Donald Trump's first State of the Union Address is now in the books. There are many things one might have expected from the speech, but in the end, the single word that most comes to mind is one that the President probably regards as the ultimate insult. The speech was...boring.
Why so? A number of factors, really. First, Trump's normal public speaking style—the one he deploys at rallies—might be described as "Queens loudmouth." That's not really apropos for an occasion like this, so he clearly dialed it down a lot, with the result being that he spoke like he was sleepy, or maybe on muscle relaxants. Beyond that, the speech was very long—at 80 minutes, America hasn't has a SOTU of that length since Bill "The Bloviator" Clinton was in office. Trump also didn't say much that was particularly interesting, or unexpected—it was largely just a litany of Trump/GOP talking points (heavy on the Trump "achievements"). And finally, the speech was often meandering. It's true that The Donald used a TelePrompTer, and there were certainly some parts of the address that were carefully structured. Other parts, however, seemed unscripted, as if there was an agreement between the President and his advisors that he would be allowed to improv at least a bit. In particular, the final segment of the speech, where Trump introduced the various folks he'd invited to the address, seemed quite freewheeling and unfocused.
The overall theme of the address was supposed to be "unity," and it was, if you define the term as Trump seems to. That is to say, there was definitely some language about Americans pulling together and overcoming their differences and so forth. Most obviously, he declared, "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." But he had nothing to say about how that unity might be achieved, or what he was prepared to do in order to find a middle ground on...well, anything. And the entire speech thereafter was red meat upon more red meat for the base: Expanding Guantanamo Bay, cracking down on immigration, ending the "war on American energy" and burning more "beautiful, clean coal," putting America first, the importance of standing for the national anthem, the evil MS-13, the even more evil ISIS, bragging about the economy, and so forth. Trump's version of "unity" is clearly "everyone gets behind what I want," much like his idea of compromise is "we all agree to do it my way." In other words, it was a speech that talked about unity, but it wasn't a unifying speech.
In case there were any doubts about the extremely partisan tenor of the address, one only need watch footage of the audience. The Republicans stood and applauded so many times (between 115 and 122, depending on whom you believe) that they surely needed a barrel of hand lotion by the end of the night. Their standard for "applause-worthy" was so loose that the fix was definitely in—either Trump was trying to set a "record," or else the members of the GOP were trying to flatter their way into his heart. The latter thesis is given support by the fact that right-wing media outlets are already bragging about Trump's near record-breaking number of applauses, outpacing Barack Obama (who got 90 in his last SOTU) or Bush (who got 80 in his last one). Some of the most enthusiastic applause came from Trump himself, who often was so pleased with what he'd just said that he stepped back from the podium to join in the ovation. Meanwhile, on most of these occasions, the Democrats—at least, the ones who showed up—were stone-faced. Except when they booed, such as when Trump used the term "chain migration." It's worth noting that the Democrats were sometimes joined in their lack of enthusiasm by prominent GOP Senators, most obviously Susan Collins (ME) and Marco Rubio (FL). Maybe Rubio's hands aren't big enough to applaud.
Another predictable aspect to the speech: The number of exaggerations, misrepresentations, and outright falsehoods. Trump (as per usual) mischaracterized the tax cut as the "biggest in history" (it's not), incorrectly claimed real wages are rising (they're barely tracking inflation), said that the U.S. has corrected its trade imbalance with China (it's actually up 12% over last year), claimed credit for the construction of a new Chrysler plant in Michigan (the deal was made before he was a presidential candidate, much less a president), declared that the U.S. is a net energy exporter (it's a net importer), and squeezed in at least two dozen additional dubious statements. In fact, the website Politifact was doing such a brisk business during the SOTU that it crashed.
In the end, one wonders exactly what the goal for this evening was. When Trump stepped up on that dais, he did so with an abysmal approval rating (40% or so), worse than any other chief executive on the occasion of his first SOTU. All the talk of unity suggested that the plan on Tuesday night was to try to improve on that 40%, and perhaps to win over a few new Trump voters. If so, then the speech was a failure. He said nothing that will appeal to folks who have spent the year developing a healthy disdain for him (to say nothing of the folks who have built up a real, profound loathing). Instapolling also suggests that the address missed the mark; 48% of CNN's respondents had a "very positive" response to the speech. That may sound pretty good, but it's actually well below the high-50s that Barack Obama polled, and is, in fact, the worst number since CNN began measuring in 1998. A focus group of swing voters run by USA Today rated the speech "on the plus side of mediocre."
On the other hand, if the goal was to rally the base—which is usually the goal with Trump—then the speech was much more successful. The base surely heard everything it wanted to, and undoubtedly enjoyed all the applause, and the veterans and police officers trotted out as props, and the chants of "USA!" "USA!" "USA!" in the gallery. If this was the plan all along, then it would mean that all the "unity" verbiage was just a ploy so that Trump can claim he tried to reach across the aisle, only to have his hand slapped back. Given that he's made this same basic claim before, as recently as last week, this is certainly more than plausible. It is increasingly clear that Trump is counting on the Democratic primaries in 2020 being contentious, fractured, and bitter, with supporters of losing candidates going off to sulk rather than vote for "the lesser of two evils." With a bit of help from disappointed Democrats, third and fourth party candidates, voter suppression laws, his buddy Vlad, and an energized base charged up on its diet of red meat, he is banking on eking 270 electoral votes in 2020. In that light, keeping his base excited is key, so from that perspective the speech was probably a big success.
Besides Donald Trump, a few other people made some SOTU-related news on Tuesday night. There was the First Lady, first of all, who did attend the event, but noticeably arrived separately from her husband. There was also immigration hardliner Rep. Paul Gosar (R-AZ), who was aware that several Democrats had invited dreamers as their guests, and so cynically tried to score some brownie points by calling for Capitol Police to arrest all of them. And finally, there was Rep. Joe Kennedy (D-MA), whose official Democratic response hinted that Trump is a bully, and argued that the Democrats are the true party of unity. Kennedy's speech was certainly adequate; it did not end his career (unlike Bobby Jindal's), but it didn't elevate his standing in a big way either. And that's really the leitmotif of Tuesday night: The status quo has been maintained. (Z)
Given that today's news will be dominated by the State of the Union, it's an excellent time to sneak things under the radar. That's why it's likely not a coincidence that Donald Trump's lawyers announced on Tuesday that they are disinclined to allow their client to talk to special counsel Robert Mueller, declaring he has not "met the threshold" for that. Lead counsel John Dowd said that the decision is ultimately his, and that "I have not made any decision yet."
If Dowd decides the answer is "no," then the courts may just have something to say about whose decision it really is. Mueller would undoubtedly prefer to do this the easy way, but in the end, there is no precedent for a president to refuse to testify. And if Team Trump makes Mueller do it the hard way, Mueller may decide he'd prefer to chat in front of a grand jury, as opposed to the more cozy confines of the Oval Office. (Z)
Speaking of sneaking things under the radar, FEMA dropped a bombshell on the still-recovering people of Puerto Rico: Shipments of food and water will end immediately. No clear reason was given for the decision, or for the haste with which the supply train will be cut.
Given how frequently the Trump administration has shown itself to be concerned only about those places that have electoral votes to give to The Donald, the calculation here is presumably that there's no upside to helping the Puerto Ricans and no downside to abandoning them. It's a decision that has Stephen Miller's fingerprints all over it. However, the math may not add up the way the administration thinks. The harder it is to survive in Puerto Rico, the more people who (legally) move to the mainland. Particularly Florida, where most of the new arrivals will immediately become Democratic voters in a key swing state. An estimated 300,000 Puerto Ricans have relocated to Florida already. As a reminder, Donald Trump won the Sunshine State by 112,911 votes. (Z)
The chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA) wrote a memo that supposedly shows how Deputy AG Rod Rosenstein used the infamous Steele dossier to get a FISA court judge to approve surveillance of an aide to the Trump campaign, Carter Page. The memo tries to demonstrate that Rosenstein used biased material to get the warrant and is thus biased himself and should be fired. Nunes wants his memo released as soon as possible, the faster the better, to get rid of Rosenstein so Trump can appoint a successor who will fire special counsel Robert Mueller.
The Washington Post is now reporting that the Justice Dept. is working hard to prevent release of the memo because doing so would disclose secret information and jeopardize national security—and simply to achieve a partisan political goal at that. On Monday, Rosenstein and FBI Director Christopher Wray met with White House Chief of Staff John Kelly to argue against releasing the memo on national security grounds. They also said that releasing the memo would set a dangerous precedent for members of Congress releasing confidential information to further political goals. Trump will make the final decision, even though he hasn't even read the four-page memo. (V)
The media are obsessed about whether or not Donald Trump obstructed justice, so it is easy to lose sight of what special counsel Robert Mueller was hired to do: Find out if Russia meddled in the 2016 election. Just based on the public information, there is a wealth of evidence that it was involved in multiple ways. As a helpful reference, Axios has compiled a list of 10 undisputed facts about Trump and Russia:
And again, this is only the public information. Mueller may know things that aren't public yet. All in all, for a party that has hated Russia and its godless communism for decades, there seems to be an awful lot of friendship these days. (V)
Last August, Congress passed a law mandating sanctions on Russia as punishment for interfering with the 2016 elections. Donald Trump has decided not to implement them, claiming that they are already acting as a deterrent. However, that excuse is completely wrongheaded.
First, the bill Congress passed by a veto-proof majority was not intended as a deterrent to some potential future action by the Russians, but as a punishment for what they already did. Second, even as a deterrent, it isn't deterring anything. CIA Director Mike Pompeo recently told the BBC that he hasn't seen any reduction in Russian meddling. In short, Trump is simply defying the will of Congress and effectively saying: "What are you going to do about it?" Congress could reply by passing another law stating in detail what and who is sanctioned, but at this point it is doubtful it could gain a veto-proof majority, given that so many senators and representatives are now inextricably tied to Trump.
Nevertheless, the last word on this matter has not yet been spoken. While speaking to the Senate Banking Committee yesterday, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin was pressed by committee members to implement the sanctions. Sen. John Kennedy (R-LA) said Russian President Vladimir Putin had to be punished and the U.S. should "hit him until he is coughing up bones." Other members of the committee expressed the same views. Of course, whether Mnuchin can do something (punish Putin) that Trump clearly does not want to do remains unclear.
One point of contention is the list of 96 Russian oligarchs and 114 Russian government officials named in a Treasury report released late Monday. The senators want action taken against those people, but Mnuchin said he couldn't talk about it in an open hearing. (V)
As mentioned above, CIA Director Mike Pompeo doesn't see any sign that Russian cyber meddling is slowing down. In fact, he expects the Russians to actively meddle in the 2018 elections. He also noted that they have been doing this for years, and there is no reason to believe they will suddenly stop.
He also said that the Chinese are going to get into the act and try as well since they also have a world-class cyber capability. He said they would try to infiltrate schools, hospitals, medical systems, and corporate America and that America needed to do much more in pushing back. He also said it is absurd to say that Trump isn't engaged and doesn't have a grasp of these important issues. (V)
At the Koch brothers conference in California last weekend, the president of their PAC said that 80 House seats are in play. That roughly agrees with nonpartisan estimates. Charlie Cook puts it at 86 seats and Nathan Gonzales thinks 67 seats are competitive.
The Republicans' problem is that due to massive gains in 2010 and 2014, they have far more seats to defend than the Democrats. Cook says that 66 Republican seats are in play vs. only 20 Democratic seats. Gonzales breaks it down as 54 and 13, respectively. Either way, if the Democrats can hold their own seats, which is easy in a wave election, and win half of the competitive Republican seats, that will be more than the 24 they need to flip the House. Another factor that is not yet known is how many more Republicans are going to retire after this term. Open seats are far more vulnerable than seats with an incumbent running for reelection. Currently, 32 Republican-held seats will be open in November, and this is not counting several Republican-held seats for which there will be special elections this year. (V)