Updated Feb 4, 2020 - Politics & Policy

What to expect from Trump's State of the Union address

Trump walking out for state of the union address

Trump walking out to deliver his 2019 State of the Union address. Photo: Zach Gibson/Getty Images

President Trump will give his third State of the Union address tonight at 9 p.m. ET, seven weeks after he was impeached by the House of Representatives and one day before he's set to be acquitted by the Senate.

Why it matters: The president typically strikes a more measured tone during formal, teleprompter-guided speeches like the State of the Union, but all bets could be off as an emboldened Trump looks ahead to a scorched earth election campaign.

What to watch

Impeachment: Bill Clinton, the only other president to deliver a State of the Union address in the midst of an impeachment trial, did not once mention the charges brought against him during his 1999 speech.

A senior administration official declined to answer whether Trump would address impeachment, but said the theme of the speech will be "the great American comeback" with an overtone of "relentless optimism."

  • Some Republicans have said they would advise the president against bringing up impeachment, but as Axios previewed this weekend, everything we've heard from Trump's aides over the last month suggests he plans to give less and less credence to voices urging caution.
  • As the president flexes his heightened sense of invincibility, he'll be flanked to the left by Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who helped him achieve one of his primary policy goals — the USMCA trade deal — while simultaneously impeaching him for abuse of power and obstruction of Congress.
  • Whether Democrats applaud any of the achievements touted by a president they've called a legitimate threat to democracy will be a fascinating dynamic to watch.

2020: The 2020 campaign will be front of mind one day after the debacle that was the Iowa Democratic caucuses. The president will seek to highlight what the White House believes are his strongest arguments for his re-election — economic growth, energy production and trade deals, among other things — while accusing his Democratic opponents of favoring "socialist" policies.

  • A senior administration official did not confirm whether the president would directly call out any of his potential 2020 opponents — some of whom will be sitting in the audience — but said he would be "comfortable" doing so.
  • Worth noting: Trump's approval rating has risen to 49%, his highest rating in that poll since taking office, according to Gallup's tracking poll.

Guests: White House officials say Trump's favorite speechmaking device for the State of the Union is to point to guests in the audience and use their stories to dramatize his points.

  • Based on conversations with aides, and on past experience, we expect the White House has at least one surprise guest to create the kind of emotional made-for-TV moment that Trump requires for these speeches.

But we can glean a lot about the White House's priorities for the speech from the guests they've already announced:

  • Trump wants to highlight "Opportunity Zones" — the policy, born out of his 2017 tax bill, that uses tax breaks to encourage businesses to invest in poor neighborhoods — as well as his care for veterans.
  • Trump wants to highlight the importance of being "tough on the border." He'll lionize the deputy chief of U.S. Border Patrol and has invited the brother of a man killed by an undocumented immigrant.
  • As expected, Trump will celebrate his killing of Iranian Gen. Qasem Soleimani. The president and first lady have invited the widow and son of a U.S. soldier killed by a roadside bomb the White House says was supplied by Soleimani.
  • And he's expected to use a man who escaped from Venezuela to the U.S. to cite the need for regime change — a topic Trump has largely dropped since U.S.-led efforts to force out Nicolas Maduro failed last year.

The other side: Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Texas Rep. Veronica Escobar will deliver the Democratic rebuttals to Trump's speech in English and Spanish, respectively.

  • Democratic guests include Hatice Cengiz, the fiancée of slain Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, and Courtenay Wild, who has spoken publicly about being sexually assaulted as a teenager by Jeffrey Epstein.
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