The state of Donald Trump is not good

President Donald Trump delivers his State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2019. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

President Donald Trump’s State of the Union address had a proposition for Democrats: Set aside investigations and make deals instead.

“If there is going to be peace and legislation, there cannot be war and investigation,” Trump said.

The line landed with a thud — and even a smattering of laughs — but the president didn’t appear bothered. The offer wasn’t a serious pitch, but a preview of how Trump plans to defend himself in the difficult months to come. With the special counsel probe nearing its end and newly empowered House Democrats just getting started, the president is bracing for a flurry of subpoenas, high-profile hearings and political recriminations.

Trump’s third address to Congress came at perhaps the most vulnerable moment yet of his two-year presidency, troubled by unfulfilled promises, encroaching investigations and a splintering Republican Party.

Haunted by fallout from the longest government shutdown in history and facing the potential of another one next week, his message to lawmakers marked an attempt to seize the high ground ahead of a contentious re-election fight and looming oversight probes.

“An economic miracle is taking place in the United States — and the only thing that can stop it are foolish wars, politics, or ridiculous partisan investigations,” Trump said.

Trump, who successfully ran against Washington in 2016, is gearing up to paint Democrats as purveyors of the “politics of revenge, resistance and retribution.”

It’s a gambit that delighted Republicans in the room, who long ago tired of Trump’s combative approach toward opponents and investigators. But the strategy appeared destined to last for one night only — and couldn’t have found a more unlikely promoter.

Trump has hardly held back against Democrats in recent days. Hours before the speech he assailed Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer after the New York Democrat criticized him. Trump said Schumer was “upset that he didn’t win the Senate, after spending a fortune, like he thought he would.” Earlier in the week, in an appeal for border security, Trump argued that “Dems do nothing.”

And Trump had warned in November that if Democrats move on his tax returns and seek to stymie his presidency under investigations, “then we’re going to do the same thing and government comes to a halt.”

Democrats, who retook the House majority in 2018 in large part because they pledged to block Trump’s agenda and launch the sweeping investigations the president rails against, see the investigation as a fulfillment of their own pledge to voters.

“Tonight, the President spoke about the honor of being in the House Chamber, and all the progress that has been achieved here,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. “But at the same time, he threatened the United States Congress not to exercise its constitutional responsibility of oversight.”

In fact, the onslaught of Democratic investigations into potential misconduct and Trump’s controversial policies was set to kick into high gear barely 36 hours after the president left the House chamber.

Just this week, Democrats are preparing to hold hearings on Trump’s family separation policy along the U.S.-Mexico border and the possibility of releasing his tax returns. Friday will feature testimony from acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker regarding his oversight of special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe and from Michael Cohen, the president’s longtime political and business fixer who is a central figure in the investigation.

Trump’s pleas for action on area of common ground like infrastructure, prescription drug pricing and ending the spread of HIV seemed aimed at centrist voters who have strayed from his orbit after two rollercoaster years. Yet his ability to fully reach across the aisle remains hampered by the ongoing battle over his efforts to secure funding for his signature campaign promise — the border wall between the U.S. and Mexico that Democrats have vowed to block.

And even as he attempted to outmaneuver Democrats, Trump is confronting his own party’s newfound willingness to stray from his orbit as lawmakers debate immigration legislation ahead of a Feb. 15 funding deadline. Wayward Republicans undercut Trump during the five-week government shutdown, and White House allies now acknowledge there is insufficient GOP support on Capitol Hill to sustain Trump through another shutdown fight.

Even in the hours before Trump took the rostrum, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell dropped his longstanding demand that the president first agree to sign any funding bill before he allows a vote on it. As Democratic and Republican negotiators met on Capitol Hill, McConnell said he hoped Trump would sign whatever compromise emerges.

White House allies acknowledge it would be foolish to expect Trump to hold fire in the face of those probes and refrain from name-calling and efforts to delegitimize the investigations. Still, the president’s allies hope voters will at least give Trump credit for trying to reach across the aisle.

“In a lot of ways this is the first campaign speech for 2020,” said Jason Miller, a former top Trump campaign communications aide. “This is the president’s opportunity to demonstrate his vision for the country and where he’d like to go, and also talk about his accomplishments over the last two years in a setting that is unique to the presidency.”

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Associated Press writers Jill Colvin and Catherine Lucey contributed.

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Zeke Miller has covered the White House and politics in Washington since 2011. Follow him at http://twitter.com/zekejmiller

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Copyright © 2019 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved

In Dem response, Abrams nails Trump for failures

Stacey Abrams delivers the Democratic party’s response to President Donald Trump’s State of the Union address, Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2019 from Atlanta. (Pool video image)

Stacey Abrams harnessed the frustration of Democrats on Tuesday with a sharp rebuke of President Donald Trump for abandoning working Americans and fomenting partisan and cultural discord.

Just months after narrowly losing her bid to become America’s first black woman governor, the Georgia Democrat stepped onto the biggest stage of her political career to deliver her party’s rebuttal to Trump’s State of the Union address. She was the first black woman to deliver such an address and used the high-wattage event to blister Trump on everything from education and school safety to being out of touch with the middle class.

But she was especially stinging when it came to Trump’s role in the 35-day partial government shutdown over his demands for a wall at the U.S.-Mexico border.

“The shutdown was a stunt engineered by the president of the United States, one that defied every tenet of fairness and abandoned not just our people, but our values,” Abrams said.

Her speech was much shorter than the president’s hour-plus address. And she largely avoided the pitfalls of others who delivered similar responses, including Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who broke from his script in 2013 to swig sips of water, and Democratic Rep. Joe Kennedy III, who was ridiculed for his overuse of ChapStick in 2018.

Still, a union hall in Atlanta doesn’t compare to the grandeur — and bright lights — of the House chamber, where Trump delivered his speech.

In choosing Abrams to deliver the Democratic response to Trump, party leaders acknowledged the power and influence of women — especially black women — in anchoring the Democratic base. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer is trying to persuade Abrams, 45, to run for Senate in 2020, sensing the opportunity to flip a Republican-held seat and bolster turnout in Georgia, which could become a presidential battleground.

Some potential 2020 Democratic presidential contenders were quick to praise her performance.

“Stacey Abrams achieved in a matter of minutes something Donald Trump failed to do in over an hour — to embrace and give voice to the spirit and core values that make America great,” former Vice President Joe Biden tweeted.

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders said, “I think all know why she would have been a wonderful governor of Georgia.”

In her speech, the Yale-educated attorney traced her personal story to her parents, who were raised in segregated Jim Crow Mississippi. She recalled how her family and neighbors overcame adversity by relying on each other and valuing education.

“These were our family values: faith, service, education and responsibility,” she said, crediting her parents, both of them United Methodist ministers, for teaching her about “this uncommon grace of community.”

“We do not succeed alone,” she added. “In these United States, when times are tough, we can persevere because our friends and neighbors will come for us.”

Abrams’ audience at the union hall included workers, activists, labor leaders, health care professionals, educators, entrepreneurs and voters who her aides say had trouble casting their ballots in 2018. Abrams abandoned her governor’s race without a formal concession, asserting that her opponent, Brian Kemp used his last post as secretary of state to make it harder for people, particularly minorities and the poor, to cast ballots. Kemp defended his job performance, but Abrams has still emerged as a leading voting-rights advocate nationally.

“Let’s be clear: voter suppression is real,” she said Tuesday, arguing that the issue must be solved before government will be capable of addressing matters from climate change to expanding health care access.

“This is the next battle for our democracy, one where all eligible citizens can have their say about the vision we want for our country,” Abrams said. “The foundation of our moral leadership around the globe is free and fair elections, where voters pick their leaders – not where politicians pick their voters.”

As she did running for governor, Abrams spoke candidly about her personal debts, which Republicans have used as an attack. Abrams often said her student loans and other debts amassed caring for family members left her more empathetic than most politicians to what the majority of U.S. households experience in day-to-day life. “My family understood firsthand that while success is not guaranteed, we live in a nation where opportunity is possible,” she said.

Republicans are not sparing Abrams, with the Republican National Committee lambasting what it calls “extreme policies” that were “rejected by her home state of Georgia last November.” Trump resisted any shots at Abrams leading up to their prime-time juxtaposition. But last fall, as he advocated for Kemp, the president called Abrams “unqualified” for statewide office.

Even as she critiqued Trump, she said she wasn’t rooting for his failure.

“I’m disappointed by the president’s approach to our problems,” she said. “I still don’t want him to fail. But we need him to tell the truth, and to respect his duties and the extraordinary diversity that defines America.”

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Follow Barrow on Twitter at https://twitter.com/BillBarrowAP

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Can Trump recapture his ‘bully pulpit’?

President Donald Trump delivers his State of the Union in 2019 (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

Facing clear political peril, President Donald Trump will deliver his second State of the Union address at a moment when his bully pulpit is uncertain and his negotiating skills in question after a monthlong government shutdown that exposed fractures in his party and sent his poll numbers tumbling.

Trump hopes to use his Tuesday speech to reset his agenda and begin to gear up for his 2020 re-election campaign. But even as the president promises a theme of unity, his performance is likely to draw cheers from one side of the deeply divided Congress and stony silence from the other.

The split between Democrats and Republicans, each side dug in over Trump’s long-sought border wall, reinforces questions about his ability to move both Congress and the electorate.

All this while Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., sits just behind him on the top tier of the House dais during the address, a looming reminder of his shutdown defeat and his struggles to adapt to a new, divided Washington.

The speech itself, an annual set piece that gives the president a grand stage to speak directly to a national audience of millions, could prove bittersweet for Trump. While the president, ever the showman, will relish the theatrics of the moment, his prime-time address to the nation comes a week later than originally planned after Pelosi forced a postponement while the government was closed.

Trump made his dealmaking abilities central to his presidency but he has been unable to move emboldened Democrats, firm in their resistance to paying for a border wall with Mexico. Without it, Trump has threatened to declare a national emergency or shutter the government again. Both options are opposed by a growing number of Republicans, potentially leaving Trump weakened with his own party as several political dark clouds loom. Among them are the conclusion of the special counsel’s Russia investigation and growing talk from the left about the possibility of impeachment.

“Presidents have walked into that chamber in weakened positions before,” said Jon Meacham, a presidential historian and author, invoking Bill Clinton after Republicans swept the 1994 midterm elections. “But Trump does not have the usual base of support. Legislative Republicans fell in line with Trump because they were afraid of him and his supporters and if that support is eroding, the end will be quick.”

Trump’s allies, some of whom worry that his voice has been diminished, suggest he should use the speech to showcase his administration’s record as well as repeat his call for the wall.

“He needs to highlight the successes he’s had with the economy and trade and with conservative justices,” said former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. “And I think he needs to stare Democrats down and challenge them to defy him on the need for border security.”

As the Feb. 15 deadline that could lead the government to close again nears, the State of the Union provides the president with his best chance yet to sell the public on the need for the wall. Previous efforts at harnessing at the power of the office to make that case have failed.

A trip to the border didn’t move the needle after Trump himself voiced private skepticism that it would work. An Oval Office address was widely panned, with the president himself being his harshest critic, complaining to aides that he looked “flat” and “lifeless.” Round after round of polling suggests that Americans do not believe a wall is needed and don’t feel it is a fight worth shutting down the government over.

White House aides have kept details of the speech under wraps, though Trump is expected to paint a picture of a country on the comeback while pushing new trade deals as well as proposals about drug pricing, health care and public works.

But there will be stark reminders throughout the House chamber that Trump’s political reality has changed, now 21 months before he faces voters again.

Pelosi will be visible in nearly every camera shot beamed to a national broadcast audience. Her presence is evidence of the newly empowered House Democrats. And it makes clear how she can use her political clout and her party can wield the power of the subpoena to thwart Trump’s agenda and open investigations into his government and business.

“It’s a dynamic created in the television age but it’s also a demonstration for the country that the executive and legislative branches are separate but equal powers,” said Jennifer Palmieri, former communications director for President Barack Obama and a top aide on Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign. “And a very powerful woman who has a big hand in controlling his fate could be very distracting to him.”

In the chamber will be several Democrats vying to replace Trump and rising party stars such as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York. Some Democrats will be flanked by invited guests, including people affected by the shutdown, and their presence is meant to highlight Trump’s vulnerability.

As for the president, he ignored the divisions in Washington as he pledged to use his speech to call for Americans to set aside their differences.

“I really think it’s unification, I think it’s industry, I think it’s about the people you see here,” Trump said Thursday while hosting a group of manufacturers at the White House. “I really think it’s going to be a speech that is going to cover a lot of territory but part of it is going to be unity.”

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Jonathan Lemire has covered politics and the White House for The Associated Press since 2013.

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Follow Lemire on Twitter at http://twitter.com/@JonLemire

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Trump to promote ‘America first,’ himself in State of Union

President Donald Trump n the Cabinet Room of the White House. (AP Photo/ Evan Vucci)

For all of President Donald Trump’s talk about “America first,” the next two years of his presidency could shine a sharp spotlight on America abroad.

His State of the Union address next week will be dissected for clues on how he’ll deal with a full plate of foreign policy challenges. His words will serve as fodder for ongoing partisan debate about whether his decisions will have passing or long-lasting effects on the world.

Will he pull troops from Afghanistan? Can he coax North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons program? What will America’s future role be in Syria? What about U.S. power struggles with China, Russia and Iran, instability in the Middle East and U.S. relations with European allies?

“There is so much polarization around this whole discussion of Trump — pro-Trump, anti-Trump — that it’s hard to make sweeping declarations about the success or failure of Trump’s foreign policy,” said John Hannah, who has held foreign policy posts in both Democratic and Republican administrations.

“There’s been some good and some bad, but also a risk that the president’s own unpredictability is undercutting some of his important achievements,” said Hannah, who is now with the nonpartisan Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

Trump campaigned on a nationalist platform he calls “America first,” telling voters it was time to “shake the rust off” conventional U.S. foreign policy and make addressing problems at home the top priority. His administration has torn up multilateral treaties, has focused more squarely on the threat from China — its trade policies and theft of U.S. intellectual property — and wants to pull America out of what Trump calls “endless wars.”

Nobody seemed fully prepared, though, for Trump’s bull-in-a-china-shop approach to foreign relations — picking fights with allies, embracing Russia, announcing via Twitter an abrupt withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria and rattling nuclear sabers with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un.

At the halfway mark of his term, Trump will use his address to Congress next week to talk about progress in fighting Islamic State militants, who have suffered a significant loss of real estate in Syria through pressure from the U.S. and its partners, though intelligence officials say the threat has not been extinguished.

He’s expected to boast of opening trade talks with China and denuclearization talks with North Korea although neither deal has yet been reached, take credit for a hard-line stance against Iran through economic sanctions and make a case for ending or reducing U.S. involvement in Afghanistan.

He’ll award himself high marks on foreign policy and tease new action to come.

“We’re not going to be leading from behind anymore,” he told reporters this week.

His critics, however, see “America first” as a slogan that translates to “America alone.” They deplore his distaste for multilateral organizations — Trump has withdrawn from the Paris climate accord, the Iran nuclear deal, the U.N.’s top human rights and educational agencies, and the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal. On Friday, Trump said the U.S. is pulling out of an arms control treaty with Russia.

Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, calls “America first” a mix of xenophobia and isolationism that has meant abandoning U.S. values, insulting partners, ignoring human rights and the rule of law, and taking a 19th-century view of the world.

“I really struggle to find the basis under which this ‘America first’ policy has advanced America’s interests abroad,” Menendez said. “I think, at this point, things can be reversed, but the longer his policy gets pursued, the more permanent the damage will be.”

Kenneth Pollack, a Mideast scholar at the conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute, calls “America first” a “bumper sticker that obviously appealed to many people.” But he’s worried about the long-term effects of it, especially the president’s move to exit Syria.

Foreign policy experts write off some of Trump’s actions as theatrics, but the pullout in Syria, many think, is a gift to Russia and Iran. They say it reduces U.S. influence in neighboring Iraq, leaves room for Islamic State militants to regroup and allows Iran to consolidate control in the region and threaten its archrival, Israel.

“He’s walked away from Syria, which has just been catastrophic in terms of our relationships with our allies,” Pollack said.

Some foreign policy experts argue that giving Iran room to further entrench itself in Syria actually undercuts Trump’s own maximum pressure campaign on Tehran.

In May, he pulled the U.S. out of the nuclear pact the Obama administration and U.S. partners negotiated with Iran. Under the deal, Iran agreed to rein in — but not give up forever — its nuclear weapons program in exchange for an easing of economic sanctions.

Since then, Trump has ramped up sanctions on Iran while other parties in the deal — China, France, Germany, Russia and Britain — try to do business with Iran without running afoul of U.S. sanctions.

“The Iranians haven’t restarted their nuclear program, and U.S. relations with Russia, Europe and China haven’t ruptured — all of that’s true,” said Pollack, a former CIA analyst and National Security Council official. “But we haven’t necessarily gotten anything from pulling out of the deal either.

“The way that Trump has been handling Iran, I could see scenarios where we could get into a war with Iran,” he said.

When Trump delivered his last State of the Union, the world was worried that the president and North Korea’s Kim were arguing about who had the bigger nuclear button on their desk. Then in mid-2018, all the warmongering stopped. Trump held a historic summit with Kim in Singapore, declared the communist nation was no longer a nuclear threat and said the two leaders “fell in love.”

But while there is no concrete denuclearization deal yet, Trump is getting ready to go to Asia for a second summit with Kim in coming weeks, and he may use Tuesday’s speech to announce the summit date and place.

Since Trump’s abrupt decision to exit Syria, there has been growing fear that Trump will yank troops from Afghanistan, too, tapping into rising public support for ending the 17-year-old war. As the Trump administration negotiates with the Taliban, 14,000 U.S. troops are still training and assisting Afghan forces and fighting terrorist networks to prevent the country from being a staging area for attacks on the West.

At the same time that Trump is derided for insulting allies, he is credited with working alongside them and got bipartisan support this month when he took a tough stand against Venezuela’s embattled, socialist president Nicolas Maduro.

“With Venezuela, he’s not going it alone,” said Jason Marczak, director of the Atlantic Council’s Latin America center.

Working with partners, then demeaning America’s best friends is just one example of Trump’s often contradictory style on the international stage.

While he stood firm against Maduro in Venezuela, he has cozied up to other leaders, including Russia President Vladimir Putin and China President Xi Jinping — two countries that the U.S. will be in a power struggle with for years to come.

He says he gets along great with Xi, but the two are locked in a trade war. Trump says he’s been tough on Russia, yet he was harshly criticized in Helsinki for not publicly denouncing Russia’s interference in the 2016 U.S. election and appearing to accept Putin’s denials of any meddling.

He said the killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi consulate in Turkey was heinous. But while the U.S. sanctioned 17 Saudis believed to have been complicit, Trump would not impose harsher penalties on Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, citing the importance of economic and other U.S. cooperation with the Gulf ally.

“My policy is very simple,” he said. “America first.”

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