On the eve of the State of the Union address, the big question is whether Donald Trump will say anything about the elephant in the room—that is, the investigations into his possible involvement with Russian meddling in the 2016 election. Similar questions swirled around Bill Clinton in 1999. As the president prepared to give the SOTU, the Senate was getting ready to vote on his impeachment just a few weeks later. Would Clinton mention the scandal or the name Monica Lewinsky?
As one of the speechwriters who worked on that 1999 address, I can assure you that within the White House, the answer to that question was never in doubt: no frickin’ way.
Before I accepted the White House job in September of 1998, I made a point of asking how much time I’d have to spend writing speeches defending against the impeachment efforts. I wouldn’t necessarily have balked at the task, since I thought those efforts were mendacious and insane. But as a career policy journalist, what I really wanted was to have a hand in advancing policies I agreed with. I was told not to worry: there would be ample opportunity to help move policy, and the speechwriters would not be involved in the impeachment issue, for the simple reason that the president himself would not be speaking about it. And indeed, during the whole episode, and for most of the next two years of his administration, Clinton did not talk about it publicly.
The no-public-comment-by-the-president strategy was partly defensive. An ill-chosen word could jeopardize the White House’s legal strategy, and anything the president said, no matter how banal, would lead the evening news.
But it was also a way to go on the offense. The press’s hunger for the president to say something, anything, about Lewinsky meant that whenever Clinton spoke publicly—indeed, any time he poked his head out of the White House—the broadcast networks would carry it live. Senior White House officials quickly figured out that the press’s unprecedented eagerness to cover the president’s every word, live, gave us tremendous leverage to move both policy and pubic opinion. The polls were clear that the public was overwhelmingly against the impeachment drive and wanted Washington to get back to the business of governing. So our strategy was to show the president “doing the people’s business” and ignoring the partisan sideshow.
Practically, that meant three things. First, it put a premium on getting the president out in public as often as possible talking about his policy agenda—something Clinton was naturally, and famously, eager to do anyway. Second, as a consequence, the speechwriting office went into overdrive. Instead of one or two public utterances a day to craft, we were now writing three or four. Third, the ratcheted-up speaking schedule created intense demand within the White House for “deliverables”—that is, for new policy initiatives the president could announce. That, in turn, meant that a freshmen speechwriter with zero clout and no formal policy-making role could, much to his delight, find the door open to his policy ideas.
The situation today is very different. Trump has no discernible interest in policy. The number and gravity of his potential sins are immeasurably greater. He is on the wrong side of public opinion on the Mueller probe. And he has been unable to keep his mouth shut about it, regardless of what his staff may tell him.
Still, the advantages to him of not talking about the investigation in the State of the Union, and instead keeping the focus of the night and of the subsequent coverage on new policy ideas that—unlike his tax and Obamacare repeal efforts—might be popular with the majority of Americans, are so obvious and overwhelming that I’d be surprised if he doesn’t muster, at least for this one night, the discipline to not say anything about it. But I’ve been wrong about the guy from the get-go, so who knows?