As President Donald Trump prepares to deliver his first State of the Union address before Congress on Tuesday night, the investigation of Russia’s role in the 2016 election and the latest controversies to spin out of it continue to loom over his presidency.
Trump enters the chamber of the House of Representatives Tuesday with a 4.1 percent unemployment rate, a record high stock market, three straight quarters of strong economic growth, military victories in the Middle East, and many Americans already benefiting from the tax reform bill he signed last month.
However, he also enters the chamber with a special counsel investigation of possible ties between the Kremlin and his campaign ongoing, four former campaign aides facing criminal charges, multiple congressional probes, and accusations that he is trying to politicize the law enforcement and intelligence-gathering apparatuses of government.
A senior White House official told reporters last Friday that Trump’s State of the Union address would be optimistic and forward-looking, calling for unity in building a safer and stronger America. However, the speech comes as partisan divisions grow in Congress over the release of a memo authored by Republican House Intelligence Committee staff accusing FBI officials of abusing surveillance powers to spy on Trump’s campaign.
“From Trump’s perspective, obviously he wants to be talking about the memo,” said Republican strategist Ford O’Connell. “I’m not so sure that he wants to be talking about it at the moment.”
That said, O’Connell doubts the memo discussion will drastically alter the public’s reception of Trump’s speech any more than various other Russia-related stories will.
“I don’t think it’s going to have any impact on the speech,” he said. “It’s not like the Russia probe hasn’t been hanging over the president’s head since he took office.”
The four-page memo produced by Chairman Devin Nunes, which Democrats claim is wildly inaccurate, has been sent to the White House for review before it is released to the public.
President Trump has to decide by the end of this week whether to allow the public release of the memo, something aides say he is inclined to do. CNN reported he wants it released as soon as possible after the speech, a move that could drown out any praise his address receives in the days ahead.
According to Democratic strategist Scott Ferson, Trump has successfully navigated having multiple big stories in the ether for much of his presidency, so the memo and the address will not necessarily crowd out each other and both could benefit him.
“In the State of the Union, he gets to look presidential, so for him I think it’s all about the picture, less about what he says,” Ferson said. “Then with the memo, he gets to, as he says, fight back.”
O’Connell also noted that with the speed at which the news cycle has churned during the Trump presidency, the afterglow of the speech was not likely to extend past Wednesday anyway.
“They’d like to have one news cycle focused on that and then it will be back to building the narrative on this memo,” he said.
For much of the 48 hours before the speech, as the White House worked to set the stage for Trump’s address, the national media’s attention was keyed in on the memo and the abrupt departure of an FBI deputy director tied to the investigation.
At a press conference Tuesday, House Speaker Paul Ryan attempted to highlight positive developments from Trump’s first year in office, but questions from reporters repeatedly brought attention back to the memo.
The document reportedly details alleged abuses of surveillance laws by FBI agents to obtain a FISA warrant on one-time Trump foreign policy adviser Carter Page. Republicans have accused FBI officials of inappropriately using information from a dossier compiled for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign to justify the warrant.
Intelligence Committee Democrats, who allege Nunes’ memo is filled with inaccuracies and distortions, produced their own memo rebutting it, but Republicans voted Monday not to make it public alongside the first one.
Republican leaders insist they are merely following the same protocol they did with the Nunes memo by allowing all House members to read it before the committee votes on releasing it to the public. Ryan did not directly address questions Tuesday about why the GOP memo is not being held until the two can be released simultaneously.
The decision complicates Democratic efforts to challenge the Nunes narrative, preventing them from presenting their full case to the public. For many voters, though, no partisan evidence put forth by either side is going to change their minds about the legitimacy of the Russia investigation.
“I think it’s like the Clinton emails,” Ferson said, referring to the FBI investigation of Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server as secretary of state. “You either eat it hook, line, and sinker or you dismiss it out of hand incredulously.”
“Obviously, Republicans and Democrats are set in their divided camps,” O’Connell said. “The question is how does this affect independent voters’ take on the Russia probe and surveillance abuses.”
Over the past year, Trump has often used interviews and speeches to rail against the Russia investigation, insisting it is a hoax and a witch hunt. Whether it is accurate or not, the Nunes memo may help him make his case in the court of public opinion. Officials have not said if Trump intends to address any of this in his address Tuesday, but in this particular speech, Ferson and O’Connell both said Trump’s focus should be constructive and policy-oriented.
“A lot of it is about being positive, uplifting, and conciliatory but making the case that you’re fighting for all Americans,” O’Connell said.
Most items on Trump’s 2018 agenda, especially infrastructure and immigration reform, will require at least some Democratic votes in Congress to accomplish. Regardless of how sincere Trump is in seeking bipartisan compromise, Ferson said he would be well-served to emphasize areas of agreement in his address.
“It would be brilliant if he made the Democrats squirm in the chamber by talking about a lot of things that they want,” he said.
O’Connell acknowledged that convincing the public Trump is working for all Americans is an uphill battle at this point, but the State of the Union offers an opportunity to amplify positive economic data with benefits for all demographics and a slate of agenda items with bipartisan appeal.
“It’s not going to happen in one speech,” he said, “but what they want to do is lay the groundwork and have Congress working on these deliverables.”