On Tuesday at 1 p.m., the Senate will begin the impeachment trial of Donald Trump. But for Congress, the more important date may come two weeks later, on Feb. 4. That evening President Trump-freshly vindicated by the impeachment failure to remove him from office-will deliver the most consequential State of the Union address of his presidency thus far.
Right now most press coverage is obsessing over impeachment minutiae. Will former national security adviser John Bolton testify? If he does, will Republicans insist that Hunter Biden, and maybe even Joe Biden, be called as well? Were the celebratory impeachment signing pens given out by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi appropriate for what she claims was a “solemn” occasion? How long will the trial take? And so on.
Given that we already know how this story ends-even with a few defectors, Democrats are unlikely to come close to the 20 Republican votes they need to convict Mr. Trump-all these are distractions. The big question is what comes after impeachment fails and the president is still standing.
Assuming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell delivers the swift trial Republicans expect, it would mean a State of the Union delivered by a newly triumphant Mr. Trump. In contrast to the low ratings that have characterized the impeachment coverage thus far, many more Americans are sure to tune in to the State of the Union to see what a Donald Trump liberated from impeachment will say. The heightened interest comes courtesy of the overreach by his many enemies: intelligence chiefs who falsely called him a Russian agent, a press corps that has dropped objective reporting as an unaffordable luxury and, of course, the House Democrats who presided over the most partisan impeachment in U.S. history.
Mr. Trump won’t be the first to emerge politically strengthened by the failure of his antagonists. Bill Clinton also went through the same process and came out stronger, notwithstanding the impeachment asterisk that sticks to his name in the history books.
There were some differences. After the House impeached him Mr. Clinton’s approval rating jumped to 73%-the highest rating he ever enjoyed and higher than even Ronald Reagan at his peak. The Republicans who controlled the Senate during Mr. Clinton’s trial were more divided than the Senate Republicans who will run this trial. And Mr. Clinton, who was not running for re-election, delivered his 1999 State of the Union in mid-January-in the midst of his Senate trial, not after it.
Still, it’s worth looking back at Mr. Clinton’s impeachment State of the Union for clues about what Mr. Trump might say. In 1999, Mr. Clinton made no mention of impeachment. Instead, he invoked a humming American economy and asked Congress to put partisanship aside and come together to fix Social Security and address other issues affecting ordinary Americans.
“Tonight,” Mr. Clinton said, “I stand before you to report that America has created the longest peacetime economic expansion in our history-with nearly 18 million new jobs, wages rising at more than twice the rate of inflation, the highest homeownership in history, the smallest welfare rolls in 30 years, and the lowest peacetime unemployment since 1957.”
“America,” declared Mr. Clinton, “is working again.”
Then he went on the road. Two days later, the New York Times ran a story with this headline: “Clinton Gets a Rock-Star Reception at 2 Northeast Rallies.” According to the story, “an exuberant President Clinton starred today in two rollicking rallies.” The Times piece went on to quote the African-American preacher who delivered the invocation as saying Mr. Clinton had been “the greatest president for our people of all time.” Sound like anyone we know?
Remember, Mr. Clinton was doing all this while his fate as president was still in the Senate’s hands. When Mr. Trump gets his night at the House podium, by contrast, almost certainly it will be after the Senate has either voted to acquit or dismissed the charges against him.
It’s not hard to imagine Mr. Trump’s outdoing Mr. Clinton in emphasizing his real achievements, including an economy that’s delivering prosperity not only for Wall Street but for Main Street. African-Americans, for example, are working at record numbers, and their average wage growth now outpaces wage growth for white Americans. In foreign policy, he can boast of an America that doesn’t seek war but won’t hesitate to use lethal force against those who would kill Americans. Like Mr. Clinton, too, Mr. Trump will no doubt end by calling on lawmakers to put past disputes behind them so they can come together to carry out his agenda for the American people.
Simply by addressing the nation from the House podium, the president will underscore the weakness of Mrs. Pelosi and her caucus. The implicit message will be this: You have thrown everything at me, including the constitutional equivalent of a nuclear weapon. Yet here I am.
Friedrich Nietzsche famously wrote that “what does not kill me makes me stronger.” At this year’s State of the Union, Mr. Trump may be the living proof.
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