Under pressure to recalibrate, defiant Trump tackles big speech

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Under pressure from fellow Republicans to reset his contentious presidency, Donald Trump plans to offer Democrats a choice in his State of the Union speech on Tuesday: Work together to make progress, or fight each other and get nothing done.

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks to reporters at a healthcare roundtable in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, U.S., January 23, 2019. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

He signaled on Friday that the address, an annual rite of American politics, will include extensive remarks about his standoff with Democrats over building a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, the subject of an intense partisan battle that prompted a 35-day partial government shutdown that ended a week ago.

Dwelling at length on this could undermine any attempt by Trump to strike a compromising tone, which many Republicans, including some close to the White House, are urging him to offer in an effort to temper his rhetoric and move past the shutdown fight.

Beyond the wall, a senior White House official told Reuters that Trump will outline what he sees as areas where Republicans and Democrats may be able to find agreement. These include a plan to fund infrastructure improvements across the country, lower the cost of prescription drugs and work to resolve long-standing differences over healthcare.

An excerpt of the speech released by the White House on Friday made clear Trump would strike a compromising tone in at least part of his address.

“Together we can break decades of political stalemate, we can bridge old divisions, heal old wounds, build new coalitions, forge new solutions and unlock the extraordinary promise of America’s future. The decision is ours to make,” Trump will say.

Whether the two sides are prepared to work together in any significant way is far from clear, with tensions still high over the shutdown fight and another deadline approaching on Feb. 15.

“He will offer a choice of either working together and doing great things or fighting each other and doing nothing,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The speech comes as Trump begins the second two years of his first term facing major challenges: a long-running probe into whether his 2016 presidential campaign colluded with Russia; investigations by House Democrats of his presidency and his business ventures; and difficult trade negotiations with China, among many others.

He and his advisers do not believe the shutdown fight will give him lasting scars. Many Republicans are urging him to focus on the U.S. economy in his speech and beyond, to try to broaden his appeal beyond a hard-core conservative base of voters that make up about a third of the electorate.

“I would hope he would choose the pathway of broadening his appeal to voters who might want to consider voting for him in the next couple of years,” said Lanhee Chen, a Hoover Institution fellow who advised the presidential campaigns of Republicans Marco Rubio in 2016 and Mitt Romney in 2012.

Presidential aides said Trump would still talk about immigration and his demand for a border wall in his speech. “Some of it will be border-related,” said one.

Nancy Pelosi, who took over as speaker of the House of Representatives after Democrats won big in November elections, has vowed not to support funding for a border wall, and the issue has increased partisan tensions across the board.

Trump’s speech was delayed from January after a fight with Pelosi that stemmed from the dispute on border wall funding.

Republicans anxious about the 2020 election – not just holding the White House, but also control of the Senate – are urging him not to get bogged down in immigration in his speech.

“Trump really needs to change the subject. This is an opportunity to get back on offense on his terms. As opposed to being reactive to the Democrats in the House. I really see the State of the Union for Trump as a potential reset, because like it or not the government shutdown was a political loser and it hurt a lot of people,” said Republican strategist Scott Reed.

Trump is also expected to cover foreign policy. He said on Thursday he will likely announce the site of his late-February summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in the speech, with Hanoi a leading candidate.

He may also cite progress in peace talks between the government in Afghanistan and Taliban rebels. Trump has signaled that a peace deal would allow the United States to withdraw troops from Afghanistan after 17 years of war triggered by the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

He and his advisers have been discussing withdrawing half of the U.S. troops in Afghanistan, officials have said, a steep drop that could prompt criticism that Trump is putting U.S. gains in the volatile country in jeopardy.

Trump is expected to declare in his speech that the fight against Islamic State militants in Syria is largely complete, reinforcing his decision to pull 2,000 troops out of Syria, another abrupt move that angered many in his own party.

Trump, along with chief speechwriter Stephen Miller, plans to work on the address during a trip this weekend to his Mar-a-Lago retreat in Palm Beach, Florida, aides said.

(This story corrects to “stalemate”, not “statement”, in paragraph 6)

Reporting by Steve Holland; editing by Kevin Drawbaugh and Jonathan Oatis

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