WASHINGTON – The evening started with President Trump’s snub, and it ended with Speaker Nancy Pelosi ripping the text of his speech in two.
This was not your typical State of the Union address.
An evening that is traditionally ceremonial and courteous, even boring, instead reflected the angry divisions of America’s politics and launched what seems destined to be a very rough campaign year. The House chamber, like much of the country, was split down the middle Tuesday night, and the hostility from one side to the other almost palpable.
The Republican side of the chamber greeted the president’s arrival with tumultuous applause and then chants of “Four More Years!” an unusually partisan call in this setting. Climbing a few steps to the central platform, he handed Vice President Mike Pence and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi bound copies of the address, as it customary, but pointedly turned his back when she reached out to shake his hand.
Moments later, she banged the gavel and returned the favor. She said simply, “Members of Congress, the president of the United States.” That may sound friendly enough, but it was a notably sparer welcome than the customary florid introduction: “I have the high privilege and distinct honor of presenting you the president of the United States.”
Things did not warm up after that.
Trump boasted about the achievements of his tenure and hit the chords of his political base, including restricting abortion, controlling immigration and appointing conservative judges. He portrayed himself as rescuing the nation from the failures of his (Democratic) predecessor. He offered a series of reality-TV moments with a cast of heroic Americans who had been invited to sit in the First Lady’s box. He announced to one little girl that she was getting a scholarship to a school she wanted to attend, and he surprised two children with the unexpected arrival of their father, back from deployment in Afghanistan.
There were cutting, even angry moments as well.
When Trump referred to former president Barack Obama, disparaging what he called the “failed economic policies of the previous administration,” some Democrats booed. That’s unusual, too.
And when he vowed to “always protect your Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms,” the father of a high school freshman who was killed in the 2018 mass shooting at Parkland’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School began shouting from the gallery, where he was the guest of Pelosi. He was escorted out.
What Trump didn’t mention during his 78-minute speech was the impeachment trial in the Senate that gives him an unwelcome distinction in history – just the third president to be impeached, and about to become the first impeached president to run for re-election.
But in the turbulent world that is Trump, things had never been better, his position never more commanding, his job approval job never higher.
In his first big presidential speech, the Inaugural Address, Trump was defensive about the fact that he lost the popular vote although he won the Electoral College, and he ordered his spokesman to insist, inaccurately, that his inaugural crowds had been larger than those who had gathered for Barack Obama. Last year’s State of the Union address, delayed because he had forced a shutdown of the government, took place while he faced a special counsel’s investigation.
Who were Trump’s guests?:They included girl born prematurely, Army veteran
Now, however, Robert Mueller’s inquiry is over. The Senate is poised to acquit him of impeachment Wednesday. The Iowa Democratic Party made such a mess of the caucus results on Monday that it overshadowed the presidential field. And Trump hit 49% approval in the Gallup Poll, the highest of his tenure.
So this election-year State of the Union was, in a way, a victorious moment.
It was in this chamber seven weeks ago that House Democrats voted to impeach Trump on two Articles of Impeachment, for abuse of power and obstruction of Congress. House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff of California and five of the other House impeachment managers were seated together in the forward row on the Democratic side, in the president’s line of sight. White House counsel Pat Cipollone, who has led the president’s defense, was in the audience as well, sitting toward the back.
After the speech was over and the president had left, a Fox News reporter asked why Pelosi why she had ripped up the speech.
“Because it was the courteous thing to do, considering the alternatives,” she said.
Election Day is now nine months away.