This year's SOTU, delayed by the government shutdown, comes just two days after an interview with CBS News in which the president rambles disjointedly about "fantastic chemistry" with the North Korean leader, unemployment figures for minorities and his son's sports activities but leaves the viewer largely unenlightened about his concrete plans for the country. The biggest question ahead of Tuesday's speech is not about policy: Will it be coherent?
that this is a heavily-scripted event, the odds for that are better
than in a free-ranging battery of journalist questions, but still, says
Ian Lesser, executive director of the German Marshall Fund's Brussels
office, "Given all of these concerns about the president's style, I
think that aspect of the speech will get very close attention."
Fact-checkers will be live-correcting the speech at many major news outlets.
"There have always been better and worse the State of the Union speeches," Lesser explained to DW. "It's not as if he has to meet a perfect standard." But what's different with Trump, Lesser noted, is that whereas most SOTU speeches are somewhat predictable, "with this president one simply does not know what one will get until one hears it. And so what he does say is indicative to a great extent of his own thinking."
Alice Stollmeyer, executive director of the non-partisan pro-democracy initiative Defending Democracy, says that would be best-case scenario. She fears worse. "Is [Trump] parroting and amplifying Kremlin propaganda? He has done this repeatedly, and I expect he will do so in his SOTU," she said. "If so: which talking points? Another dig at [German Chancellor Angela] Merkel or [French President Emmanuel] Macron? Or at NATO, the European Union or the United Nations? All of the above?"
Trump's team has said this year's SOTU will be about an hour long
The White House has doled out some clues as to the planned content, revealing the speech's title is "Choosing Greatness" and will focus on five themes: immigration, infrastructure, health care and, the two that could impact Europe, national security and trade. Venezuela will also be addressed, and Trump himself has promised remarks about his desire to build a border wall and about North Korea.
DW talked to experts keeping a close eye on the White House to get their views on Europe's stakes in the SOTU.
NATO or not
Trump uses many speaking opportunities to excoriate European allies for
their relatively low defense spending, he didn't mention NATO at all in
last year's address. A year later, however, numerous reports have
underscored the president's genuine desire to quit the alliance
altogether, and this would provide quite the spotlight for such a
dramatic announcement, albeit an unreceptive audience of traditional
NATO supporters. "Trump has so far been tamed in his desire to pull the
United States out of NATO," warned Leslie Vinjamuri, head of the US and
the Americas Program at London's Chatham House institute, "but his basic
instincts on this haven't really changed."
Brattberg, director of the Europe Program at the Carnegie Endowment for
International Peace, agrees Europeans will be watching anxiously. "In
his most recent meeting with [NATO Secretary General Jens] Stoltenberg,"
Brattberg told DW, "Trump struck a slightly more cordial tone, taking
credit for NATO's increases in defense spending."
But former US ambassador to NATO Doug Lute, now with Harvard's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, suggests silence might be the better outcome. "The best we might expect is no mention of our oldest, most important alliance that is approaching its 70th anniversary of securing our nation," Lute told DW. However, he adds, "More typical would be disregard for the value of NATO, denigration of our closest allies and the EU, and uncoordinated announcements that impact European security."
Brattberg predicts Trump will raise the US's February 2 announcement of withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty with Russia, "which he will tout as a victory for his administration." Lute adds his own concerns that the "president will no longer press Russia diplomatically to resolve the Russian violation and preserve this treaty that serves as a cornerstone of arms control in Europe," underscoring that "there is still time for diplomacy; we should make best use of that time."
Troop movements in Syria and Afghanistan
GMF's Lesser said it will be interesting to see how the SOTU squares Trump's contrasting announcements on US troop deployments in Syria, where the president initially said troops were pulling out immediately but then backed down, minus Defense Secretary Jim Mattis who quit over it. Lesser noted there is a growing chorus of bipartisan opinion in the United States that "we've been in Afghanistan too long — we're not doing any good there anymore."
But Lute, who worked on Afghanistan policy in the Bush and Obama administrations, again would hope Trump exercises patience. "Eliminating the US troop presence is the war aim of the Taliban, and we should not hand it over without getting agreement on our aims, " he said, identifying those as "no safe haven for international terrorists, ending the fighting, respecting the Afghan constitution."
European businesses would like to see an end to US tariffs on steel and aluminum — and reassurance cars won't be thrown in the mix.
It's unclear whether Trump will keep up his attacks on Europe with his increasing focus on China. At the very least, believes Chatham House's Vinjamuri, "Trump may put pressure on Europe to shore up America's assertive strategy towards China." Marietje Schaake, a Dutch member of the European Parliament (EP) who is also vice chair of the EP's delegation for relations with the US, will be listening for further protectionist measures, including "withdrawing from the World Trade Organization," another threat Trump's mentioned.
US is us
Andrew Stroehlein, European media director of Human Rights Watch, says he'll also be parsing Trump's US policies for European impact. "I fear Trump will launch yet another lie-strewn attack on asylum-seekers," Stroehlein told DW, "which sends a signal to hate-mongers in Europe, like [Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor] Orban and [Italian Deputy Prime Minister Matteo] Salvini, encouraging them to continue attacking these most powerless and vulnerable people here as well." Continued assaults on US media, Stroehlein said, will also send a "dangerous signal across the Atlantic that authoritarian moves in places like Hungary are not only tolerated but encouraged."
Schaake told DW she'll also be listening for what isn't said, predicting that list to be: "anything on cyber security," emphasis on international cooperation, criticism of the role of China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, human rights, climate change and the US role in tackling it.
An excerpt of the drafted speech that's been released reads: "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."
In making that decision, Stollmeyer wonders, "Will he behave like an ally or an enemy" toward Europe?