In the aftermath of the January 2011 shooting attack against Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., lawmakers used the State of the Union that month to send a message to the nation: What unites us is greater than what divides us. Lawmakers voluntarily scrambled the partisan seating chart in the U.S. House chamber that year to bring Republicans and Democrats together.
“I’m here because I believe it is time to work together to solve the problems at hand,” said newly elected Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., at the news conference touting the bipartisan seating plan. “At the end of the day, we all came to Congress with the same goal: to represent the people we serve and to continue to ensure that our future generations will have the same opportunities all of us had. While we may disagree how we get there, we can do so respectfully and work hand in hand to find the best solutions for the problems we face as a country,” Gosar said then.
The seating tradition endured for a few years, but as President Trump prepares to address Congress in his first official State of the Union speech one thing is certain: Those days are over.
“Today, Congressman Paul Gosar contacted the U.S. Capitol Police, as well as Attorney General Jeff Sessions, asking they consider checking identification of all attending the State of the Union address and arresting any illegal aliens in attendance,” Gosar’s office tweeted Tuesday afternoon.
Gosar’s tweet is in response to dozens of congressional Democrats planning a confrontational move of their own toward the president: Inviting DREAMers as their official guests, people who were brought to the country as children and now reside in the U.S. either illegally or with a temporary protected status that Trump has threatened to revoke in March, if Congress does not pass legislation to determine their fate.
Gosar is unlikely to get his way — a spokeswoman for House Speaker Paul Ryan said the speaker “clearly does not agree” with such a move — but the immigration impasse hanging over Congress is just one factor contributing to a confrontational and partisan atmosphere waiting to greet the president Tuesday night.
No president in the modern era has been as unpopular with the American public on his first State of the Union address as Trump. With approval ratings hovering in the high 30s, and the immigration debate inflaming the parties’ most passionate base activists, Democrats in particular are in no mood to play nice.
“Since his campaign, President Trump has taken every opportunity, in speeches, in tweets, in meetings to divide this country along racial lines,” Congressional Black Caucus Chairman Cedric Richmond, D-La., said Tuesday.
“He’s called Mexicans ‘criminals and rapists.’ He’s called white supremacists ‘very fine people.’ He’s called African-American football players ‘sons of bitches.’ He’s called Haiti and Africa ‘shithole’ countries. … What we know now, more than any time in our history, is that words matter,” Richmond said. “And President Trump’s racist rhetoric makes the country less safe for people of color by encouraging and emboldening and pandering to those who wish to do harm to others based on the color of their skin.”
At least a dozen Democrats, including prominent CBC members like civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., announced they will boycott tonight’s address.
Other Democrats have chosen other confrontational moves. Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Wis., ticked off Republicans with his decision to bring Randy Bryce as his guest. Bryce is the Democratic candidate seeking to challenge Ryan in the 2018 midterms — a move that injects midterm election year politics into an official event.
“This is an attempt to sow political discourse and deepen a divide in an already fractured political environment. Creating a spectacle like this — regardless of position or party — is disrespectful and out of bounds,” Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., told The Wisconsin State Journal.
However, the president is injecting partisan politics into the address on his own. The Trump campaign is using his speech to solicit campaign contributions to have donor names appear onscreen during a campaign livestream of the event. “This is a movement. It’s not about just one of us. It’s about ALL of us. Which is why your name deserves to be displayed during tonight’s speech,” reads the Trump campaign site.
All of this means it will be that much harder for Trump to make a case to the public for a bipartisan immigration deal. Democrats have uniformly rejected the White House’s proposals to limit family-based migration and a visa lottery program. The president is also facing pushback from immigration hard-liners in the GOP who don’t want to support any legislation that provides a path to citizenship for people currently residing in the country illegally.
No matter what Trump says tonight, many lawmakers in the audience have already retreated to their corners and stopped listening.
Editor’s note: NPR has decided in this case to spell out the vulgar word that the president reportedly used because it meets our standard for use of offensive language: It is “absolutely integral to the meaning and spirit of the story being told.”