WASHINGTON — If history is any guide, President Donald Trump will head to Capitol Hill Tuesday night and call for unity, bipartisanship and a trillion-dollar-plus infrastructure package to fix the nation’s roads and bridges.
And if history is any guide, he will within days or even hours of his State of the Union address let loose divisive attacks against Democrats and other critics and veer off on unrelated tangents. There will not be any infrastructure package.
“When he tries to be presidential, it just isn’t believable,” said David Jolly, a former Republican congressman from Florida. “Even when he speaks rationally, no one trusts him. And he owns that.”
A senior White House official, speaking on condition of anonymity at the insistence of the White House, said Trump’s third address to a joint session of Congress would be “an inspiring vision of American greatness,” claiming the address would be both “optimistic” and “unifying.”
Yet Trump’s two previous such speeches — the State of the Union last January and a 2017 address five weeks after taking office — called for unity, only to be followed by actions and statements that appealed primarily to the roughly 35 percent of the country that supports him strongly.
In his 2017 speech — during which a frequent critic declared, “He became president of the United States in that moment” — Trump said in his prepared remarks, “The time for trivial fights is behind us.”
Just two days later, he called an FBI investigation into his campaign’s ties to Russia a “witch hunt.” Two days after that, he made the — false — accusation that his predecessor “wire tapped” his Trump Tower home and that Democratic congressional leaders should also be investigated for their ties to Russia. (He also attacked Arnold Schwarzenegger for having poor ratings hosting “The Apprentice,” the reality TV show that Trump rode to national prominence.)
On Jan. 30, 2018, reading words off a teleprompter that others had written for him, Trump said, “Tonight, I call upon on all of us to set aside our differences, to seek out common ground and to summon the unity we need to deliver for the people. This is really the key. These are the people we were elected to serve.”
Just 33 hours later, Trump wrote on Twitter, “NOT ONE DEM VOTED FOR OUR TAX CUT BILL! Need more Republicans in ’18.” He subsequently attacked Democrats and urged his audiences to vote Republican at both official and campaign events for the next nine months.
“This president, however much he may try, however much he calls for unity, however much he calls for working together for the common good, those words just fall on deaf ears. He ruined that brand as part of his initial brand,” said Jolly. “All of his calls tomorrow will be ruined by a tweet attacking the one person he needs, [Democratic House Speaker] Nancy Pelosi.”
It’s going to be: ‘Me, me, me. Build my wall, build my wall, build my wall. The economy is great.' Rick Wilson, Republican political consultant
Apart from the tone, the contents of Trump’s address may also be undone by inaction in the coming year.
In his 2017 speech, for example, Trump called for a $1 trillion package to rebuild the country’s roads, bridges and ports. In 2018 he called for $1.5 trillion in infrastructure spending. In neither year did his White House deliver a detailed infrastructure proposal to Capitol Hill.
In 2017 his White House suggested taking $200 billion from other programs and somehow leveraging that with private-sector money to total $1 trillion, but never made any serious legislative proposal. In 2018 the White House made no serious infrastructure effort at all.
Rick Wilson, a longtime Trump critic and Republican political consultant, said trying to analyze either the tone or the content of the president’s remarks is a waste of time. Because he is so prone to falsehoods and his administration is so bad with follow-up on policy matters, Wilson said, what Trump says is of no consequence, in any event.
“It’s going to be: ‘Me, me, me. Build my wall, build my wall, build my wall. The economy is great,’” Wilson said.
Trump’s speech in the House chamber was originally scheduled for Jan. 29 but was postponed by Pelosi because of the partial government shutdown. Trump, after 35 days, backed down from his insistence that he would not reopen the government unless Democrats supported spending billions for a border wall that he originally promised Mexico would pay for.
But the spending bill Trump signed on Jan. 25 runs out on Feb. 15. If a new appropriations bill is not signed into law by then, about a quarter of the government could again shut down. He has threatened to allow that, but has also raised the possibility that he will declare a “national emergency” to build the wall, using money appropriated for other purposes.