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What to Watch in State of the Union: Melania, Fashion, More

Seated around Mrs. Trump will be more than a dozen guests, including small-business owners, beneficiaries of tax relief, victims of gang violence and a police officer who adopted a baby from parents addicted to opioids

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    NEWSLETTERS

    What Will Be the Focus of Trump's First State of the Union?

    President Donald Trump on Tuesday night is expected to focus on tax overhaul, a new infrastructure and immigration during his first State of the Union address. Political analyst Larry Gerston breaks down what else the president should talk about. (Published Monday, Jan. 29, 2018)

    The state of the union is ...

    Great again? Or not quite?

    However he describes the country's condition on Tuesday night, President Donald Trump will defend his accomplishments and lay out his plans before a chamber packed with members of Congress, the Cabinet and the Supreme Court plus a few choice guests — and with millions of Americans watching on television. It will be the former reality show star's first State of the Union speech, a formal report to Congress that the Constitution requires of the president "from time to time."

    For any president, the prime-time speech is a high-stakes statement of purpose. A year into his presidency, Trump stands before the nation to account for his promise to "make America great again" amid talk of a rising threat of nuclear war and special counsel Robert Mueller's probe of the president and his 2016 campaign.

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    For both parties, the speech operates like the pop of a starting gun for the midterm elections, when Republicans will defend their majorities in the House and Senate.

    A look at what to watch:

    HOW SUPERLATIVE?
    White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders on Monday previewed the speech by describing the state of the union as "incredible."

    But will the hyperbole-loving president tone down his bombastic speaking style a bit? The White House is setting expectations as close to "yes" as possible — but only for as long as the speech itself lasts. Expect the president to cast the tax overhaul he signed in December and the strong economy as Trump initiatives that help all Americans. Thematically, Trump is expected to speak of having built the foundation for a safer and stronger nation.

    But can Trump stay on message — and off Twitter — after the reviews come in?

    THE ELEPHANT IN THE CHAMBER
    Will Trump make any mention of Mueller's probe of Russian connections and obstruction of justice, or his own expressed willingness to be interviewed under oath? Trump told reporters last week he'd "love" to be interviewed under oath about the matter. But his lawyers didn't seem as enthusiastic and are still negotiating.

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    Past presidents have addressed — or notably avoided — their own controversies in past speeches. Former President Richard Nixon used his 1974 State of the Union speech to decry that "one year of Watergate is enough." He was out office within a year. Former President Bill Clinton went the opposite route, avoiding mentioning his own scandals during his State of the Union addresses. His 1999 speech came the same day his Senate impeachment trial began. Former President Ronald Reagan addressed what he called a "major regret" following revelations that his administration was involved in a sale of weapons to Iran to secretly fund Contra rebels in Nicaragua, CNBC reported. "I took a risk with regard to our action in Iran," Reagan said. "It did not work, and for that I assume full responsibility."

    FLOTUS
    First lady Melania Trump will face extra scrutiny this year — and not just because of the former model's fashionable couture.

    Mrs. Trump's movements have been closely watched ever since The Wall Street Journal reported earlier this month that the president's lawyer had arranged a payment to an adult film star, Stormy Daniels, to keep her from talking about an alleged 2006 affair with the future president. The couple's 13th wedding anniversary passed without public comment last week, and Mrs. Trump abruptly announced she was skipping a trip with her husband to an economic summit last week in Switzerland.

    WHO'S THERE
    Often who is in the chamber reflects the president's priorities. Seated around Mrs. Trump will be more than a dozen guests, including small-business owners, beneficiaries of tax relief, victims of gang violence and a police officer who adopted a baby from parents addicted to opioids.

    Democrats are strategically populating their guest lists, too — with faces of the immigration debate that is roiling Congress and vexing Trump. Their guests will include immigrants who are among the nearly 700,000 people who received protection from deportation under the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. Trump canceled the program last year but gave Congress until March to come up with a legislative fix.

    Only four Supreme Court justices, Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Stephen Breyer, Elena Kagan and Neil Gorsuch, are expected at the speech. Roberts, Breyer and Kagan regularly attend, as do justices appointed by the president who is speaking. Trump nominated Gorsuch a year ago.

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    WHO'S NOT
    Traditionally, one member of the Cabinet stays away from the address for security reasons. One question is whether Justice Neil Gorsuch, whom Trump nominated for the Supreme Court, will attend the speech. Justice Samuel Alito, who shook his head and mouthed "not true" at President Barack Obama during the 2010 State of the Union speech, has not attended a presidential address since. And Clarence Thomas hasn't been in years. 

    Justice Anthony Kennedy's long-standing travel plans have him in California, while Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is in Rhode Island and Justice Sonia Sotomayor is in Panama. 

    Some Democratic lawmakers also plan to boycott the president's address.

    WHAT THEY WEAR
    Typically, some female lawmakers wear bright colors so they will stand out on television. But this year, several Democratic women plan to wear black to protest sexual harassment after a season of scandals toppled male leaders across industries. Congress is no exception: Accusations have forced resignations and retirements in both parties. Trump, too, has faced sexual assault allegations.

    REBUTTAL
    Rep. Joe Kennedy of Massachusetts will deliver the Democratic response to the president's address. He is the grandson of the late Robert F. Kennedy, the senator and U.S. attorney general, and the son of former Rep. Joseph Kennedy II, who served in the House from 1987 to 1999. Democratic leaders are pitching Kennedy as someone who can champion Democratic policies to the middle class.

    THEN THIS HAPPENS
    Daniels, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford, is scheduled to appear on ABC's "Jimmy Kimmel Live!" following Trump's address. She said she had an affair with Trump shortly after he married Melania Trump.

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    (Published Thursday, Dec. 13, 2018)