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Carol Felsenthal
On politics

The Next Big Stage Where Trump Can Bash Chicago? Wait ’til Next Month

Rahm should be ready when Trump makes his first major State of the Union-like address.

We all know Trump likes a big stage; and there's no stage more magnificent than the House floor.  Photo: Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune

Now that we’ve watched President Donald Trump’s inaugural speech, we’re ready for his next performance. That will be a speech to a joint session of Congress, tentatively set for February 28 via an invitation from Paul Ryan, as the House Speaker announced this week.

While it’s not officially a State of the Union address—that speech is intended to recap the last year—most presidents in modern times have addressed Congress and the public a month or so after taking office. Barack Obama delivered his on February 24, 2009. George W. Bush and Bill Clinton also took the opportunity to address the nation via a nationally televised speech, as did Ike, JFK, Carter, and Reagan.

A president’s first national address often has a theme; Obama’s was the crisis in the economy, Carter’s was the energy crisis. I wouldn’t be surprised if Trump used his to trumpet the “sad state of the media.” After the inauguration he called reporters “the most dishonest human beings on earth.” He might even go after them by name: during the campaign, he ridiculed New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, recipient of the Nobel Prize in economics, as a “clown.”

And with Illinois elected officials in the audience, why stick to media-bashing when it will be the perfect time, once again, to ram Rahm and decry the “horrible carnage” in Chicago?

“[Chicago] is Afghanistan… people are being shot right and left… This year is worse than last year, which was a catastrophe,” he told ABC’s David Muir Wednesday. And so, I could imagine him again singling out Rahm for special attention: “To the mayor of this war zone, I have just four words for you; just four words. ‘Call in the feds! Call in the feds!’”

He might choose to go off telemprompter and show those who keep waiting for him to pivot to presidential demeanor that they can just keep on waiting. He can indulge his penchant for asking his audience questions and waiting for cheers as if there’s an applause-o-meter in the chamber. “Did everybody like the speech?” or “By the way, are you glad I ran for president?”—both questions he asked during a post-election thank-you tour.

At some point in his speech, he might show that indeed he can pivot—from his description of Chicagoans “shot walking down the street for a loaf of bread”—back to himself.

That inner voice that might warn others, “not appropriate; not in this setting,” is, in Trump’s case, on mute. Otherwise, would he have traveled to CIA headquarters on the day after his inauguration, stood before the wall of stars carved into marble to commemorate each of 117 CIA agents who died in service, and boast about such feats as being on the cover of Time “like, 14 or 15 times. I think we have the all–time record.”

Given his love of the limelight, Trump, who had not yet responded to the Speaker’s invitation at press time, would be the last person to forgo the extravaganza that the State of the Union (and quasi-SOTU presidential addresses) have become. Covered by all TV networks, broadcast and cable, just think how Trump could use this speech and its prime evening time slot to his advantage.

Consider the grand entrance of POTUS into the ornate House chamber. There’s almost nothing like it, outside the Kremlin. The Academy Awards pale by comparison. Trump will be mobbed by Republicans jockeying to be in the same camera frame, to get selfies, to touch him, to be acknowledged by the commander-in-chief.

Trump is surely already compiling a list of House and Senate members who are showing disrespect and getting in his way. At his inaugural address, he didn’t mind blasting establishment politicians for abandoning the people in favor of the elites, while standing within spitting distance of four former presidents. Just before Martin Luther King Day, Trump charged civil rights legend John Lewis with being “all talk, no action.” He left out Lewis’s name in the inaugural speech, but reprised much the same language: “We will no longer accept politicians who are all talk and no action, constantly complaining, but never doing anything about it.

Who else might be a target? Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg called Trump “a faker” during the general election campaign. She reliably attended Obama’s SOTUs and, just as reliably, fell asleep during them. No doubt, Trump knows this—he has a gift for noticing human foibles—and he’ll wait for her to nod off. Then it’s time to joke about her being “low energy,” and ask the audience, “Isn’t it time she retired so I could appoint a younger, sharper, more energetic replacement? Do you agree?” (Supreme Court justices are not required to attend SOTUs and during the Obama years, Justices Scalia and Thomas stayed away. Justice Ginsburg would be wise to do the same during Trump’s presidency.)

Should anyone pull a Joe Wilson (the Texas GOP congressman who shouted “You lie!” during Obama’s 2009 speech, in response to the rookie president’s promise that his intended health care reform would not cover illegal immigrants), Trump might nod to security to remove the offender. “Get ‘em out of here!” he might shout, as he did at rallies when protesters interrupted his speeches.

Does anyone who has watched Trump since election day doubt that he’d use this forum to share, once again, with his live audience and with viewers at home details about his “magnificent” landslide? “Nobody has ever had crowds like Trump has had,” he said in a post-election press conference. He could repeat his claim this week to congressional leaders that he would have won not only the electoral vote but the popular vote as well—Hillary won the latter by almost three million—had all those illegal immigrants not voted.

Who’s to stop him from lapsing into hyperbole, truth be damned, boasting about “a million and a half people” on the mall watching his inaugural or declaring, as he did at a congressional leadership lunch the day before his inauguration, that his Cabinet would “have by far the highest IQ of any Cabinet ever assembled”? Or as he did from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, that his victory was “a movement like we’ve never seen anywhere in the world”?

Even better, we can all wait for his tweets later that night or early the next morning, full of unsubstantiated, wildly inflated claims that more people watched his speech than any president since, well, since George Washington.

Carol Felsenthal is a lifelong Chicagoan and self-proclaimed political junkie. She writes occasionally for Politico Magazine and The Hill. Her books include biographies of Bill Clinton, Katharine Graham, and Alice Roosevelt Longworth. Among her many stories for Chicago are memorable profiles of Michelle Obama and Bruce Rauner. Follow her on Twitter at @csfelsenthal.

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