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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 22 June 2018

Team Trump says president aims to mend fences in State of Union address

US president faces long odds on narrowing Washington's bipartisan divide

President Donald Trump addresses a joint session of Congress on February 28, 2017, a month after taking office. He will deliver his first State of The Union speech to the nation on January 31, 2018. Alex Brandon / AP Photo
President Donald Trump addresses a joint session of Congress on February 28, 2017, a month after taking office. He will deliver his first State of The Union speech to the nation on January 31, 2018. Alex Brandon / AP Photo

He has used Twitter on foes ranging from musician Jay-Z to Washington's top Democrat "Cryin' Chuck Schumer", but US president Donald Trump will use his first State of The Union speech on Tuesday to change tack, officials say.

One year since his populist inaugural address lamented "American carnage", Mr Trump will opt for a more positive and unifying tone, according to those briefed on the address.

It will be a speech "that resonates with our American values and unites us with patriotism", said one aide in a call with reporters. The header will be building "a safe, strong, and proud America."

Mr Trump was expected to rehearse the speech at the White House, with the help of his advisers Stephen Miller and Rob Porter who jointly wrote it.

It will tout the US president's accomplishments in office - most notably a major tax cut - and plans for ambitious economic growth, infrastructure projects, the renegotiation of trade deals and immigration reform.

The latter is one area that Mr Trump needs to build bridges, given his repeated pledge to build a wall with Mexico to stop illegal immigration.

In the nationally televised event the US president is expected to say that in return for Congress funding the wall he would be willing to grant 1.8 million undocumented young immigrants a path to citizenship.

"I'd say to Congress the tone will be one of bipartisanship... it will be very forward looking and certainly have a dimension which of course transcends party differences," said one official, two weeks after a partisan gridlock on Capitol Hill shut down the US government for three days.

But given Mr Trump's past record for saying he would bring people together, only to then lambast those who disagree with him, upbeat talk is one thing but reality is another, said Shibley Telhami, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

The divisive mood of the 2016 presidential election remains. "We saw a polarisation across domestic and foreign policy issues that was among the deepest we had measured in our polls.” Mr Telhami, director of the "critical issues poll" at the University of Maryland, told The National.

"There were expectations that immediately after the elections this polarisation would diminish. It did not," he said, attributing that at least partly to Mr Trump's decision "to cater mostly to his base as was evidenced in his inaugural speech" last year.

A poll conducted by the Pew Research Center last October showed an unprecedented 36-percentage-point gap between Republicans and Democrats on a wide set of identity and values related questions. In 1994, the margin was only 15 points.

"I don't expect the president to be able to narrow that gap in his State of the Union Address," Mr Telhami said, anticipating that Mr Trump will continue to reach out to his core base and the majority of Republican politicians and voters who still support him despite an average approval rating of only 40 per cent.

The speech is also an opening gambit to America's midterm elections in November. Republicans and rival Democrats are starting to mark out their positions. Democrats are lining up to respond to the State of the Union. Congressman Joe Kennedy III will answer Mr Trump, while Congresswoman Maxine Waters will deliver another non-official response targeted at party followers.

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The sheer gap between the optimism for progress advanced by the White House and the reality of prevailing political discord is perhaps best evidenced, however, by splits over foreign policy.

Mr Trump is expected to draw "clarity between our friends and adversaries," said one US official, likely promoting his decision to move the US embassy to Jerusalem and recognise it as capital of Israel, a step that was popular in Congress, though it sparked clashes in Gaza. The move has also led Palestinians to declare they will not treat the United States as an honest broker in any peace settlement, an initiative Mr Trump continues to raise while lacking any road map toward a negotiated solution.

He will also praise US military accomplishments against ISIL in Iraq and Syria.

What will be left unsaid on Tuesday is the special inquiry into Russia's alleged meddling in the 2016 election won by Mr Trump.

The US president is not expected to walk into Richard Nixon’s trap in 1974 and make mention of the ongoing investigation, this time led by special counsel Robert Mueller. The Russia probe continues to cast a cloud over the White House, as Mr Trump’s lawyers negotiate with Mr Mueller a possible interview with the US president, another indication that the probe may be in its final stages.