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What Democrats Will Be Listening For During Trump's State Of The Union Address


We're going to stay with politics and talk next with Tom Perez, who chairs the Democratic National Committee. Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

TOM PEREZ: Pleasure to be with you.

KELLY: So I want to get to your thoughts on the State of the Union. But I want, first, to get your take on the controversy that everybody is talking about surrounding Virginia Governor Ralph Northam and this photo in his med school yearbook showing two men, one in blackface, one in a KKK robe. For starters, do you believe him when he now says this wasn't him in the picture?

PEREZ: I think that issue is really beside the point at this moment. His past actions, I think, are frankly antithetical to everything the Democratic Party has stood for. And - and he has lost the trust and confidence of the voters. And Abe Lincoln once said, public sentiment is everything. With public sentiment, nothing can fail. Without it, nothing can succeed. And he has...

KELLY: You're talking about whatever comes to light with this photo, he has since confirmed he appeared in blackface.

PEREZ: Well, he - yes. And - and I have respect for Governor Northam. He served the military. He did a lot in the course of his career. But he also was involved in conduct that we simply can't tolerate as a Democratic Party. And we believe that our diversity is our greatest strength.

And one thing we have done as Democrats is we have not hesitated to hold accountable people who violate our values, whether they're Republicans or Democrats. And that's a big difference between us and the Republican Party. And I hope he will do the right thing and resign soon.

KELLY: He does not seem inclined to do so. So walk me through how this plays out. Is there a mechanism to push him if he doesn't want to go?

PEREZ: Well, I think he's going to resign. I think he's going to look around and ask the question, what is in the best interest of the Commonwealth of Virginia? There's only one answer to that question, and that is he needs to resign.

KELLY: Let me turn you to the State of the Union. The White House says this is going to be a unifying speech, a put-aside-our-differences speech. What are you listening for?

PEREZ: Well, if history is a guide, this will be a speech of distraction and division because that has been the story of Donald Trump from the time he started running for president and every day that he has governed.

That's what I expect to see tomorrow, more distraction and more division. And meanwhile, the Democrats are going to continue to fight for the things that helped us make historic gains in the November election. We're getting right to work on that.

KELLY: Speak to that reporting, Tom Perez, that we just heard from Tamara Keith, and this point that the president and his allies think Democrats are going to fight him no matter what he comes out and says.

PEREZ: Democrats are going to fight for a minimum wage that's fair. And if Donald Trump wants to join us in that, we welcome that effort. We believe that comprehensive immigration reform is essential. Donald Trump should join us in that effort. From time to time, he says that DREAMers should get protection, and then he changes his mind.

And so we're happy to work with Donald Trump to make sure that we guarantee protection for people with preexisting conditions. He periodically used to talk about that. But now, he's doing just the opposite.

KELLY: But when you - when you say you're prepared to work with him - just take his signature issue, which we're expecting to hear about in the State of the Union, immigration and the border. Where are Democrats prepared to budge in order to work with him?

PEREZ: Well, when you manufacture a crisis and then you hold a million workers hostage by shutting down the federal government for the longest period in American history, that was an insult to workers across this country. And it puts so many people in harm's way. And that...

KELLY: And I hear you. But I guess what I'm driving at is in the interest of not shutting down the government again, which nobody seems to want, there has to be compromise - right? - which means that everybody gives a little. Or no, is that not how you see it?

PEREZ: Absolutely. And here - and the compromise should be, let's - let's understand what our values are. We all want border security, for instance. We want smart border security. Smart border security means investing in technology so that we can better get at the bad guys. It means understanding that almost two-thirds of the people in this country who are undocumented came through airports, not at the border.

This wall is a trophy. It's not something designed to keep people safe. He made a political promise in a campaign. And that is his problem. It was an ill-advised political promise. We should be building bridges of opportunity across this country. And that should be a value that we should share.

KELLY: Tom Perez, chair of the Democratic National Committee, thanks so much for talking with us today.

PEREZ: It's always a pleasure to be with you, Mary Louise.

KELLY: And I'll speak with the chair of the Republican National Committee elsewhere in today's program. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.