Trump to call for bipartisanship — but can he deliver?

State of the Union address: 5 takeaways
What went unmentioned:  Nowhere in Trump's speech did he address -- even obliquely -- the special counsel investigation into Russia's attempted meddling in the 2016 election and possible collusion with members of his campaign. In fact Trump uttered the word "Russia" only once. "Around the world, we face rogue regimes, terrorist groups, and rivals like China and Russia that challenge our interests, our economy, and our values," he said.

Bipartisanship will be on President Donald Trump’s lips Tuesday evening as he delivers his first official State of the Union address.

But Trump’s first-year track record of repeated, but ultimately unserious, flirtations with bipartisanship has left Democrats skeptical of Trump’s motives. And an election year climate risks sending both parties into partisan overdrive, with a focus on revving up their respective bases to boost midterm turnout.

Trump’s speech is expected to be laced with appeals for bipartisanship in the coming year, with immigration and infrastructure flagged among the top opportunities for both parties to work together. And some in the President’s orbit believe 2018 will be an opportunity for a President who ran as the ultimate dealmaker to finally prove his mettle at the negotiating table.

Trump has signaled to allies recently that he believes 2018 is ripe for the kind of bipartisan dealmaking he has long teased, and he is especially eager to reach a major agreement on infrastructure in 2018.

“I think he’s been anxious for a bipartisan environment,” said Chris Ruddy, a longtime friend of Trump’s and the CEO of Newsmax. “I think he knows that’s important to him and to his base.”

Lacking follow-through

Though Trump has repeatedly expressed an eagerness to broker major bipartisan legislation during his presidency, his rhetoric on the matter has lacked substantive follow-through.

In his first year in office, Trump flagged repeated opportunities for bipartisanship — but backtracked each time.

He signaled his support for a bipartisan agreement to stabilize the health insurance markets amid his party’s foundering attempts to repeal Obamacare, but quickly retrenched after he faced a swift backlash from conservatives. And while he signaled a willingness to work with Democrats on new healthcare legislation, he instead opted for unilateral executive and regulatory actions to further undercut Obamacare.

As he pushed his tax reform initiative, Trump made repeated overtures to Democrats, even traveling to red states represented by Democratic senators to pressure them to get onboard with his tax proposals. But the White House never seriously engaged in negotiations with those red-state Democrats, instead crafting the bill in closed-door, Republican-only meetings. The final legislation — which included a provision repealing Obamacare’s individual mandate, a poison pill provision for Democrats — passed without a single Democratic vote — and over the objections of even blue state Republicans frustrated by its tax implications for filers paying high state and local taxes in their states.

“President Trump’s idea of bipartisanship has been for Republicans to write a bill, introduce it, and then urge Democrats to support it. Real bipartisanship is having both sides get together to craft a proposal from start to finish,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said in a statement to CNN. “For the President’s promises of bipartisanship to take hold, he’ll have to commit to real bipartisanship. We hope the president will turn over a new leaf when it comes to working with Democrats in Congress.”

First test

The first test of Trump’s seriousness in pursuing bipartisan legislation will be whether he can reach an immigration deal with Democrats to grant legal status to “Dreamers,” the undocumented immigrants who came to the US as children whose protections are set to soon expire after he decided to cancel the Obama-era program that brought them out of the shadows.

Trump is expected to tout the framework he released last week, which offers a path to citizenship for 1.8 million “Dreamers,” while also calling for $25 billion in border wall and border security funding as well as a host of policies aimed at reducing legal immigration numbers, with a target on family-based immigration in particular. But early reports of the proposal have been rejected by the right and the left.

The White House has framed the proposal as a dramatic overture, though many Democrats and even some Republicans eager to broker a deal have balked at attaching a drastic proposal to end the visa lottery program and end Americans’ ability to sponsor their parents or siblings for residency in the US to the legislation.

The President’s allies said the proposal, particularly by proposing a path to citizenship for nearly 2 million undocumented immigrants, signals Trump’s seriousness about reaching a deal.

“He put his credibility on the line when he went at 1.8 (million for) citizenship,” said Bryan Lanza, a former top communications aide to the Trump campaign and transition. “That’s actually pretty courageous.”

But so far it appears unlikely Democrats are willing to accept Trump’s framework — which a senior White House official called Trump’s “bottom line” last week — and negotiators in the Senate are working to craft an agreement that begins by looking at just protections for “Dreamers” and border security funding.

Democrats are under pressure from their base to secure protections for the “Dreamers,” but also must contend with a base of supporters that is loathe for Democrats to cooperate with Trump, particularly if it means making concessions.


That sentiment will be heightened as both parties near 2018, said Republican strategist Doug Heye, a CNN political commentator.

“If there’s one constant of Trump it’s that he has positioned himself or proclaimed himself to be the great dealmaker and if that’s the case, then the two areas where it seems most obvious he could do that would be immigration and infrastructure,” Heye said. “But the longer it goes on the harder it gets.”

Newt Gingrich, the former Republican House speaker, said he believes Republicans have an incentive to work on bipartisan legislation ahead of the midterm election.

“One of the keys to being a governing majority is to govern. It’s always better to find ways to get things done,” Gingrich said.

But the viability of bipartisan dealmaking will largely depend on the President, who in recent weeks has both rejected bipartisan proposals and sang the praises of a bygone era of cooperation with Republicans and Democrats.

“I remember when I used to go out in Washington, and I’d see Democrats having dinner with Republicans. And they were best friends, and everybody got along. You don’t see that too much anymore. In all due respect, you really don’t see that,” Trump said during an hourlong meeting with a group of lawmakers from both parties earlier this month.

On Monday, he continued to express his hopes about a bipartisan immigration deal, saying “hopefully the Democrats will join us, or enough of them will join us, so we can really do something great.”

But despite his talk of bipartisanship and consensus, Trump’s definition of bipartisanship appears to rest on Democrats meeting him where he stands — and only agreeing to deals that don’t bust his campaign promises.

“Trump would like to be bipartisan as long as it’s within the framework of being Trump,” said Gingrich. “He has no interest in being bipartisan if that means giving up being Trump.”