His impeachment ordeal nearly but not quite over, President Donald Trump appeared before Congress on Tuesday night for one of the signature rites of American civic life.
It was surreal.
The speaker offered a handshake. He snubbed her. When he was done speaking, she pointedly ripped the text in half.
The usual trappings for a State of the Union were all there: The bemedaled four-star generals and unreadable black-robed justices. The small army of Capitol Police in tactical gear lining the marble hallways. The glad-handing of the processional after the House doorkeeper announced his arrival.
Allies on one side sprang to their feet over and over, delivering ovations as the detractors across the aisle sat impassive, some barely concealing their contempt for a president they view as corrupt.
“We are rejecting the downsizing of America’s destiny … and we are never ever going back,” he declared. With typical Trumpian hyperbole, and with incredulity apparent from the Democratic side of the House, the president boasted: “The state of our union is stronger than ever before.”
Some 19 hours before the Senate will vote to dismiss allegations that Trump abused his power by prodding Ukraine to dig up dirt on a Democratic rival, the pageantry that looked so normal on the surface could barely conceal the mutual hostility.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the president’s chief tormentor as the moving force behind his impeachment — “Nervous Nancy,” as he often calls her — sat behind him throughout his address, beside Vice President Mike Pence.
Chief Justice John Roberts, who is presiding over the impeachment trial that will end with Wednesday’s verdict, attended in his place of honor near the front, every bit as unreadable on the president’s speech as he has been throughout weeks of legal and political bickering at the trial.
Democratic women, including Pelosi, wore white in a show of solidarity and a startling contrast to the dark suits and mostly male faces on the GOP side. Of 101 women in the House, 88 are Democrats.
The White House cast the address as optimistic and forward-looking, devoid of bitterness over impeachment or even a reference to that historic effort to remove a president from power.
Democrats weren’t quite sure what to expect: the highbrow rhetoric Trump delivers when he stays on script, or the coarse, nose-thumbing discourse of the tweeter-in-chief.
“In just three short years, we have shattered the mentality of American decline and we have rejected the downsizing of America’s destiny,” Trump said, echoing his inaugural address just over three years ago, when he spoke darkly of “American carnage.”
He boasted about job creation, tax cuts and trade deals, a $2.2 trillion boost for the U.S. military, and creation of a new Space Force. He hit on a number of hot buttons sure to resonate with his base, including vows that “we will never let socialism destroy American healthcare!” — the exclamation point is in the text provided by the White House — and that the United States “should be a Sanctuary for Law-Abiding Americans – Not Criminal Aliens!”
The House impeachment managers sat together near the front, impossible for the defendant/president to miss: chairmen Adam Schiff and Jerrold Nadler and the rest.
Snubs from Democrats were obvious, if more expected than the president’s. Few besides Pelosi reached out to shake his hand as he walked down the center of the ornate chamber.
Pelosi’s introduction was distinctly truncated: “Members of Congress, the President of the United States.” The traditional version is far more elaborate: “Members of Congress, I have the high privilege and distinct honor of presenting to you the President of the United States.”
On the GOP side, they chanted “Four more years! Four more years!” — briefly giving the ceremony the feel of a campaign rally, if you only looked in that direction.
Trump even slipped in version of his campaign slogans – Make America Great Again, and Keep America Great – when called this “the most exceptional Republic ever to exist in all of human history. And we are making it greater than ever before!”
Absent from the chamber: Sens. Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar, who flew overnight from Iowa to New Hampshire after the caucuses. They presidential contenders will be back to vote on the two articles of impeachment Wednesday afternoon.
Some Democratic lawmakers boycotted. A precise count wasn’t available, and the chamber looked full.
A State of the Union address is far more than an annual report card on the economy and national security.
Like other rituals, secular and otherwise, this one offers the opportunity for factions to set aside their bickering. In times of conflict, presidents have used the platform to rally the nation. At other times, they’ve used it to outline new policies, fine-tune their images, and command a bully pulpit unique to that high office in order to set an agenda for the coming year.
They have been basked in ovations and they have endured hisses and heckles, often in the same speech.
That was certainly the case for Trump on Tuesday night, as when he boasted that while the Obama administration added 10 million people to the food stamp rolls, “under my administration, 7 million Americans have come off of food stamps.”
Republicans whistled and cheered, lauding him for improving poverty rates. Democrats shouted no and shook their heads; they attribute the reduced rolls to cruel restrictions in eligibility, rather than improved job prospects for low-income Americans.
Like presidents before him, Trump found ways to corner his adversaries into applauding, as when he introduced Juan Guaido, leader of the Venezuelan opposition and leader of a “righteous struggle for freedom.”
Even Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee of Houston, who has long demanded Trump’s removal from office, joined in the bipartisan ovation for another guest: Charles McGee, one of the last surviving Tuskegee Airmen, the first black fighter pilots. He turned 100 in December. Congress voted to promote him to brigadier general. “Earlier today, I pinned the stars on his shoulders in the Oval Office,” Trump said. “General McGee: Our Nation salutes you.”
The applause was fairly uniform when Trump called for planting more trees, and when he singled out Raul Ortiz, recently promoted to deputy chief of the Border Patrol after a successful stint as chief of the Del Rio Sector.
There were far more moments of sharp partisanship, however, as when Trump touted progress on his signature campaign promise, a border wall, glossing past the fact that U.S. taxpayers are paying for it, rather than Mexico as he had vowed.
“As we speak, a long, tall, and very powerful wall is being built,” he said, prompting cheers on his left, and boos on his right.
In an especially theatrical moment, Trump called out conservative talker Rush Limbaugh, a beloved and influential figure on the right and a bete noir to the left. Limbaugh, seated beside first lady Melania Trump, revealed this week that he has advanced lung cancer.
The president announced that he was awarding Limbaugh the presidential medal of freedom, the highest civilian honor bestowed without congressional approval. The first lady placed it around his neck.
Limbaugh smiled, pounded his heart with his right hand, and flashed a thumbs-up to GOP lawmakers seated below.
Democrats were not amused.
Only once before has a president walked onto the floor of the House with an impeachment trial pending.
That was Bill Clinton on Jan. 19, 1999.
Hours earlier, the president’s lawyers had been telling senators in the ongoing trial that he was not guilty of allegations stemming from his sexual relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky.
He was riding high in opinion polls, a stark contrast to Trump, whose approval rating has crept up in recent weeks but has yet to break 50% in his three years as president.
It would be three more weeks before Clinton’s acquittal. Some GOP detractors questioned his decision to go through with that speech, given the circumstances, and a handful boycotted it. But most of the House members who had voted to impeach, and most of the senators weighing his fate, were on hand.
Per custom, Hillary Rodham Clinton sat in the first lady’s box, the supportive wife despite the infidelity. VIP guests included baseball slugger Sammy Sosa and civil rights icon Rosa Parks.
Clinton made no mention of the scandal and only one comment that passed for a veiled reference to it: “Perhaps in the daily press of events, in the clash of controversy, we don’t see our own time for what it truly is — a new dawn for America.”
Clinton instead used his time to outline an ambitious agenda, proposing to devote a budget surplus – yes, the United States, now facing a $23 trillion debt, used to run surpluses – to an overhaul of Social Security and Medicare, rather than for tax cuts Republicans demanded.
“We should not spend any of it — not any of it — until after Social Security is truly saved. First things first,” Clinton insisted.
Democrats showered him with applause, interrupting the 77-minute speech some 90 times, joined only sporadically by the Republicans who had led the fight to remove him from office.
It was much the same scene for Trump, with the party roles reversed.
By Todd J. Gillman, The Dallas Morning News