Donald Trump will make his first address to Congress on Tuesday, outlining priorities including a big hike in military spending at the expense of foreign aid and environmental programmes.
In a scene that few imagined possible just a year ago, the brash billionaire will stand where many US presidents have stood before him on Capitol Hill, facing ranks of senators and congressmen, some of whom fiercely oppose him.
Democrats have not announced plans to boycott the address, as many did Trump’s inauguration, but some have pointedly invited guests including an Iraqi-American doctor, a Pakistani-born doctor and an American-born daughter of Palestinian refugees – each giving a human face to those affected by the president’s hardline policies.
But Trump starts with the benefit of Republicans controlling both the House and Senate and is likely to build on an inaugural address that called for an urgent break from the policies of Barack Obama.
“The president will lay out an optimistic vision for the country,” White House press secretary Sean Spicer said. “The theme will be a renewal of the American spirit.”
Trump will promise “concrete steps”, Spicer said, and set out a “bold agenda” including tax reform, improving work conditions for working parents, healthcare reform, access to education, rebuilding the military and fulfilling commitments to veterans.
“You will hear a lot about immigration tomorrow night and he will talk about why it matters,” Spicer said.
Trump will also have to make his case to Congress, which has the final say on his budget. On Monday the White House announced he will seek a $54bn hike in spending on tanks, ships and weapons systems while cutting foreign aid, environmental programmes and domestic agencies by the same amount. The US already spends more on the military than the next eight countries combined.
“This budget will be a public safety and national security budget,” Trump said at the White House. “It will include an historic increase in defence spending to rebuild the depleted military of the United States of America at a time we most need it.”
Trump said his budget would put “America first” – a phrase that originated with Nazi sympathisers who sought to keep the US out of the second world war – by focusing on defense, law enforcement and veterans, diverting money previously spent overseas.
“We are going to do more with less and make the government lean and accountable to the people,” he said. “We can do so much more with the money we spend.”
Mick Mulvaney, director of the Office of Management and Budget, told reporters the full budget would not be ready until May but priorities would include rebuilding the military and restoring nuclear capabilities. Reductions in non-defence spending would be the biggest since the start of Ronald Reagan’s administration, he said.
Mulvaney cited foreign aid as a target for cutbacks. “You can expect to see exactly what the president said he was going to do,” he said. “When you see these reductions, you’ll be able to tie it back to a speech the president gave. We are taking his words and turning them into policies and dollars.”
In a conference call with reporters, two administration officials familiar with Trump’s proposal said the planned defence spending increase would be financed partly by “dollar-for-dollar cuts” to the Department of State, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and other non-defence programmes.
Trump’s request for the Pentagon included more money for shipbuilding, military aircraft and establishing “a more robust presence in key international waterways and chokepoints” such as the Strait of Hormuz and South China Sea, one of the officials said. There will also be increases for the homeland security, intelligence and the justice department.
A second official said the state department’s budget could be cut by as much as 30%, which would force a major restructuring and the elimination of some programmes. The US currently spends about $50bn annually on the state department and foreign assistance.
The move was swiftly criticised. More than 120 retired US generals and admirals – including George Casey, former chief of staff of the US army, and David Petraeus, former CIA director and commander of troops in Iraq and Afghanistan – sent a letter to Congress, urging it fully fund US diplomacy and foreign aid.
“Elevating and strengthening diplomacy and development alongside defense are critical to keeping America safe,” they said. “We know from our service in uniform that many of the crises our nation faces do not have military solutions alone.”
Domestic agencies will also feel the pinch, with the EPA apparently a likely target. On Saturday its new administrator, Scott Pruitt, told conservative activists that climate change and water pollution regulations would be rolled back and they would be “justified” in believing the environmental regulator should be completely disbanded.
Trump’s chief strategist, Steve Bannon, said last week that one of key priorities of the White House was the “deconstruction of the administrative state”.
Democrats argue such moves will cut middle-class programmes to make way for huge tax cut for the wealthy.
Chuck Schumer, the minority leader in the Senate, said: “It is clear from this budget blueprint that President Trump fully intends to break his promises to working families by taking a meat ax to programs that benefit the middle class.
“A cut this steep almost certainly means cuts to agencies that protect consumers from Wall Street excess and protect clean air and water.
“Most Americans didn’t vote to ease up on polluters, or to give Wall Street the green light to rip them off. They certainly didn’t vote to make all these cuts so that President Trump can hand out a tax break to the wealthiest Americans.”
House minority leader Nancy Pelosi added: “President Trump’s budget blueprint is a prescription for America’s decline. Ransacking America’s investments in jobs and working families will make our nation weaker, not stronger. A $54bn cut will do far-reaching and long-lasting damage to our ability to meet the needs of the American people and win the jobs of the future.”
The president’s request must ultimately be decided by Congress and is likely to face fierce resistance from Democrats and some Republicans. Senate Democrats could use a filibuster to try to force a government shutdown. With tax cuts also in the pipeline, it is unclear how Trump plans to cut the national debt.
The White House was sending Trump’s proposal to federal departments on Monday as he prepared for budget haggling with Congress that often takes months. The administration will leave so-called “entitlements” such as social security and Medicare untouched for now, according to an administration official.
Asked about Trump’s promise of a massive infrastructure programme, the press secretary said it will not be part of the current budget discussion. “That would be a part of a longer-term discussion they would have in the Congress,” the official said.
Trump held meetings with state governors and health insurance company executives at the White House on Monday. “I have to tell you, it’s an unbelievably complex subject,” he said, about plans to repeal the Affordable Care Act. “Nobody knew that healthcare could be so complicated.”
As reporters were being led out of the room, one asked if a special prosecutor should investigate Trump’s ties with Russia. He did not respond immediately, but could then be heard saying: “I haven’t called Russia in 10 years.”
Later, Spicer rejected calls for a special prosecutor to examine the allegation swirling around members of Trump’s election campaign and whether they were in contact with Moscow last year.
“My question would be a special prosecutor for what?” he said. “I think Russia’s involvement in activity has been investigated up and down. There comes a point, if there’s nothing further to investigate, what are you asking people to investigate?”
He added: “There’s nothing new that being reported. It’s the same stuff over and over and over again … How many people have to say there’s nothing there before you say there’s nothing there?”