhetoric read off of a teleprompter is usually undermined by scorching tweets and unpredictable policy maneuvers.
The deeply personal attacks show the challenge for Trump as he attempts a reset with Congress. Still, the fact that his advisers feel a need to try a different approach is a tacit acknowledgement that the president’s standing is weakened as he begins his third year in office.
The shutdown left some Republicans frustrated over his insistence on a border wall, something they warned him the new Democratic House majority would not bend on. Trump’s approval rating during the shutdown dipped to 34 percent, down from 42 percent a month earlier, according to a recent survey conducted by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.
White House press secretary Sarah Sanders indicated the president would highlight what he sees as achievements and downplay discord.
“You’re going to continue see the president push for policies that help continue the economic boom,” Sanders said Monday night while appearing on “Hannity” on Fox News. “You’re also going to see the president call on Congress and say, ‘Look, we can either work together and get great things done or we can fight each other and get nothing done.’ And frankly, the American people deserve better than that.”
But Washington’s most recent debate offered few signs of cooperation between Trump and Democrats. Under pressure from conservative backers, Trump refused to sign a government funding bill that did not include money for his long-sought border wall. With hundreds of thousands of Americans missing paychecks, Trump ultimately agreed to reopen the government for three weeks to allow negotiations on border security to continue.
With the new Feb. 15 funding deadline looming, Trump is expected to use his address to outline his demands, which still include funding for a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. He had teased the possibility of announcing his intention to declare a national emergency to secure wall funding if Congress doesn’t act, but four people who have been briefed on his speech said he was not expected to take that step Tuesday night.
While he is expected to continue to hammer his case that the situation at the southern border represents a humanitarian and security crisis, Trump is keenly aware of the optics of the speech and wants to avoid being booed in the Senate chamber, one of the people said.
Advisers have been reviewing options to secure some funding without making such a declaration.
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said he remains hopeful Congress can resolve the dispute.
“Democrats can call it a fence, the president can all it a wall and then we can call it a day, which I think is one way of skinning the cat,” said Cornyn, who is a close adviser to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
Trump will be speaking for the first time before a Congress that is not fully under Republican control. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who won plaudits from Democrats for her hardline negotiating tactics during the shutdown, will be seated behind the president — a visual reminder of Trump’s political opposition.
In a letter Monday night to House Democrats, Pelosi wrote that she hopes “we will hear a commitment from the President on issues that have bipartisan support in the Congress and the Country, such as lowering the price of prescription drugs and rebuilding America’s infrastructure.”
In the audience will be several Democrats running to challenge Trump in 2020, including Sens. Kamala Harris of California, Cory Booker of New Jersey, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York.
Another Democratic star, Stacey Abrams, will deliver the party’s response to Trump. Abrams narrowly lost her bid in November to become Georgia’s first black governor, and party leaders are aggressively recruiting her to run for Senate.
Schumer earlier previewed Democrats’ message for countering Trump, declaring Monday, “The number one reason the state of the union has such woes is the president.”
While Trump was still putting the final touches on the speech Tuesday, he was expected to use some of his televised address to showcase a growing economy. Despite the shutdown, the U.S. economy added a robust 304,000 jobs in January, marking 100 straight months of job growth. That’s the longest such period on record.
Trump and his top aides have hinted he is likely to use the address to announce a major milestone in the fight against the Islamic State group in Syria. Despite the objections of some advisers, Trump announced in December that he was withdrawing U.S. forces in Syria.
In a weekend interview with CBS, Trump said efforts to defeat the IS group were “at 99 percent right now. We’ll be at 100.”
The U.S. military says the Islamic State group now controls about 5 square kilometers (less than 2 square miles) in the villages of the Middle Euphrates River Valley in Syria, where the bulk of the fighters are concentrated. Including the large swath of desert around the villages, the militant group controls more than 50 square kilometers (20 square miles). The figures do not include IS militants in other parts of the country.
That’s down from an estimated 400 to 600 square kilometers (155 to 230 square miles) that the group held at the end of November before Trump announced the withdrawal, according to two officials who were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.
However, a Defense Department inspector general report released Monday said the Islamic State group “remains a potent force of battle-hardened and well-disciplined fighters that could likely resurge in Syria” absent continued counterterrorism pressure. According to the Pentagon, the group is still able to coordinate offensives and counteroffensives.
Administration officials say the White House has also been weighing several “moonshot” goals. An announcement is expected on a new initiative aimed at ending transmissions of HIV by 2030. “He will be asking for bipartisan support to make that happen,” said White House counselor Kellyanne Conway.
Trump’s guests for the speech include Anna Marie Johnson, a 63-year-old woman whose life sentence for drug offenses was commuted by the president, and Joshua Trump, a sixth-grade student from Wilmington, Delaware, who was allegedly bullied because of his last name. They will sit with first lady Melania Trump during the address.