Trump squabbles with Democrats before speech on unity
By JULIE PACE, AP Washington Bureau Chief
WASHINGTON (AP) — After two years of bitter partisanship and personal attacks, President Donald Trump will call for unity and cross-party cooperation in Washington during Tuesday’s State of the Union address, a message likely to ring hollow with emboldened Democrats eager to block his push for a border wall.
Trump’s primetime address comes at a critical moment in his presidency. He pushed his party into a lengthy government shutdown over immigration they’d hoped to avoid, only to cave to Democrats. With another shutdown deadline looming, the president has few options for getting Congress to fund a border wall and he risks further alienating his own party if he tries to circumvent lawmakers by declaring a national emergency instead.
Trump was not expected to issue the emergency declaration in his speech, according to four people familiar with his plans, in part because he’s aware of GOP opposition and wants to avoid being booed in the House chamber. Still, the president was expected to hammer his case that the situation at the southern border represents a humanitarian and security crisis.
As he stands before lawmakers, the president will be surrounded by symbols of his political opposition. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who was praised by Democrats for her hardline negotiating during the shutdown, will sit behind the president as he speaks. And several senators running for president will be in the audience, including Sens. Kamala Harris of California and Cory Booker of New Jersey.
Another Democratic star, Stacey Abrams, will deliver the party’s response to Trump. Abrams narrowly lost her bid in November to become America’s first black woman governor, and party leaders are aggressively recruiting her to run for Senate.
White House officials said Trump planned to highlight areas where he believes he can work with Democrats, including infrastructure and prescription drug pricing. The focus on reaching across the aisle is a tacit admission from the White House that Trump may need a course correction if he is to win re-election. His approval rating stands at just 34 percent after the shutdown, according to a recent survey conducted by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.
Even as his advisers touted bipartisanship, reality kept breaking through in the hours before Trump’s speech.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York accused Trump of “blatant hypocrisy,” saying the president may want to talk about unity Tuesday but “spends the other 364 days of the year dividing us.”
Minutes later, Trump tweeted that Schumer was “just upset that he didn’t win the Senate, after spending a fortune.”
Against that backdrop, a bipartisan group of lawmakers is working to keep the government open. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said he remains hopeful Congress can resolve the dispute by the Feb. 15 deadline.
“Democrats can call it a fence, the president can all it a wall and then we can call it a day, which I think is one way of skinning the cat,” said Cornyn, who is a close adviser to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
While Trump was still putting the final touches on the speech Tuesday afternoon, he was expected to use some of his televised address to showcase a growing economy. Despite the shutdown, the U.S. economy added a robust 304,000 jobs in January, marking 100 straight months of job growth. That’s the longest such period on record.
Trump and his top aides have also hinted he is likely to use the address to announce a major milestone in the fight against the Islamic State group in Syria. Despite the objections of some advisers, Trump announced in December that he was withdrawing U.S. forces in Syria.
In a weekend interview with CBS, Trump said efforts to defeat the IS group were “at 99 percent right now. We’ll be at 100.”
The U.S. military says the Islamic State group now controls about 5 square kilometers (less than 2 square miles) in the villages of the Middle Euphrates River Valley in Syria, where the bulk of the fighters are concentrated. Including the large swath of desert around the villages, the militant group controls more than 50 square kilometers (20 square miles). The figures do not include IS militants in other parts of the country.
That’s down from an estimated 400 to 600 square kilometers (155 to 230 square miles) that the group held at the end of November before Trump announced the withdrawal, according to two officials who were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.
However, a Defense Department inspector general report released Monday said the Islamic State group “remains a potent force of battle-hardened and well-disciplined fighters that could likely resurge in Syria” absent continued counterterrorism pressure. According to the Pentagon, the group is still able to coordinate offensives and counteroffensives.
Administration officials say the White House has also been weighing several “moonshot” goals. An announcement is expected on a new initiative aimed at ending transmissions of HIV by 2030. “He will be asking for bipartisan support to make that happen,” said White House counselor Kellyanne Conway.
Trump’s guests for the speech include Anna Marie Johnson, a 63-year-old woman whose life sentence for drug offenses was commuted by the president, and Joshua Trump, a sixth-grade student from Wilmington, Delaware, who was allegedly bullied because of his last name. They will sit with first lady Melania Trump during the address.
Associated Press writers Catherine Lucey, Zeke Miller, Jill Colvin, Darlene Superville, Matthew Lee and Lolita C. Baldor contributed to this report.
Follow Julie Pace at http://twitter.com/jpaceDC