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Seven Questions Heading Into Trump's Address to Congress

First Read is a morning briefing from Meet the Press and the NBC Political Unit on the day's most important political stories and why they matter
The early morning sun begins to rise behind the U.S. Capitol in Washington, on Nov. 17, 2016.
The early morning sun begins to rise behind the U.S. Capitol in Washington, on Nov. 17, 2016.Mark Wilson / Getty Images

First Read is a morning briefing from Meet the Press and the NBC Political Unit on the day's most important political stories and why they matter

Seven questions heading into tonight’s Trump speech

With President Trump set to address a joint session of Congress around 9:00 pm ET tonight, we can state the obvious: His administration has gotten off to a slow start. Just 15 members of his cabinet and team have won Senate confirmation, compared with 29 for Barack Obama and 22 for George W. Bush at this same point in time, per data from the Partnership for Public Service. And on the legislative front, he’s signed nothing substantial into law, even though Republicans control both the White House and Congress. At this same point in time eight years ago, Democrats had already passed their stimulus, equal-pay legislation, and children’s health-care expansion, while Bush 43 had sent his big tax-cut plan to Congress (though it wasn’t passed into law until the summer). So given this slow start, we have seven questions heading into tonight’s speech, which the White House has billed as a “renewal of the American spirit”:

  • Does Trump offer a way forward on health care? Right now, House and Senate Republicans don’t know how to proceed on this thorny topic. Is it full repeal and replace? Or is it simply a fix (as former House Speaker John Boehner suggested last week)? What happens with Medicaid expansion? As Trump himself said yesterday, “Nobody knew that health care could be so complicated.” By “nobody,” did he mean “everybody”?
  • Does he provide clarity on tax reform? Last week, Trump seemed to warm to House Speaker Paul Ryan’s border-adjustment tax to pay for comprehensive corporate tax reform. But also last week, top Trump economic adviser Gary Cohen reportedly criticized the border-adjustment tax (though the Trump White House disputed that Axios report). So what is it — yeah or nay on Ryan’s proposal?
  • Does he explain how his budget priorities add up? Yesterday, the Trump White House released a budget outline calling to boost military spending by $54 billion and cut non-military programs by the same amount — but not touch entitlement programs. “It’s not feasible to do that and not widen deficits,” former Congressional Budget Office Director Douglas Holtz-Eakin said on MSNBC’s MTP Daily yesterday. “The arithmetic just doesn’t add up,” he added, talking about Trump’s budget priorities with his call to boost infrastructure spending. Per NBC’s Peter Alexander, more than 120 retired generals and admirals signed a letter criticizing Trump’s proposed cuts to development and diplomacy.
  • Does Trump extend an olive branch to the millions of Americans who didn’t vote for him? There was no olive branch in Trump’s “American carnage” inaugural address. Does one come tonight, even on something as simple as increased infrastructure spending?
  • Does he mention what happened in Kansas? The White House has said that Trump’s guests at tonight’s speech will include people whose loved ones were killed by undocumented immigrants (even though research has found that first-generation immigrants commit less violent crime than other groups). But does the president mention what happened in Kansas, where one Indian immigrant was murdered and another was wounded in a possible hate crime?
  • What does Trump say about Russia and North Korea? Russia has become a thorn in the side of Trump’s early administration (“We need to get answers,” House Speaker Paul Ryan told NBC’s Matt Lauer about the Trump campaign’s alleged contacts with Russian officials. Does he continue his friendly talk about Putin, or does he get tougher? And does he mention North Korea, which has certainly been provocative?
  • How do Democrats treat him? Finally, a question for the Democrats in tonight’s audience: How do they treat him? Emulating Joe Wilson’s “You Lie” wouldn’t be a positive development for this country’s discourse and institutions. There is a big different between quiet symbolism — like Democratic female lawmakers wearing white for the suffragette movement — and clear disruption.

A need to fill in the blanks

NBC’s Benjy Sarlin has more on Trump’s speech tonight: “More than a month after taking office, though, no one seems to know exactly what direction he means. On three critical parts of his agenda — health care, tax reform and infrastructure — Trump has given limited or contradictory directions about what he expects Congress to do. That puts pressure on the White House to fill in the blanks in his address to Congress Tuesday night, which is traditionally a platform for laying out the president's policy wish list.”

The Yemen raid has yielded no significant intelligence

Yesterday, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said that U.S. raid into Yemen last month “was successful in helping prevent a future attack or attacks on this nation. It obtained a lot of information that will help us keep safe.” But the reporting here is different. “Last month's deadly commando raid in Yemen, which cost the lives of a U.S. Navy SEAL and a number of children, has so far yielded no significant intelligence, U.S. officials told NBC News,” per NBC’s Cynthia McFadden, William Arkin, and Ken Dilanian.

Trump Cabinet watch: Ross wins confirmation

“Wilbur L. Ross, Jr., a former banker and investor who earned billions during decades of buying and selling industries and who President Trump has touted to lead his trade negotiations, was confirmed as secretary of commerce by the Senate in a 72-to-27 vote on Monday night,” the Washington Post reports. That means 15 members of Trump’s cabinet have won Senate confirmation.

  • Secretary of State: Rex Tillerson CONFIRMED
  • Attorney General: Jeff Sessions CONFIRMED
  • Treasury: Steve Mnuchin CONFIRMED
  • Defense: JamesMattis CONFIRMED
  • Homeland: John Kelly CONFIRMED
  • Interior: Ryan Zinke NOMINATED
  • HHS: Tom Price CONFIRMED
  • HUD: Ben Carson NOMINATED
  • Education: Betsy DeVos CONFIRMED
  • Commerce: Wilbur Ross CONFIRMED
  • Transportation: Elaine Chao CONFIRMED
  • Labor: Alexander Acosta NOMINATED
  • Agriculture: Sonny Perdue NOMINATED
  • Energy: Rick Perry NOMINATED
  • Veterans Affairs: David Shulkin CONFIRMED
  • OMB Director: Mick Mulvaney CONFIRMED
  • U.S Trade Representative: Robert Lighthizer NOMINATED
  • UN Ambassador: Nikki Haley CONFIRMED
  • Environmental Protection Agency: Scott Pruitt CONFIRMED
  • Small Business Administration: Linda McMahon CONFIRMED
  • CIA Director: Mike Pompeo CONFIRMED

Guess who Keith Ellison is taking to tonight’s presidential address? Tom Perez

Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN) is taking the man who defeated him in the DNC chair race —Tom Perez — as his guest to tonight’s presidential address. It’s a different tactic than Bernie Sanders took in 2016: accepting defeat immediately and with grace. And we wouldn’t be surprised if this move increases Ellison’s relevancy with Perez.

What were other presidents doing on February 28?

Heading to SXSW? So is Chuck!

Hear from him on March 14th at 5 p.m. CT as he explores if big data is destroying the U.S. political system.