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What a Waste

Trump's State of the Union address underscored the charade his presidency has become.

Doug Mills-Pool/Getty Images

President Donald Trump, fresh off a humbling defeat in November’s midterms and a humiliating retreat in the shutdown standoff with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi last month, opted for a bipartisan message in Tuesday’s State of the Union address. “Together, we can break decades of political stalemate,” he told lawmakers. “We can bridge old divisions, heal old wounds, build new coalitions, forge new solutions, and unlock the extraordinary promise of America’s future. The decision is ours to make.”

We’ve been here before.

Trump struck a similar note in his first State of the Union address. “Tonight, I call upon all of us to set aside our differences, to seek out common ground and to summon the unity we need to deliver for the people,” he said last January. The moment didn’t last. His Twitter insults of political opponents never abated, and his much-touted dealmaking skills yielded no compromise with Congress. By December, he had triggered a self-destructive shutdown of the federal government in a failed bid to secure funding for a wall on the southern border.

There was no reason to think this year’s State of the Union would change anything either, but that didn’t stop some observers from speculating that it might. FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver wrote on Tuesday that he was more interested than usual in Tuesday night’s address because the president “may try to pivot, and if so, it will it be interesting to see if it’s a full-fledged pivot or a half-assed one.” The idea that Trump will normalize holds an irresistible allure for some. “If he wants to do something legislatively in 2019, this sets the table,” The Daily Beast’s Matt Lewis wrote. “If he’s ever going to ‘pivot,’ this is his last chance.”

This was too optimistic by far. To the extent that Trump has ever pivoted, it’s almost always toward his worst impulses. In last year’s address, he laid out a four-point plan for immigration reform, pitching it as a middle-of-the-road compromise. Since then, his policies have only become more draconian. His administration provoked near-universal outrage for cruelly separating migrant families on the border over the summer. As the midterm elections drew near, Trump deployed military forces to the border in what appeared to be a nakedly political stunt. He issued executive orders aimed at reducing asylum claims and revoked temporary protected status for thousands of longtime U.S. residents.

Tuesday’s address will not succeed in changing Trump’s political fortunes. Indeed, his State of the Union address was, like much of his presidency, a waste of America’s time.

On Tuesday night, Trump reviewed what he saw as the accomplishments of his presidency. He took credit for economic growth, especially in the oil and gas industries, and touted his administration’s record in cutting federal regulations. “After 24 months of rapid progress, our economy is the envy of the world, our military is the most powerful on Earth, and America is winning each and every day,” he claimed. He also offered harsh words for Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro and Iran’s regime.

But the dominant theme of Tuesday’s address was immigration once again. His approach to the subject struck the same themes he’s made since announcing his candidacy in 2015: that undocumented immigrants are dangerous criminals who murder and rape Americans, and that only a wall along the southern border can stop their rampage. There’s no evidence to support this, but that hasn’t stopped Trump from articulating his hardline and xenophobic vision for the nation’s immigration laws. “Not one more American life should be lost because our nation failed to control its very dangerous border,” he said.

In background briefings for reporters earlier this week, the White House played up the themes of unity that Trump hit in his speech. The Washington Post quoted an unnamed Trump administration staffer as predicting that the address would feature an “inspiring vision of American greatness and a policy agenda both parties can rally behind,” which is no different than what every president tries to project during the State of the Union. It’s hard to imagine that these overtures will end up as anything more than meaningless bromides. Trump himself spent the hours leading up to Tuesday night’s address by taunting Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer on Twitter, privately lacerating top Democrats in an off-the-record meeting with news anchors and complaining to aides that his speech wasn’t partisan enough.

More telling was a remark from Kellyanne Conway, one of Trump’s top advisers. “This president is going to call for an end to the politics of resistance, retribution and call for more comity,” she told the Post. Trump often describes special counsel Robert Mueller’s inquiry as a political vendetta by Democrats for losing the last presidential election, but in Tuesday’s speech, he even suggested that the Russia investigation oversight of his presidency could imperil the nation’s recovery from the Great Recession: “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 did highlight some genuine bipartisan accomplishments, such as last year’s passage of criminal justice reform. Among his invited guests were Matthew Charles, who was released from prison under the law’s new conditions last month, as well as Alice Johnson, who received a pardon from Trump last year after serving 22 years behind bars. It’s possible that Trump may be willing to sign similar legislation in the future. Those accomplishments, however, will be the exception rather than the rule when it comes to Trump’s relationship with Congress.

It’s traditional for presidents to propose moonshots in addressing a joint Congress, as John F. Kennedy did in 1962 in calling on America to put a man on the Moon, but they have a spotty track record at best. Barack Obama called for 80 percent of Americans to have high-speed rail access in 25 years and used his final address to put Vice President Joe Biden in charge of a project to cure cancer. Trump’s moonshot on Tuesday night was to call for the eradication of HIV transmission in the U.S. by 2030—a laudable goal, but a somewhat fantastical one given it would require him to work with communities upon which his other policies have inflicted the most damage.

Some observers noted that ahead of Trump’s latest State of the Union that the address can help reset a president’s agenda. The most famous turnaround came in 1998, when Bill Clinton focused on Social Security and the budget surplus the day after telling the nation that he hadn’t had sexual relations with White House intern Monica Lewinsky. “By dint of his speaking skills and his personality, he was able to go in and change the tone of the debate,” University of Virginia professor Russell Riley told NPR on Monday. “There were a lot of people within the Clinton White House that felt that that saved his presidency.”

But there’s virtually no chance that Trump can pull off a similar turnaround. Clinton, for all his flaws, was one of the most persuasive speakers to serve in the Oval Office. He enjoyed high approval ratings even throughout the Lewinsky scandal; they went up to 72 percent on the week he was impeached by the House of Representatives for perjury and obstruction of justice. Trump, on the other hand, can only effectively communicate with his own base. His approval ratings sunk to new lows after the American people blamed him for the damage wrought by last month’s partial government shutdown.

A president’s success depends on his ability to building working relationships with lawmakers and his own advisers. But Trump’s tenure has largely been dictated by his own fleeting whims, which have undercut his party’s leaders in Congress and his closest confidantes. Former House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell secured a deal to keep the government open last November, only to see it fall apart when figures like Ann Coulter pressured Trump into a self-defeating showdown. There’s little rationale for Republicans, let alone Democrats, to trust his word.

The weaknesses in Trump’s presidency are structural. Look no further than the recent leak of his private schedule to Axios earlier this week, which underscored the two great themes of his presidency. It’s often said that a person’s most valuable commodity is his own time, and Trump appears to largely waste his by watching cable news and calling old friends and supporters for advice: At least 60 percent of his daily routine over the last three months has been dedicated to unstructured “Executive Time.” What’s more, the leak itself amounted to an extraordinary breach of trust by one of the president’s closest aides. It underscores how his personal flaws have driven away talented subordinates and attracted self-serving replacements.

Trump ended Tuesday’s State of the Union much as he began it. “We must choose whether we are defined by our differences—or whether we dare to transcend them,” he said. “This is the time to rekindle the bonds of love and loyalty and memory that link us together as citizens, as neighbors, as patriots. This is our future—our fate—and our choice to make. I am asking you to choose greatness. No matter the trials we face, no matter the challenges to come, we must go forward together.”

This call for bipartisanship may sound reassuring to casual observers. But remember Trump’s “rapists” speech in announcing his candidacy in 2015. Remember “American carnage.” Remember last year’s State of the Union. Remember everything Trump has done since then. Trump says that Americans have a choice to make, and that much is true: They will make it in 2020. But Trump made his own choice long ago. Greatness never had a chance.