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Fight Over Border Wall Funding Still Looms As Trump Prepares For State Of The Union


President Trump will deliver his second State of the Union address tomorrow night in the House chamber. The event had been scheduled for a week ago, but then the partial government shutdown happened. As NPR's Tamara Keith reports, the fight over the border wall that was at the heart of that shutdown still looms large.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: For the record-setting 35 days of the partial government shutdown, there was really just one thing on President Trump's agenda.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We're going to have a wall.

And we need a wall very soon.

And we're building the new wall as we speak.

We're building the wall right now as we speak.

If we had a wall, we wouldn't have any problems.

We have to have the wall.

Walls are not immoral.

Nothing like a wall.

KEITH: The wall dominated all else. Even in Iraq to greet the troops the day after Christmas, President Trump brought up the wall and border security. For days on end, all alone at the White House, as he put it, Trump had no meetings or public events on his schedule. There were no new policy rollouts, no theme weeks.

RON BONJEAN: The wall is actually a wall against getting anything else done (laughter) at this point. I mean, it's literally a legislative wall.

KEITH: Ron Bonjean is a Republican strategist who has worked with the Trump administration. And while the wall and shutdown have been nearly all-consuming for Trump, he points out it temporarily stymied the ambitious agenda of House Democrats, too. The president's State of the Union address comes at an unsettled time politically with the clock ticking down for Trump and Congress to reach a deal on border security funding. And it gives Trump a big moment on the national stage to make his pitch. But for what? Bonjean says he expects Trump to throw down the gauntlet on the wall to prove that even if he lost round one, he doesn't intend to lose round two.

BONJEAN: He has to demand funding for his wall. I mean, it would be malpractice for him not to. At the same time, Americans want to hear much more than immigration. They want to hear solutions to health care, to infrastructure, to data privacy, foreign policy. You know, you name it.

KEITH: These are the sorts of things President Trump talked about in the press conference he held the day after the midterms.


TRUMP: Hopefully we can all work together next year to continue delivering for the American people, including on economic growth, infrastructure, trade, lowering the cost of prescription drugs. These are some of the things that the Democrats do want to work on.

KEITH: White House advisers say these potentially bipartisan items will make an appearance in Trump's State of the Union. But in the midst of all this partisan rancor, can President Trump actually walk into the House chamber, stand right in front of Speaker Nancy Pelosi and act as if this is a normal address in a normal time? Another president 20 years ago did just that.


BILL CLINTON: Because of the hard work and high purpose of the American people, these are good times for America.

KEITH: In 1998, President Clinton's State of the Union simply ignored the Monica Lewinsky scandal swirling around his presidency, says Russell Riley with the Miller Center at the University of Virginia.

RUSSELL RILEY: By dent of his speaking skills and his personality, he was able to go in and change the tone of the debate. There were a lot of people within the Clinton White House that felt that that saved his presidency.

KEITH: It's not the same situation, but Riley says this speech does present an opportunity for Trump.

RILEY: Really to kind of reset his presidency if he chooses to do it. He may not. He may find that this is an opportunity to go in and to aggravate emotions over the border wall.

KEITH: Or he could do what almost every other president has done in these addresses and talk about finding common ground.

RILEY: A strategic-thinking White House operation, if it were effectively working for the president, would convince them that it's better at this point to go in and start trying to get some wins on the board looking ahead to his re-election season.

KEITH: It may be too late and too toxic for bipartisan cooperation. Many of the president's allies are convinced Democrats are unwilling to give him a victory on anything large or small just because Trump is Trump. And Trump is so focused on keeping his base with him he may have a hard time compromising with them. Tamara Keith, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.
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