Twenty-one years ago, President Bill Clinton delivered his 1999 State of the Union address while his impeachment trial was underway in the Senate. The speech, one Republican critic said, was “a home run.”
Clinton, who knew he would soon be acquitted, didn’t mention his impeachment. Instead, he focused on the future. He took credit for the strong economy, proposed bipartisan legislation to rescue Social Security and appealed to his opponents to rise above their differences.
The situation facing President Trump as he approaches his third State of the Union speech is uncannily similar. When he speaks on Tuesday evening, his impeachment trial won’t be over; the Senate is expected to vote to acquit him on Wednesday.
Trump faces a test of self-control. Can he resist the temptation to gloat over his coming victory and deride the Democrats whose impeachment effort fell short? Or can he rise above the moment to revive attempts at bipartisan cooperation?
Trump’s record as president and the circumstances of his impeachment offer no grounds for optimism.
When Clinton was impeached by the House, the nation was bitterly polarized, just as it is now. But Clinton acknowledged he had misbehaved by having an affair with a White House intern, then lying about it. Before his Senate trial, he said he was “profoundly sorry” for his actions and added, “I understand that accountability demands consequences.”
Trump, in contrast, insists he did nothing wrong by pressing Ukraine to investigate a Democratic candidate for president, effectively soliciting foreign help for his reelection bid.
He offers no closure, except on his terms. House Democrats will continue investigating his conduct, and he’ll continue denouncing their inquiries as a witch hunt.
Bipartisan cooperation has never come naturally to Trump. He occasionally talks about seeking common ground, but that’s not how he governs. He relies on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and other Republican leaders to advance a conservative agenda with few nods to the other side. He’s more comfortable denouncing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi than negotiating with her.
And this is a presidential election year, when divisions are always harder to bridge. The president’s reelection campaign has focused on sharpening differences with Democrats, not enlarging his coalition.
“Democrats stand for crime, corruption and chaos,” Trump declared at a raucous campaign rally in New Jersey last week. “Republicans stand for law, order and justice.” Not much room for bipartisan outreach there.
His State of the Union speech may include a ritual appeal to national unity, just as it did last year and the year before. But his everyday actions and rhetoric undercut whatever gauzy sentiments he will read from his text. And the rest of his speech, if it holds to his previous pattern, will be a self-congratulatory description of the world according to Trump.
He’ll declare that the U.S. economy is enjoying “a boom the likes of which the world has never seen,” a claim that is partly true and partly not. The current expansion, which began under President Obama, is the longest on record, but growth is running at only about 2% a year, far short of an all-time high.
He’ll claim major victories in signing a trade pact with Canada and Mexico and a partial agreement with China, although trade experts say both deals are more modest than he claims.
He’ll extol his foreign policy exploits as he’d like them to be seen: his defeat of Islamic State (which hasn’t stopped fighting), his actions to deter Iran (which doesn’t seem deterred), his diplomacy with North Korea (which has gone nowhere), and his new Israeli-Palestinian peace plan (which won’t produce peace anytime soon).
He’ll claim progress on other fronts, including prescription drug prices, which he says are going down even though they’re not. He may even say, as he did in New Jersey, that Mexico is paying for his border wall, even though it’s not.
In short, it will mostly be a Trump campaign speech dressed up with more dignified language than his rally stem winders.
To be fair, other presidents have used their annual addresses to Congress to help them run for reelection.
But none of them were running after being impeached. Tuesday’s speech gives Trump a prime opportunity to show what, if anything, he has learned from his impeachment.
He’s unlikely to declare himself chastened. But will he take a public victory lap? Will he declare himself emboldened and newly empowered to stretch his presidential powers? Will he rebuke the Republican senators who dared to call his actions on Ukraine inappropriate even though they voted not to remove him from office?
A conventional president might say: “I thought my impeachment was unwarranted and I’m pleased that the Senate appears to agree. Now we can get back to the job the American people sent us here to do.”
A graceful president might even acknowledge that some of his actions were wrong and use his acquittal as an opportunity for a fresh start.
But Trump is neither conventional nor graceful. Magnanimity is not among his attributes, in victory or otherwise. The lessons he draws and the tone he strikes will make this year’s State of the Union speech well worth watching.