Skip Navigation

Trump Addresses the Nation Tuesday. Here’s What to Watch For.

Brennan Center experts offer their take on the main themes Trump may present in his state of the union address.

  • Brennan Center for Justice
February 4, 2019

After a bruising back and forth with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, President Donald Trump is expected to deliver his state of the union address before a joint session of Congress on Tuesday, February 5.

The speech comes on the heels of a government shutdown, weeks before a deadline over Trump’s border wall, and against the backdrop of the Mueller investigation. With so much likely to come up in the speech, we asked our Brennan Center experts what they think you should be listening for during Tuesday’s televised address.

Michael Waldman, president of the Brennan Center, served as director of speechwriting in the Clinton White House and wrote four state of the union addresses:

“This year’s drama will come from the fact that Nancy Pelosi is sitting behind Trump, and a new House of Representatives will be part of the audience. It will be a visible display of the resurgence of checks and balances. Still, there’s every reason to expect the president to trash the state of the union, just as he has so many other aspects of the presidency. He may mouth words of unity from the teleprompter, but we know he doesn’t mean it. More troubling, last year he did something unprecedented: he used the speech to demonize and stir explicit hatred. Presidents since Reagan have honored heroes in the gallery who did something noble for the country. Trump pointed to family members of people killed by immigrants. Their pain should be respected, but the ugly nativism of that — the implicit message that 'immigrants of color are coming to kill you’ — is chilling. We normalize that kind of demagogic rhetoric at our peril.”

Ames Grawert, senior counsel in the Justice Program, an expert on the sentencing reform bill just passed by Congress:

“Just before signing the FIRST STEP Act — the most significant overhaul of the federal criminal justice system in a generation — President Trump promised that it wouldn’t be the only step his administration would take toward ending mass incarceration. Going into the State of the Union, the question is: did he mean it? Trump’s speeches are also known for glib and frequently misleading claims about crime, aimed at scaring the public into supporting his agenda. How, if at all, will he reconcile the tension between that and his recent support for criminal justice reform?”

Faiza Patel, co-director of the Liberty and National Security program, who leads one of the court fights against the president’s Muslim ban:

“The president has a tendency to lie about the threats facing the American people. He is constantly telling us how we are being attacked by brown and black people, from Muslims to Central American caravans to urban youth. Often, we see federal agencies reverse engineering data to back up his claims. With discussions ongoing in Congress about funding for border security, I would expect that we would see more of the same from President Trump and curious to see what kind of data, if any, he uses to back up his fibs.”

Andrew Boyle, counsel in the Liberty and National Security Program and an expert on national emergencies:

“If Trump starts talking immigration, listen for rhetoric like crisis, emergency, existential threat, or something similar, especially in the context of his border wall. If the president ends up declaring a national emergency to secure funding for the wall, he may think it helps him in the surrounding optics or in any lawsuits that might spring up. In reality, such statements don’t change the fact that immigration does not constitute a true emergency. And if he were to declare one just to get his way, it would be a transparent end run around Congress — a co-equal branch of government — and a distressing power grab.”

Spencer Boyer, Washington Office Director for the Brennan Center, served in senior intelligence and policy roles in the Obama administration:

“President Trump will likely focus on border wall funding negotiations, the economy, and jobs, as well as his administration’s national security agenda related to North Korea, Iran, Syria, and Afghanistan. The speech will inevitably include high doses of self-praise for his efforts in each of these areas and perhaps additional damage-control regarding the televised split between him and his intelligence heads, which he has tried to spin as media manipulation. In addition, he will attempt to paint himself as the solution to — as opposed to the cause of — gridlock and partisan bickering in Washington."


(Image: Pete Marovich/Getty)