Whatever Donald Trump says in this year’s State of the Union address, the timing on its own is illuminating. With the president’s address having been delayed a week because of the political impasse which led to a record-breaking government shutdown, any attempt to use the speech to call for unity will sound hollow indeed.
That won’t prevent Trump from trying to play the statesman. White House officials have briefed the media that the president will speak on the theme of “choosing greatness” – which sounds a bit like choosing to go extra large at McDonalds.
He will, it is suggested, say that “together we can break decades of political stalemates, bridge old divisions, heal old wounds, forge new solutions, and unlock the extraordinary promise of America’s future.”
For the man who is the most divisive president in American history (and there are some close contenders in the form of Richard Nixon and even, for a time, George W Bush), that is an extraordinary wish list.
It’s tempting to think he’ll say all that, pause, look to camera and shout “Naaahhht!”, before announcing that he’s going to demolish the Capitol Building and use the bricks for his Mexican border wall.
Then again, perhaps Trump is finally feeling the pressure.
Yesterday, homeland security secretary Kirstjen Nielsen finally agreed to appear before the House of Representatives’ homeland security committee, where she will be grilled about the administration’s future plans for the security of America’s southern border. There has long been tension between Neilsen and the Democratic chairman of the committee, Bennie Thompson, who argues that Trump’s plans to build a wall are not based on facts or intelligence, but are simply the fulfilment of a campaign agenda item.
Neilsen’s appearance follows considerable prevarication over a date and the clash – slated now for 6 March – is likely to reopen all the “old wounds” that the president is apparently so keen to heal.
In a separate development on Monday, prosecutors in New York issued subpoenas to President Trump’s inaugural committee, seeking disclosure of information concerning financial contributions and the identity of donors.
The investigation into Trump’s inauguration was first revealed before Christmas; but it now seems that prosecutors are stepping up their enquiries, examining a wide range of potential crimes from fraud to money laundering and the use of donations from foreign states. The inaugural committee has previously denied wrongdoing; but for as long as investigators remain interested, suspicions will linger.
As if all this wasn’t enough, hovering in the background is the spectre of a final report by special counsel Robert Mueller, who is said to be nearing the end of his work.
The arrest of the larger-than-life Roger Stone last month was a further win for Mueller, to go with the other victories he had already notched – among them the guilty pleas of Michael Cohen, Michael Flynn, Rick Gates, George Papadopoulous and the conviction of Paul Manafort.
Stone’s antics in the wake of being charged may appeal to Trump’s base, but if the president is on a mission to unite the nation, Stone offers a reminder of his master’s own polarising character.
Let’s not forget too that we are only a few days on from Trump’s decision to pull out of a key nuclear arms treaty with Russia. If this was part of his plan for “unlocking the extraordinary promise of America’s future” then we can only assume that the future’s primary promise is a return to the past. Trump’s "America First" economic agenda is similarly a blast from history.
Of course, there will probably be no recognition by Donald Trump of his own part in creating the divisions he now says he wishes (together with Congress and the American people) to “bridge”. Nor are we likely to hear the kind of blunt assessment offered by Gerald Ford in 1975, when he offered the downbeat view that “the state of the Union is not good”.
Instead, we will hear platitudes and inanities about how the president wants to make America great again, and – barring a miracle – the standard braggadocio about supposed achievements that has marked Trump’s two years in office.
The desolate, disunited state of the Union is clear for all to see. What President Trump needs to do is take a look in the mirror and examine the state of himself.
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