President Donald Trump on Tuesday night lauded the state of the union in characteristically effusive terms, saying the economy, military and national security of the nation is the best, the biggest, the strongest in history – and it’s all due to his work.
”In just three short years, we have shattered the mentality of American decline, and we have rejected the downsizing of America’s destiny. We are moving forward at a pace that was unimaginable just a short time ago, and we are never going back!” Trump said in a speech heavily peppered with exclamation points and superlatives.
It was Trump’s first State of the Union address since his impeachment and could be his last, if he’s not re-elected this fall. Unlike typical State of the Union addresses, in which presidents tend to catalogue ambitious lists of policy proposals they’d like Congress to approve, Trump’s speech read more like a campaign address. And as such, it laid bare some lingering partisan animosity.
When Trump arrived at the dais where he would deliver his address, he appeared to rebuff House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s offer of a handshake. Pelosi, for her part, omitted the portion where the speaker customarily says they have the “high privilege and distinct honor” of the introduction and simply presented Trump as “the president of the United States.”
But the evening ended with the stunning visual of Pelosi ripping up her copy of the president’s address.
“I tore it up,” Pelosi said following the address, according to Politico. “It was the courteous thing to do.”
Republicans immediately lashed out at the speaker for exacerbating partisan tensions and disrespecting the president because of disagreements, arguing that it will hurt the Democratic Party ahead of the 2020 election.
“I thought that was disgraceful and not good for the institution for the speaker of the House to rip up a speech just because she doesn’t agree with it,” House Minority Whip Steve Scalise of Louisiana told reporters. “We’ve got an election coming up in November, but it doesn’t look good for her and her party to carry herself in that way when the whole country is watching.”
Though less dramatic, much of the rest of the address still carried the theatrical flair of a reality TV show.
Trump welcomed a returning soldier who was reunited with his stunned and joyful family during the speech. He gave a conservative icon a Presidential Medal of Freedom and announced to a young girl in the gallery that she would receive an opportunity scholarship to attend the school of her choice, evoking a cry of happiness from her and her single-parent mother.
He talked at length about the massive tax cut he won in 2017 and said he had restored security to the border, created the best military fighting force, lowered unemployment to historic lows and buttressed a stock market that is ”transcending anything anyone believed was possible.” He claimed to have brought factory jobs back to America – a boast that had Democrats shaking their heads in disbelief – and touted his USMCA trade agreement.
He derided socialism – first, when he welcomed Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó, saying that ”all Americans are united with the Venezuelan people in their righteous struggle for freedom! Socialism destroys nations” – and second, when he took a shot at Democrats who support “Medicare for All.”
”As we work to improve Americans’ health care, there are those who want to take away your health care, take away your doctor, and abolish private insurance entirely,’ Trump said. ”To those watching at home tonight, I want you to know: We will never let socialism destroy American health care!”
The president also threw in some Republican crowd-pleasers, declaring his support for the Second Amendment, his pleasure at getting conservative darlings Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh confirmed to the Supreme Court and his hopes the Congress would approve a measure banning late-term abortion.
In perhaps the most startling moment in the evening, Trump, in the middle of his speech, introduced conservative radio personality Rush Limbaugh and announced that he would receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Limbaugh was recently diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer.
When Trump recognized Limbaugh sitting in the visitor gallery, Democrats remained seated and some audibly shouted “No!” as the president announced the award. First lady Melania Trump presented Limbaugh with the medal as Republicans gave a long standing ovation and gave him a thumbs-up.
“Rush, in recognition of all that you have done for our nation, the millions of people a day that you speak to and inspire and all of the incredible work that you have done for charity, I am proud to announce tonight that you will be receiving our country’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom,” Trump said.
The chamber had a political air even before Trump began speaking. The House managers of the impeachment trial of Trump – the prosecutors – all sat together near the front of the chamber. Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, a New Yorker who is a member of the Democratic leadership team and was a House impeachment manager, had the ironic role of being among the group that escorted Trump down the aisle of the chamber.
Chief Justice of the United States John Roberts, who has been presiding over the Senate trial, greeted the president briefly when he entered the well of the chamber and sat poker-faced throughout the speech.
A number of members of Congress announced they would boycott the event.
”I respect the Office of the President but I do not in any way respect Donald J. Trump, who, for more than three years, has demeaned the office, and who currently stands impeached,” Rep. Bobby Rush, Illinois Democrat, said in a statement that echoed the sentiments of other Democrats who decided to skip the event.
The GOP side of the House chamber, meanwhile, greeted Trump with chants of ”Four more years! Four more years!” The Republican side of the chamber erupted in cheers and standing applause as Trump read off a list of what he views as his accomplishments. When Trump derided the economic record of the Obama administration, which engineered the recovery from the Great Recession, Democrats shook their heads and grumbled.
Lawmakers to Boycott Trump’s Address
And when Trump talked about what he had done for women, such as creating new jobs they have filled, the Democratic female members of Congress, wearing white to honor the 100th anniversary of the ratification of women’s suffrage, glowered.
The speech was light on actual policy proposals. Trump declared a desire to lower prescription drug prices and to repair the nation’s infrastructure but did not offer details.
He name-checked states in a sort of naughty vs. nice list. He said his administration was curbing the opioid epidemic, mentioning battleground states of Ohio, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania – all three critical to his 2016 victory – as places where opioid-related deaths had decreased.
California didn’t get such treatment. As the state’s highest ranking congresswoman sat behind him, the president railed against the Golden State and its health care coverage.
”This is what is happening in California and other states – their systems are totally out of control, costing taxpayers vast and unaffordable amounts of money. If forcing American taxpayers to provide unlimited free health care to illegal aliens sounds fair to you, then stand with the radical left. But if you believe that we should defend American patients and American seniors, then stand with me and pass legislation to prohibit free government health care for illegal aliens!” Trump said.
California Democrat Pelosi, who had spent much of the speech looking alternately grim and bemused, mouthed the words ”not true” at Trump’s remarks about health care. Democrats in the chamber waved their fists in the air and shouted ”HR3! HR3!” – a reference to their sweeping health care plan.
In another part of his speech, Trump blasted California for its status as a ”sanctuary state,” saying the state was giving a home to ”criminal illegal immigrants – with catastrophic results.”
When asked if Democrats and the White House will be able to move beyond the confrontation and work together going forward, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland pointed out that they’ve had contentious meetings in the past and that Pelosi and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin were still able to avoid a government shutdown with “no drama.”
“That was an example of ‘yes we can work together’ if both sides have an interest in doing so,” Hoyer said. “You don’t have to like one another, you have to be responsible and understand that you both have a responsibility to your constituents as we do and he does to get things done.”
But Democrats largely criticized the speech as full of misstatements and half-truths – including, said Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, Trump’s declaration that he wants to protect the health care of people with pre-existing conditions. She noted that the Trump administration has joined a lawsuit to undo the Affordable Care Act, which includes that protection.
”You can listen to what someone says, but to know the truth, watch what they do,” said Whitmer, delivering the formal Democratic response.