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What to Watch for in Trump’s State of the Union

WASHINGTON — Kellyanne Conway, counselor to President Donald Trump, told reporters that he will call for cooperation and comity in Tuesday’s State of the Union address, his first delivered to a divided government.

Trump’s 2020 presidential campaign, however, warned its supporters in an email blast Monday that “Nancy & Chuck don’t want me to speak, Mainstream Media outlets don’t want me to speak, and the Hollywood Elites don’t want me to speak.”

That message contrast — calls for unity on the one hand, fomenting cultural resentment on the other — reflects that political theater that will be at play during the event. There are areas where Trump can find some bipartisan common ground, like infrastructure spending and even on trade, but more than likely that will be obscured by the ongoing divisions over the president’s insistence that Congress fund a border wall.

State of the Union speeches often are more memorable for the visual moments or unexpected reactions, as in 2010, when Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito mouthed the words “not true” after President Barack Obama attacked the high court’s Citizens United decision.

Here’s some moments to watch for in this year’s address:

National emergency: In recent interviews, Trump has been pessimistic about the chances that a congressional conference committee will include funding for a border wall or some type of physical barrier. Instead, he kept the possibility of declaring a national emergency to get the wall build, albeit it likely would face a court challenge.

The question is whether he would actually declare a national emergency, or say he is ready to do so, in the speech. Trump has teased the possibility.

On Tuesday, he tweeted, “Tremendous numbers of people are coming up through Mexico in the hopes of flooding our Southern Border. We have sent additional military. We will build a Human Wall if necessary. If we had a real Wall, this would be a non-event!”

There are plenty of reasons why Trump would not declare an emergency within the House chamber. For one, there still is another 10 days before the next potential funding lapse, meaning that if there is no agreement on appropriations, the government shuts down again. The conference committee is still negotiating on border security, even though Democrats have made it clear they won’t fund the wall. On Tuesday, Conway talked of a national emergency being a “last resort,” and of giving Congress “has completed its work.”

Trump also is facing some resistance among Republicans on the possibility of declaring a national emergency. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) reportedly has warned him of potential opposition, and other GOP members like Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) and Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) have been vocal in their skepticism over such a move. If Trump were to make such an announcement during the speech, the media’s focus would likely be on the reaction of GOP detractors, not to mention negative gestures from Democrats.

Nancy Pelosi: Throughout the speech, just over Trump’s shoulder, will be Pelosi, the House Speaker, who will introduce the president to the joint session of Congress. This will be their first meeting since the end of the government shutdown, but it also will be the first time that Pelosi has presided over a State of the Union by a president of the opposing party since 2008, when George W. Bush was in office.

It’s almost a given that there will be a post-SOTU mashup of Pelosi’s reactions, i.e. when she claps and when she doesn’t, when she stands and when she sits, and her overall demeanor. That in turn will be a cue for other Democrats in the chamber.

By sending out the message that Trump’s speech will be all about unity, Trump’s supporters and perhaps Trump himself will likely seize on negative reactions to make the case that the dysfunction in Washington is due to Democrats’ intransigence.

“Anybody who’s sitting there with their arms folded, harrumph-ing, looking like they’ve sucked on 12 lemons. That’s on them not him, because he’s calling on unity. He’s calling for working together,” Conway said on “Fox & Friends.”

Democrats are lining up an array of ways to counter Trump, either during the speech or immediately afterward.

Lawmakers are inviting guests who reflect their opposition to administration policies on immigration and gun control, and to call attention to abortion rights and equal pay. Pelosi’s guests include chef Jose Andres, a Trump critic who spearheaded an effort to cook meals for government workers during the shutdown.

Many members reportedly will be wearing white ribbons or wearing white, the color of the women’s suffrage movement. (That’s also the color of the outfit that First Lady Melania Trump wore to the State of the Union last year).

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), the star of this year’s freshman class, invited Ana Maria Archila to be her guest. As the Senate was preparing to vote on the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, Archila confronted Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Arizona) to take seriously the stories of women survivors of sexual assault. Flake then balked at moving forward with the nomination until there was an FBI investigation into claims made against Kavanaugh by Christine Blasey Ford.

Ocasio-Cortez, a prolific tweeter, isn’t exactly looking forward to the speech itself. She posted a CNN story headlined, “State of the Union 2019: What to watch.” She wrote above the story, “None of it.”

The media: Trump is expected to tout a booming economy, giving his administration credit by removing regulations and passing a tax overhaul. But his presidential approval are still underwater, as they have been throughout the administration, and dropped further during the government shutdown.

The White House often has blamed the media for focusing on the negative, but a question is whether Trump will take a swipe at his coverage during the State of the Union, as he so often does on Twitter and at rallies.

Where he may address it is if he talks about one of his guests in the chamber, Joshua Trump, a sixth grader in Wilmington, Delaware, who has been “bullied in school due to his last name.” The first lady has made the problems of cyber bullying one of her signature initiatives. The president, though, has often expressed grievances about the way that he and his supporters have been treated by the media, so perhaps he will use the sixth-grader’s story to cast more blame.

News outlets, meanwhile, are preparing to fact-check what Trump says. The Reporters’ Lab has teamed with The Washington Post, PolitiFact and FactCheck.org to provide a FactStream app, with real time updates. Statements will be labeled red, yellow and green to indicate their truthfulness.

2020 candidates: More than a half dozen declared or potential Democratic presidential candidates will be in the chamber, and some of the contenders are seizing on the moment.  Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) will deliver remarks on Facebook Live at 7:45 p.m. ET on “the president’s expected message of division,” while Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) plans to deliver his own State of the Union response.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) has invited Lt. Commander Blake Dremann, the first openly transgender service member to be promoted in the military, while Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s guest will be Sajid Shahriar, a federal worker who wasn’t paid during the shutdown. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) invited Rita Brown, an advocate for worker’s pensions.

The guest of Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) will reflect one area where Congress and the White House were in bipartisan agreement last year — criminal justice reform. That is Edward Douglas, who was sentenced to life in prison for a non-violent drug offense but is now eligible for release. Trump’s list of guests also include Alice Marie Johnson, who received clemency last year after Kim Kardashian West made a personal appeal to the president in a White House visit.

The official Democratic response will be given by Stacey Abrams, who lost her bid to become Georgia’s next governor but who is now being courted to run for Senate. The Spanish-language address will be delivered by California’s attorney general, Xavier Becerra.

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