ROBERT COSTA: Hello. I’m Robert Costa. And this is the Washington Week Podcast. The State of the Union address is next week Tuesday, after a 35-day shutdown and with negotiations to avert another are pretty much going nowhere. So what is the state of the union?
We have a great panel assembled to break it all down: Peter Baker, chief White House correspondent for The New York Times; Shawna Thomas, Washington bureau chief for Vice News; Nancy Cordes, chief congressional correspondent for CBS News; and Bob Woodward, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, and author, and associate editor at The Washington Post.
The annual State of the Union address is an event infused with history and politics. Last year women there wore black to honor the #MeToo movement. Guests are often invited by both sides to make a political point. This year an undocumented worker, a former employee at one of the president’s clubs, will be in the audience. The first DACA recipient to become a Rhodes scholar will also be there. Democrat Stacey Abrams, who narrowly lost her bid to be the first African-American female governor, will give the Democratic response. The president had this to say about Ms. Abrams.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) Oh, I campaigned against Stacey Abrams. I know that President Obama campaigned for her, Michelle Obama campaigned for her, and Oprah campaigned for her, and all Brian had was me, and he won fairly easily – you know, fairly easily. So I hope that she does a good job. I mean, I respect her. I don’t know her, I haven’t met her, but I hope she does a good job.
MR. COSTA: Nancy, based on your reporting roaming around the Capitol talking to lawmakers, what do they want to hear from the president, the Republicans?
NANCY CORDES: Well, they’d like to her him make a case for an agenda that goes beyond a border wall because, frankly, most Republicans don’t share his passion for a wall and, you know, his single-minded focus on this has really sucked a lot of the oxygen out of the room and it has prevented them from advancing the rest of their agenda on Capitol Hill. They don’t see it as a winning issue for them. They’ve seen all the public polling that blames him and Republicans for the shutdown more so than Democrats. They don’t think that declaring an emergency or, heaven forbid, another shutdown is going to be any better for them, so they would really like to move off of this issue and on to something else. But the more time that goes on, the more the president digs in. So I think that they expect that he will spend a significant amount of time in this State of the Union saying the kinds of things that we heard him say in interviews with people like Peter this week, you know, that he believes that this is, you know, the defining security issue that the U.S. is facing and that there’s – there will be terrible ramifications if this wall isn’t built. If anything, he seems to be getting more dug in.
MR. COSTA: Shawna, what about the moment for Speaker Pelosi and Stacey Abrams?
SHAWNA THOMAS: I think for Speaker Pelosi, I mean, one of the reasons why it was – would be so awkward to have had the State of the Union during the government shutdown is that she would have had to sit behind him as he was talking about the state of the union, and the state of the union was part of it was shut down. But it will show that they are in some ways on equal footing. He is coming to her House to give that State of the Union. He is – she is allowing him to do that. It’ll be interesting to see her face and the reactions on that.
I also think this is a moment much like when this new Congress was sworn in earlier this year, that people are going to look around in those cutaways of the cameras, and you’re going to see the Democratic side and you’re going to see the Republican side, and the Democrats are going to be full of women and it’s going to be full of people of color, and the Republican side is going to be full of white men. And that contrast, especially as the president is talking about immigration, is going to be quite stark.
As for Stacey Abrams, giving the Democratic response is – it’s terrible. It’s a terrible assignment. Or giving the response in general; it’s not just Democrats, it’s whoever’s on the other side.
PETER BAKER: They couldn’t find anybody who actually has an office to give it.
MS. THOMAS: Exactly. And also, the pomp and circumstance of the State of the Union, no matter who is president, is great. The lighting is great. The circumstances are great. And then you are always going to cut to someone in a diner or someone coming down the stairs of their house. There’s no way to win on this one, just on the pure optics.
MS. CORDES: Awkwardly drinking your water. (Laughter.)
MS. THOMAS: It’s not good.
MR. COSTA: Marco Rubio, I remember that – Senator Rubio.
MS. THOMAS: But I’m hoping for the best. (Laughter.)
MR. COSTA: Well, the Democrats would love to see Stacey Abrams run for Senate in Georgia in 2020.
MS. THOMAS: So this is her chance to kind of get out there in some ways.
BOB WOODWARD: But let’s face what this is and who Trump is. He truly has become – I mean, looking at your wonderful interview with him, he is America’s talk-show host, and he is up there commenting on everything. He’s got an idea. He’s got an opinion. Now, on the negative side, if he is going to do something to spend money for something like a border wall, without that money being authorized by Congress, that is a real serious step in the wrong direction for him, for the Constitution, for the kind of rational government that we normally have. And so to pull that trigger is going to be a big deal. And he kind intimated to you that he’s going to do that, right? I mean, what’s that going to mean in the end? Not good for anyone.
MR. COSTA: Maybe he wants – if he’s a theatrical person politically, maybe he wants that moment at the State of the Union to declare a national emergency.
MR. BAKER: It might be. We asked him whether he would let out – he’d let the current talks play out first. And he said, yes, I’ll wait till February 15th. He could obviously do it. I don’t think he will. But he does like the State of the Union. He is a showman, right? This is – he is theatrical. It is actually, we’re told by advisors, one of the reasons he agreed to reopen the government, because he didn’t want to lose this moment. It’s the best moment of a year for a president, where they get to outline their agenda. The trick is, it’s going to be, what we hear, a mix of confrontation and conciliation, right? He will at least try, according to his aides, say things like: We can work together on infrastructure. We can work together on prescription drugs. There are things that President Trump and a Democratic House, anyway, could find in common. But as long as this festering sore of the border wall fight is there, that’s going to still dominate and make it hard for him to make that pivot.
MS. CORDES: I do think that the State of the Union loses a little bit of its power when you’re in divided government, because when Republicans controlled the White House, the House and the Senate, you’re parsing every sentence because you’re looking for clues about what he and the party writ large are going to do over the next year. You know, now he’s not going to be able to do a lot of those things anyway, no matter how he talks about them. And really, you know, the only major policy initiatives that are going to get over the finish line are those that Democrats share with Republicans. And so I agree with you, that it is going to be all about, you know, those areas of agreement. And does he just pay lip service to, yeah, prescription drugs and infrastructure, and we all want that? Or is there going to be some, you know, actual specific note of compromise that will give people hope that maybe these two sides can find that compromise?
MS. THOMAS: I’m not sure – but I’m not sure sort of politically the Democrats want to find that compromise with him, even on things like infrastructure and prescription drugs, that we all kind of agree are issues that need to be dealt with in this country. Part of – part of the wall issue, and part of making it a moral issue, is about, to them, to many of them, the wall is seen as racist because of his rhetoric beforehand. And it is hard, especially with some of these freshmen Democrats, to separate that from anything else that they have to do.
MR. BAKER: Right. He’s a toxic figure on the left. And any compromise with him by leadership will only get the Nancy Pelosi leadership in trouble with, you know, the AOCs of the Congress.
MR. COSTA: And the Democratic Party’s already getting a little bit of a riptide from the 2020 presidential race.
MS. THOMAS: Exactly. There’s already a thousand senators running for president on the Democratic side. (Laughter.) That is not an exact number, clearly. (Laughter.) But they are not – they can’t really, in a Democratic primary, be seen as compromising with the president of the United States, at least not currently.
MR. COSTA: Bob.
MR. WOODWARD: Yeah. Where’s the high road in this? I’m not sure.
MS. THOMAS: I haven’t found one.
MR. COSTA: What about the no road, Bob? I mean, you’ve been a student of the presidency, a reporter on the presidency for so long. And I wonder, has the State of the Union been played out? Nancy Pelosi, the speaker, cancelled it for a couple weeks. And some observers said –
MR. WOODWARD: And there were lots of people just sad and –
MS. THOMAS: And we don’t miss it. (Laughter.)
MR. WOODWARD: – and could not even get through the day waiting for that State of the Union. (Laughter.) First, Trump normally does not like these scripted performances, as Peter knows. But in fact, and I don’t know the details on this – you would, all of you – he has some good speech writers. He actually can deliver rhetorically. So if he brings that – and I hope the speechwriters will call me tomorrow. (Laughter.) I would like to –
MR. COSTA: Get a little scoop.
MR. WOODWARD: I would like to speak to them. (Laughter.) I’ll put out my phone number.
MS. CORDES: They might be calling you right now.
MR. BAKER: They may have been calling you before.
MR. WOODWARD: Yes. That’s maybe what it was. (Laughter.) No, it was not. But it’s –
MR. COSTA: Woodward never reveals his sources. (Laughter.)
MR. WOODWARD: But the invitation for sources to come forward is always there.
MS. CORDES: For all of us. For all of us. (Laughter.)
MR. COSTA: All right. Well, we’ll all be watching Tuesday. That’s it for this edition of the Washington Week Podcast. You can listen wherever you get your podcast or watch on the Washington Week website. While you’re online check out our Washington Week-ly News Quiz.
I’m Robert Costa. Thanks for joining us and we’ll see you next time.