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Democrats express doubt about Trump’s message of unity

As President Trump prepares to deliver the State of the Union Tuesday night, the White House says he will both appeal for unity and hold to his demand for a southern border wall. But Democrats voiced skepticism that the president is serious about reconciliation. Judy Woodruff gets a preview of the address and response from both ends of Capitol Hill from Lisa Desjardins and Yamiche Alcindor.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    This is State of the Union night, when the president makes an annual report to the American people, but it comes at a time of division here in Washington.

    The White House says President Trump will appeal for unity, even as he holds to his demand for a border wall. Newly resurgent Democrats say the president himself is the problem. The split was clear at the Capitol today, as Mr. Trump's supporters and opponents sounded off.

  • Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla.:

    I think he's going to do a good job, and I think he really is making an effort. He will make some statements tonight that'll surprise a lot of people on the other side. I'm talking about conciliatory things. And I think this comes from the heart. This guy is — he has a background that has shown him in different lights, and he's always been successful.

  • Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.:

    Well, the president hasn't been acting on unity for two years up and down the line. He's always criticizing, dividing.

    And so if he calls for unity tonight, we will have to say, let's see what happens tomorrow and the day after and the day after, because in the past, he's called for unity, and he has forgotten about it by the next morning.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    The formal Democratic response tonight will come from Stacey Abrams of Georgia. She narrowly lost her bid last year to become that state's first black governor and she is now a rising star in the Democratic Party.

    Let's turn now to our Lisa Desjardins at the Capitol and Yamiche Alcindor at the White House watching all of this.

    Yamiche, to you first.

    I have been talking to folks at the White House, much of it off the record. You have been talking to them, too. What do we know for certain, or what do we think the president is going to focus on tonight?

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    The president is going to focus on unifying our nation and unifying both political parties, but some, of course, say that there are some credibility issues there because of his political track record of really offending and giving insults to his political opponents.

    The president is expected to talk about a number of topics, including illegal immigration, health care costs, including trade, wars and foreign policy, as well as infrastructure. He's supposed to be at some point pitching and asking Congress to come up with some sort of infrastructure plan.

    The president's also supposed to be talking about HIV and trying to end the transmission of that deadly disease by 2030. The president is also supposed to be talking about his ideas for a way forward. And it's really important, though, to remind people that the president has been tweeting today, and he's been saying that Chuck Schumer's mad that he didn't win the Senate.

    He's also said in the past that Democrats don't believe in border security. So, while the president puts forward this unifying message, there are people who are saying, well, just look at what you tweeted today. That is going to be hurting that unifying message.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Lisa, we know that the other party always prepares for what the president is going to say. What are Democrats saying about how they plan to handle, what they expect the president to say and how they are going to respond to it?

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    I have to tell you, Judy, Democrats are more excited about this response than I have heard them in some time.

    Stacey Abrams to them represents a shift away from playing it safe. In fact, there's one longtime progressive who told me tonight: We have been playing it too safe as Democrats. We want someone who has a clear, aggressive agenda like Stacey Abrams, who talks about voter rights.

    She also represents some other important themes for Democrats tonight, diversity in two ways. One, she will be the first African-American woman to give a major party response. Also, though, she will be the first non-elected official. She no longer holds office, having lost the gubernatorial race last fall. She will be the first non-elected official to give this kind of response, so a sort of outsider and also a core part of the Democratic base.

    This also sticks to a theme that we will see visually on the floor, Judy. Democratic women in the House will be wearing all white. They say that is to show kind of a sign, a reference to the suffragettes, but it also, one of them told, is a smart visual cue.

    They want to highlight the difference between Democrats and their increased diversity in this Congress and Republicans, who have less diversity in this Congress.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Lisa, staying with you, Yamiche mentioned the president is supposed to talk tonight about border security. What do we know at this point about where the conference committee working on that issue for the last several days — they have a deadline facing them.

    I talked today to Speaker Pelosi and Minority Leader Chuck Schumer. They said they think progress is being made. What are you hearing?

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    My reporting is the same talking to other leaders and people who are on the conference committee.

    There is real progress on the staff level. They think they could come up with a deal, if it is just left to the members of the Appropriations Committee alone. Judy, the conference committee will have an unusual meeting tomorrow morning, closed-door, with career Border Patrol officials.

    Now, it's not clear why that's to be closed doors, but one staffer told me that they think it's because they want the questions and answers to be as forthright as possible. They are looking at trying to get a conference report by the end of the week or this weekend at the latest.

    They think it's doable, but there are many X-factors, one of the biggest being the president and what he says tonight about border security.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, finally, Yamiche, what do we know about how the president is planning for tonight? And also, traditionally, the president has guests come to the Capitol. Who do we know those to be?

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Well, the president is going to be using this national stage to make the case that the State of the Union is great, but that it would be better if there were concerns met and concerns — and people paid attention to the concerns that he had.

    Right behind me at the White House, the president has been preparing and really using this speech as a way to prepare himself to talk on a teleprompter. He had a teleprompter actually brought into the White House, so he's going to be trying the make sure that he's reading properly.

    The other thing he's going to be doing is bringing in guests here. The guests he's going that he's bringing in are, one, a family that was — whose family member was murdered or killed by an undocumented immigrant. The president's also going to be bringing a little boy named Joshua Trump who was bullied because of his last name, who, of course, he shares with the president.

    And the president is also going to be bringing someone who was freed by the criminal justice reform passed that was passed by both parties, of course, supporting that bill. So the president's going to be saying, we want bipartisanship. And look at this person who came out of prison. He is embodying what we could be doing in the future.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Yamiche Alcindor at the White House, Lisa Desjardins at the Capitol.

    And we will certainly be coming back to the two of you as the State of the Union gets under way later tonight, when we have our special coverage.

    Thanks.

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