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Politics & Government

Former Speechwriter Weighs In On What Trump Needs To Say To Congress

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

We don't call tonight's speech a State of the Union address. It's never called that in the first year of a presidency. Just a few weeks is not seen as long enough for a president to truly grasp the state of the union. But President Donald Trump's first address to a joint session of Congress is certainly a moment.

And let's talk it through with David Frum. He's a former speechwriter for President George W. Bush and a senior editor at The Atlantic. David, welcome back to the program.

DAVID FRUM: Thank you so much.

GREENE: So what kind of speech would you have written for Donald Trump tonight?

FRUM: He has to - I don't - he doesn't have to do anything. But ideally, he should begin to play the part of a party leader. There are important disagreements between Republicans in the Senate and the House and in the governor's mansions. Only a president can reconcile those divisions. Donald Trump has not shown to date much interest in doing that job.

GREENE: So the party is the important thing here, looking like you're leading in the Republican Party? It's less about winning over people who are on the fence, Democrats, Republicans, bringing the country together. It's more about the party, you're saying?

FRUM: If you're going have any kind of agenda, you have to bring the party together because they're the legislators, and they have such important differences. Just to give you an example, you want to abolish Obamacare. Republicans agree on that. Half the people who've gained health insurance under Obamacare have gained via the Medicaid program, which distributes funds to the States. Many Republican states have refused those Medicaid funds, but a few have accepted them.

If you're going to abolish Obamacare, those governors will lose money. If those governors are to keep the money, then you can't just abolish Obamacare. You have to reform it. That difference has to be reconciled. Are you interested in doing that?

GREENE: But let me ask you about Obamacare because this seems like such a big moment when the president is in the national spotlight. It seems like the rush that we saw around this country to abolish Obamacare has died down a little bit. I mean, isn't this a moment for the president to also speak to the American people about why he thinks that law should be scrapped?

FRUM: But does he? That's - look. You can't even begin to reconcile with your opponents until you have unity among your supporters, and there just isn't any. Let me give you another example. The Republicans want to have a major corporate tax reform. American corporation taxes are very high. The House Republicans want to supplement the corporation tax with a border adjustment tax that would effectively tax imported goods more heavily and rebate exported goods. That would bear very heavily on, for example, Wal-Mart, a company that basically (laughter) has two United States senators of its own from Arkansas.

The Republican margin in the Senate is two senators. You lose the two Arkansas senators, you can't pass anything. So you have to come up with a resolution. Again, the president - President Trump has been a hyperactive personality about his own grievances. But he's been very disengaged as a party leader, which is why we're already in the end of February, and we have no agreed Republican agenda at all.

GREENE: So you seem to be suggesting there are a lot of skeptical people within the Republican Party, maybe quietly. Because in public, I mean, the party seems to be suggesting that that there's this unity and excitement behind Donald Trump. But you seem to be seeing something different.

FRUM: Republicans have been excited about Donald Trump because many of them believe precisely because Donald Trump has been so vague about what he would actually do as president, that therefore it must be that he intends to do what they wish him to do. Remember that line about taking Donald Trump seriously but not literally? That means ignore what he has said, and instead substitute what you wish he would do, and believe that what you wish he would do is the thing he's really committed to.

But these groups have such important differences. House, Senate Republicans and governors in the states are so different, they need a mechanism to reconcile them. And that mechanism is the absence right now of the president.

GREENE: So does the national television audience not matter that much tonight?

FRUM: You can't - of course it matters. But you can't even argue with Democrats, and you can't woo independents until you have a Republican agenda. Look. We are in a very embarrassing situation, where Republicans have united control of the elected branches of government and soon a bigger role in the judiciary for the first time since the Bush years - but then the United States was at war - for the first time in peacetime since the 1920s.

And the whole Republican agenda is collapsing in on itself through inactivity, despite the utter absence of effective opposition. That's pretty embarrassing. And that is all traceable to the fact that the president is so engaged with arguing with the world about his crowd size and so disengaged from producing an actual Republican governing agenda.

GREENE: Are you excited about this president, as someone who's written speeches for Republicans before?

FRUM: I'm terribly apprehensive about this president. I wouldn't - no. I don't think this is a very good idea at all. I think - in fact, it's obviously not a good idea.

GREENE: What is not a good idea?

FRUM: It's obviously not a good idea to elect a president who doesn't understand how the federal government works, doesn't have strong commitments to any public-spirited agenda, whose main interest seems to be quarrelling with people and enriching himself, and who looks like he is connected in very sinister ways to a hostile foreign power.

GREENE: We just have about 10 seconds left. Could you be convinced tonight, won over?

FRUM: If he opened by saying, you know what, you're right, I will release my tax returns, that would make a big impression on me.

GREENE: (Laughter) OK. David Frum is a senior editor for The Atlantic and a former speechwriter for President George W. Bush. David, thanks as always.

FRUM: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.