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President Donald Trump on Tuesday will deliver his first State of the Union speech. The speech is an opportunity for the president to lay out his agenda on immigration, trade and infrastructure, among other issues, before Congress, the government’s top officials and millions of Americans watching from home. Trump’s demeanor and rhetoric will also be parsed, as will any mention of special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation in light of FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe’s resignation Monday and new reports that Trump tried to fire Mueller last year.
Ahead of Trump’s speech, here’s a guide of things to watch Tuesday night.
Is there room for compromise on immigration?
Trump will have another chance to make a big push for his immigration plan. The stakes are high: the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, is a key part of the negotiations over the next government spending bill. The government could shut down again if Congress can’t reach a new agreement by Feb. 8.
The immigration proposal the White House put out last week offered a pathway to citizenship for so-called “Dreamers,” young undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States illegally as children and are protected through DACA from deportation. In exchange, the White House demanded stricter immigration enforcement, including $25 billion to build a wall and pay for other security measures along the U.S.-Mexico border. Senate Democrats rejected the plan outright, sending both parties back to the drawing board.
That’s why Trump’s comments on DACA will be critical Tuesday night. It’s unlikely Trump will make major concessions to Democrats in his speech, but he could use the occasion to put more pressure on the party to accept some version of his immigration plan. If he leaves an opening to change his position on the issue, it’ll be big news. Either way, this could be one of the highlights of the night.
Will Trump mention the Russia investigation?
It will be interesting to see how Trump handles the special counsel probe into Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election and alleged ties to his presidential campaign. Mueller’s investigation, which began last year, has hung over Trump’s presidency, often overshadowing the priorities and policies pushed out by the White House. That was the case last week, when the New York Times reported that Trump ordered Mueller’s firing last year, before changing his mind after White House counsel Don McGahn said he would resign before carrying out the order.
Trump denied the story after it broke, calling it “fake news.” Still, it raised new questions about whether the president obstructed justice. The focus on the Russia investigation comes amid a growing fight over political partisanship within the FBI, the agency under which Mueller’s investigation falls. McCabe, the FBI’s No. 2 official, resigned Monday, weeks ahead of his planned retirement in March, following months of criticism from the president over McCabe’s wife’s ties to the Democratic Party.
Will Trump address all this in his State of the Union speech? The conventional move would to be focus on policy; politicians typically avoid talking about scandals they’re involved in or tied to. But Trump often chooses a more different approach, lashing out at critics when he feels he is being unfairly attacked. The Russia investigation will be the elephant in the House chamber Tuesday night.
Taxes and a case for Republicans in 2018
Trump’s biggest legislative victory since taking office came earlier this month, when Congress passed the “Tax Cut and Jobs Act.” Critics of the law argue that it’s a massive corporate tax cut disguised as a broader tax overhaul for the middle class, with a $1.5 trillion price tag. Supporters claim it will grow the economy and create new jobs. Trump won’t settle this debate Tuesday. But look for him to frame the law as a major, legacy-defining accomplishment.
Why does this matter? Because the 2018 midterm elections are less than 10 months away, and Trump needs to start building a solid case for keeping Republicans in power. Trump will likely have his largest television audience of the year Tuesday. Voters want to see results, and in the tax bill — as well as the appointment of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court — Trump can point to a concrete accomplishment that will motivate conservative voters to turn out this fall.
How does Trump see America now?
Trump painted a dark picture of the country in his speech at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland in 2016. Half a year later, he spoke of “American carnage” in his inaugural address. Will the president return to those themes Tuesday? Or will he strike a more optimistic tone, as most presidents do in their State of the Union speeches?
Finding the right balance will be tricky. Trump gave a measured speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos last week, showing his ability to calibrate his message to suit his audience. But in high-profile political speeches at home since taking office, Trump has mostly stuck to his 2016 campaign message that America is in decline.
It will be important to see how Trump frames the direction of the country under his watch. A combative, divisive speech focused on illegal immigration and crime would suggest that Trump is staying the course. A more forward-looking speech would signal that the president is open to shifting, or at least moderating, his message.
Daniel Bush is PBS NewsHour's Senior Political Reporter.
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