Let’s be honest: State of the Union addresses are seldom exciting affairs. They are typically too long while somehow also remaining surface-level and not going into much detail about the plans and proposals mentioned. They’re heavy on stale administration talking points and light on actual news. And for all the attention they draw, their effect on public opinion is typically limited or nonexistent.
But President Donald Trump’s first State of the Union is still important. It offers him a chance to restate the administration’s legislative priorities for 2018, in light of the passage of its tax cut bill last year.
It gives the public a sense of the White House’s thinking on the nuclear standoff with North Korea and, because the speech is prepared, probably a more complete picture than isolated Trump tweets and offhand comments provide. And there’s evidence that Trump’s statements can change the opinions of his loyal supporters, even if the overall public doesn’t budge.
Here are the people and causes that gained from Trump’s speech, and those that lost ground.
Winner: Donald Trump
I’m not calling Trump a winner because I thought his speech was good, or right on the merits, or exceptionally well-delivered. I’m not giving him props for clearing some absurdly low bar, like failing to fall asleep during his own speech or not stripping nude and streaking through Congress.
I’m calling Trump a winner because his most basic political interest is survival, and tonight demonstrated that his survival until January 20, 2021, is all but guaranteed.
Before anything else, political leaders want to secure their own position, for at least as long as constitutional limits allow. Think of it as the lowest level in a Maslow-style hierarchy, the equivalent of getting enough food to eat and water to drink.
Most presidents don’t stay there; they have basic job security, at least for the term to which they’ve been elected, and can move on to higher and more difficult goals: sustaining economic growth, strengthening national security, and enacting major legislation and policy initiatives to cement their legacy.
Former President Obama was never in any danger of ending a term prematurely; near-term survival understandably didn’t dominate his thinking as president, especially in his second term.
Trump, by contrast, has an active special counsel investigation targeting him and zeroing in on the possibility that he obstructed justice. He has historically low approval ratings and a barely functional White House. The specter of his term ending prematurely has hung over his entire presidency.
At the end of the day, though, only one thing short of death or resignation can prevent him from serving until January 20, 2021: Republicans in Congress deciding to end his presidency.
With control over both houses of Congress, they decide how aggressively his misconduct is investigated. They decide if they want to pressure Vice President Mike Pence to pursue a 25th Amendment remedy, and whether to validate a 25th Amendment removal of Trump. They decide if Trump is to be impeached and then removed from office.
That remains true even if the houses change party control after the November midterms. Because only eight Republican Senate seats are up for reelection, it is literally impossible for Democrats to gain a 67-vote majority capable of removing Trump from office.
House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell have remained loyal, if grudgingly so, to Trump throughout his presidency. They express misgivings when he’s very explicitly racist, but they mostly hold their tongues and focus on tax reform and deregulation.
Tonight was different. It was an occasion when mainstream Republicans, embodied by Pence and Ryan, stood behind Trump and enthusiastically clapped as the President delivered a prepared speech emphasizing areas of agreement: on taxes, on deregulation, on appointing conservative judges, on boosting military spending, on ripping up the Iran nuclear deal, on repealing Obamacare, on an infrastructure plan focused on supporting private companies, on loathing black NFL players who kneel during the national anthem.
This was an event designed to remind Republicans in Congress that Trump stands for what they stand for, at the end of the day, that he is a surprisingly orthodox conservative who will have their back when the chips are down when it comes to shredding the Obama administration’s environmental and pro-worker regulations and cutting taxes on corporations.
Sure, Trump went on a few flights of fancy. His trade protectionism likely turned off the most consistently pro-free market members, as did his rhetoric on drug prices, and while most Republicans share his restrictionist attitude on immigration, many do not.
But when Trump pledged to sign an immigration bill that “puts America first,” the whole Republican Party rose united in applause.
“2017 was the best year for conservatives in the 30 years that I’ve been here, the best year on all fronts,” McConnell told Fox in advance of the speech. “A lot of people are shocked because we didn’t know what we were getting with Donald Trump ... this has turned out to be a very solid, conservative, right of center, pro-business administration.”
McConnell is right, and tonight’s speech demonstrated it. The Republican Party thinks Trump is doing a great job where it counts. That’s why they decline to investigate his business enterprises for potential efforts by lobbyists and foreign governments to influence the president. It’s why the House Intelligence Committee has focused more on uncovering some bizarre anti-Trump conspiracy in the FBI than on Trump’s potential connections to Russian interests during the 2016 campaign.
And ultimately, it’s why Trump will remain president until January 20, 2021. Not because he hasn’t done anything wrong, but because the only people who could end his presidency don’t care.
At least half of Trump’s first year as president was consumed with attempt after attempt to repeal Obamacare. Ryan first declared defeat in March, before breaking enough skulls to push something through in May. But the bill then floundered in the Senate. So did “skinny repeal” and the Graham-Cassidy proposal. Finally, the administration managed to repeal the individual mandate as part of the tax bill — a major blow to Obamacare, but one that leaves most of the law’s spending intact.
You could imagine the 2018 State of the Union as an ideal occasion for Trump to announce he was trying again. After all, Republicans are expected to sustain heavy losses in the midterms, meaning this is likely the party’s last, best shot to pass Medicaid cuts and other Obamacare repeal measures. The party could even pass a new budget resolution to enable passage with only 51 votes in the Senate.
Trump did not do that. His sole mention of the law was a victory lap over mandate repeal, saying, “We repealed the core of the disastrous Obamacare — the individual mandate is now gone.”
And, indeed, that’s true. But if Trump were to make repeal a priority this year, he would’ve focused more on the part of the job that remains undone: repealing Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion, insurance subsidies, and regulation of private insurers.
That he didn’t do that is a strong indication of his plans to declare victory and go home. He’s done what he can to repeal the law, but his legislative efforts this year are likely to be consumed by immigration and maybe infrastructure. Obamacare is, it would appear, here to stay, at least in diminished form.
Winner: prescription drug companies
The professional wrestling concept of kayfabe is useful in explaining a lot of aspects of the Trump administration. It refers to the practice in wrestling to pretend, even outside official televised events, as though all rivalries and storylines in the show are real. The Rock isn’t just fighting Stone Cold Steve Austin for your entertainment; the two really hate each other, or so the WWE works very hard to make you believe. Behind the scenes, though, they’re just actors playing parts in an evolving plot line.
The White House’s relationship with antagonistic media outlets like CNN and the New York Times displays elements of kayfabe. On the one hand, journalists for those outlets often publish genuinely valuable stories challenging the administration, and Trump’s antipathy toward them is at least somewhat sincere.
But simultaneously, wars between them and Trump serve both parties’ interests. Trump gets to pose as an anti-establishment crusader, while CNN and the Times get to pose as brave journalists speaking truth to power. Throughout, the Trump administration keeps giving both outlets interviews and leaking them information, because it knows that it needs to keep the play running.
But an even purer example of kayfabe is Trump’s criticism of prescription drug prices. This was a major theme on the campaign trail, where he called for Medicare to use its bargaining power to negotiate down prices, a proposal associated more commonly with Democrats and fiercely opposed by Republicans who fear such regulation could stifle pharmaceutical innovation. Shortly before his inauguration in January 2017, he declared that drug companies were “getting away with murder.”
Then a funny thing happened: Trump did absolutely nothing to crack down on drug companies. “A big fight over drug prices never materialized,” my colleague Dylan Scott writes in an excellent piece on Trump’s refusal to tackle drug prices. “Instead, the Trump administration has been successfully courted in many ways by the pharmaceutical industry.”
Within Trump’s first month as president, he met with a number of pharma executives in the White House. After that meeting, Scott writes, “Trump was using language that sounded much more familiar — and much more comfortable — to drug companies. He was talking about increasing competition and lightening the regulatory burden to get drugs approved.” The Medicare negotiation idea never came up again.
Indeed, Trump appointed Eli Lilly executive Alex Azar as his second secretary of health and human services, and Scott Gottlieb, a former adviser to GlaxoSmithKline and Bristol-Myers Squibb, as his commissioner for the Food and Drug Administration.
And yet Trump used the State of the Union to return to his old pharma-bashing script. “One of my greatest priorities is to reduce the price of prescription drugs,” he declared. “In many other countries, these drugs cost far less than what we pay in the United States. That is why I have directed my administration to make fixing the injustice of high drug prices one of our top priorities. Prices will come down.”
That might sound like a declaration of war on pharma. It’s not. Unless and until Trump comes out with real proposals with a shot of passing Congress that can reduce drug prices, it’s just more kayfabe, a fake attack on an industry that he has declined to confront in any real way.
Loser: asylum seekers
When it came to immigration, Trump’s State of the Union sounded, oddly, a lot like a speech a normal politician would give — instead of going on and on about the character of immigrants themselves, he used accepted political shorthand for policy proposals that his administration is pushing.
Of course, if you’re not steeped in the immigration debate, you won’t know what those mean — so repeated references to the need to close “enforcement loopholes” might not have grabbed you. Its inclusion in Trump’s speech shows he’s now deferring to his Department of Homeland Security (and Republican legislators) when it comes to the details of immigration enforcement.
And that’s bad news for children and families from Central America who might come to the US seeking asylum.
Trump blamed “loopholes” in the immigration system for allowing MS-13 gang members into the US — a connection he’s made before — as part of the wave of Central American migration that started in 2014 and has (perhaps temporarily) abated. Most of those who came were residents of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador seeking asylum — usually from criminal gangs like MS-13 — and therefore couldn’t simply be turned away or deported; families, and children under 18 coming without adults, get additional legal protections to guarantee humane treatment.
The Trump administration believes that many of these asylum seekers are frauds, and that they’re just trying to be released so they can escape instead of pursuing their asylum cases. The president is now allying himself with conservatives who believe that the border can’t truly be secured, wall or no wall, unless more people are turned away.
Loser: Guantanamo detainees
President Trump announces Guantanamo Bay will stay open; "new rules of engagement" for US forces in Afghanistan. #SOTU pic.twitter.com/qNc2G0uBBH— Vox (@voxdotcom) January 31, 2018
Just before Trump delivered his address, he signed an executive order revoking President Obama’s executive order calling for the closure of the detention center at Guantanamo Bay. In his speech, he was clear that he hoped to keep the prison open.
“Terrorists are not merely criminals. They are unlawful enemy combatants,” he declared. “And when captured overseas, they should be treated like the terrorists they are.”
It’s hard to list every reason why the prison at Guantanamo shocks the conscience, and why it’s done such profound damage to America’s image abroad. Detainees there, Human Rights Watch writes, “endured prolonged mistreatment, sometimes for weeks and even months. … At Guantanamo Bay, some detainees were forced to sit in their own excrement, and some were sexually humiliated by female interrogators.”
Omar Khadr, who was forced to fight for al-Qaeda as a child, was held at Guantanamo for 13 years starting at age 15. Guantanamo repeatedly tortured him, including threatening to rape him and “dragging him by his feet through [a] mixture of urine and pine oil.” This treatment is indefensible under any circumstances, but especially so when there’s no evidence it ever produced useful intelligence.
Detainees are denied any semblance of due process of law. Of the 780 people who’ve ever been detained in the facility, 731 were released without charges. Only 10 of the 41 still there face charges or have been convicted; the rest are simply in limbo.
This is a situation that shocks even many Republicans, notably Sen. John McCain, who has long supported closing the facility. Toward the end of the Obama presidency, closure of the facility appeared possible. It had shrunk dramatically in size, and if the administration could find nations to accept all 41 remaining detainees, it could have been shuttered.
Instead, the Trump administration is keeping it alive, and continuing one of the most enduring human rights abuses perpetrated by the American government in recent times.