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Trump Could Reset His Presidency at the State of the Union. Here’s Why He May Not

10 minute read

When Donald Trump enters the House Chamber Tuesday night, it will be the first time since he was elected president that he will be outnumbered by Democrats. How he handles the moment could define the rest of his term.

The White House has given hints that Trump will follow the script set by his predecessors, avoiding divisive rhetoric and stressing common goals like improving infrastructure and lowering prescription drug prices. A brief preview of the speech last week included lines about “bridging old divisions,” healing “old wounds” and building “new coalitions.” Trump said he’ll call for “unity.”

Then again, this is Trump, who mused that Democrats who didn’t clap at his last State of the Union were “treasonous” and has often defined unity as his opponents coming around to his point of view.

As a candidate and as president, Trump has had a number of opportunities to reset, moderate his rhetoric or find a compromise with his opponents: when he locked up the Republican nomination, squared off against Hillary Clinton in debates, took the oath of office and hired John Kelly as chief of staff, to name a few. Each time, the pivot has been brief or nonexistent, and Trump has returned to old habits shortly.

If Trump pledges to find bipartisan compromise in the State of the Union address, he’ll need to follow through for it to mark a true inflection point for his presidency, says Kevin Madden, former press secretary to then-House Majority Leader John Boehner, who is now at Hamilton Place Strategies. “It has to be broad and sustained on the back end,” Madden says. “After the speech [the White House has to] demonstrate that’s truly what they want to do and that they are going to pursue that as a broader strategy, rather than just one moment in one speech.”

There are already signs that Trump is digging in, regardless of the words on the Teleprompter screen Tuesday night. He hasn’t backed down from his pledge to return to a partial government shutdown on Feb. 15 if there isn’t funding for a border wall, or declaring a state of emergency to try to circumvent Congress entirely. On Jan. 30, Trump wrote on Twitter that Republican lawmakers trying to find a border security compromise with Democrats are “wasting their time.”

He may not get another chance to reset, however. Thanks to the partial government shutdown, Trump has already managed to push off the new Democratic House majority from advancing its agenda for a month, but the speech could be his last hurrah.

A battery of House investigations into the Trump Administration is about to get underway, Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into his campaigns connections to Russia is grinding on and Democrats are now actively campaigning for president. It’s all taking a toll. An NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist survey, conducted Jan. 10 to Jan. 13 during the partial government shutdown, found that Trump’s net approval rating had dropped seven points since December, to 39 percent approve, 53 percent disapprove. That included drops in key portions of Trump’s base, including a net decline of 18 percentage points among suburban men and a net decline of 13 points among white evangelicals.

For Trump, that seems to indicate that he needs to double down on his push for a border wall. He made building a wall along the Southern border the signature policy position of his campaign and his presidency, and whatever his speech may say Tuesday night, he’s not ready to compromise on that yet, with his political future potentially linked to the outcome. “I think he realizes how important it is to get a win out of this,” conservative TV broadcaster Eric Bolling, who regularly talks to Trump, told TIME. “How important it is not to lose.”

That sets up one more moment in the spotlight that could be the inverse of the State of the Union.

The deadline runs out Feb. 15 for Congress to come up with a bipartisan border security plan that will mollify the President enough that he won’t shut down the government again over the same issue: a demand for more than $5 billion in border wall funding. In addition to dismissing congressional negotiations, Trump has suggested he might declare a state of emergency to get funding for a border wall if lawmakers don’t present him with a deal he’s happy with.

Counselor to the President Kellyanne Conway highlighted the contrast between the national emergency talk and the tone Trump hopes to strike in the State of the Union in a driveway gaggle with reporters the day before the speech. “The national emergency, if in fact, he were to execute on that,” she said on Feb. 4, “is because he believes we have a crisis on the Southern border and the Congress has failed to do its job.” She then listed the White House’s border priorities, including a wall and more immigration judges, before adding, “But at the same time, this president is going to call for an end to the politics of resistance, retribution and call for more comity.”

That threat to act on his own has alarmed some Republican senators who are concerned it could set a dangerous precedent for future Presidents, from either party, who may be tempted to act without Congress. As Republican Senators gathered for lunch on Jan. 29, a short walk from the Upper Chamber’s grand hall, they had largely come to the same conclusion: Trump simply cannot be allowed to declare a national emergency in his attempt to make an end-run around Congress to build his border wall.

Republicans are increasingly looking at their actions through the lens of a Democratic White House come 2021. If they allow President Trump to invoke a national emergency in 2019, what’s to stop, say, a President Elizabeth Warren from using the same provision to act unilaterally against the banks? The institutionalists in the Senate argued that giving Trump a pass if he acts would erode the power of the first branch of government detailed in the Constitution. Sen. John Thune, the No. 2 Republican in the Senate, told lawmakers that they couldn’t sit on their hands. They needed to call the White House and warn officials that, should the President act, they were ready to reject the move.

They may be forced to, regardless. Any presidential powers to declare a national emergency are subject to a Congressional veto. House Democrats are primed to do so, and in the Senate, with just 51 votes needed to overturn an emergency declaration, defections are all but guaranteed. The presidential move would likely be challenged in the courts, spurring a constitutional crisis and enraging Trump. Lawmakers, Thune said, needed to hammer the point home in conversations with the White House.

Emerging from the late January meeting, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told reporters that he was “for whatever works” to avoid another shutdown. But, he added, lawmakers needed to make the President feel he had other options than declaring a national emergency. McConnell is reading the same polls as the Democrats: most Americans don’t want a wall, and they also think an emergency declaration is a bad idea. In their frequent and candid conversations, McConnell has raised the polling data with Trump. Republicans worry the President is hearing the data points but not listening. Trump said on Feb. 1 he thinks there’s a “good chance” he’ll end up declaring a national emergency to get the border wall funds.

Those worries and disagreements over the next step in the wall fight will hang in the background of the State of the Union. Whatever Trump decides to do at the Feb. 15 deadline, White House officials have already signaled that even after the immediate crisis over border funding is resolved — one way or another — immigration reform will likely remain Trump’s top priority for the remainder of his term. Trump is interested in working with Democrats on an infrastructure bill, manufacturing matters and economic issues, they say, but a White House official tells TIME that the situation at the border is the most pressing problem.

“It’s like if a pipe in your house bursts, you don’t go to Lowe’s and start picking out sinks,” the official says. “You’ve got to fix the leak immediately, and then you worry about what sinks look best and what handles match your bathroom.”

In order to deal with any of these issues, however, Trump will need to work with congressional Democrats, as past presidents have done at this point in their terms. When his party lost the House during his second year in office, President Bill Clinton took a “very strategic approach,” says Russell Riley, co-chair of the presidential oral history program at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center. “He rethought his condition and as a result of that recalibration of that reality, he revised his White House and he revised his approach to governing,” Riley says.

But losing the shutdown fight has left Trump with little leverage to use with Speaker Nancy Pelosi to negotiate going forward, and it’s not clear that he’ll make the same adjustment that Clinton did in his relationship with the opposition party.

“The first step in dealing with the new Speaker has been pretty acrimonious and does not bode terribly well for bipartisanship,” a former White House official tells TIME. But, the former official cautions, that doesn’t mean Trump and Pelosi’s working relationship will necessarily remain that way going forward: “Everything in Washington has a very short attention span,” the former official notes. “A news cycle or a couple things can really shift the day pretty quickly.”

Conway says that Trump is already working on potentially bipartisan issues like infrastructure during the “executive time” blocked off in his schedule each day. “We are working on all of that,” she said Monday in response to a question from TIME. “All the executive time stuff you don’t see — we do a lot of that here.”

That behind the scenes work will need to come to the forefront soon, however.

“This State of the Union message is the most important one he gives,” says Martha Joynt Kumar, director of the White House Transition Project. “That is because he sets the tone and the direction of his Administration for the coming two years. If you do it the final year of your term, it’s too late.”

As he faces Congress and the American people Tuesday night, it will be up to Trump to advance a convincing message about those initiatives, and then follow through on them. He “has the added incentive of having low poll numbers [and of] Republicans losing control of the House,” says historian Kumar. “So it’s time for him to look forward, to really get control over what he wants to do and how he wants to do it.”

With Philip Elliott in Washington


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Write to Tessa Berenson at tessa.Rogers@time.com