Salted with dramatic surprises and heavy on reelection themes, Trump hoped the address would prove vindicating in the very same House chamber where he was impeached late last year.
But the acrid atmosphere of partisanship was impossible to avoid. Trump addressed a Congress that remains bitterly divided over whether he committed high crimes and misdemeanors. And from the start, the specter of impeachment loomed.
When House Speaker Nancy Pelosi – with whom Trump hasn’t spoken in months – extended her hand to greet the President, he turned away and left her hanging. She smiled broadly as she glanced toward her Democratic caucus and shrugged.
As the speech wore on, Democratic members of Congress sat mostly silent even as their Republican colleagues stood and cheered. Some even rose to walk out at various intervals. And when the President concluded, Pelosi could be seen on camera stoically ripping up the pages on which Trump’s speech was printed.
The timing – sandwiched on a day between the chaotic Iowa kickoff of Democrats’ presidential nominating contest and the expected conclusion of the five-month impeachment saga – already imbued the 2020 version of the speech with drama often missing from the annual ritual.
But Trump also ensured his speech crackled with spectacle – some of it reflective of his partisan themes.
In a move without recent precedent in a State of the Union, he awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom to cancer-stricken conservative firebrand Rush Limbaugh, seated in the gallery above the floor. Limbaugh, who counts Trump as a friend, has used his radio platform to lambaste Democrats and advance a far-right agenda. Trump thanked him for “your decades of tireless devotion to our country.”
Other moments were less controversial. Trump introduced the man the US considers the rightful President of Venezuela, Juan Guaidó, in a rare moment of bipartisan applause. He informed a young student that a scholarship had become available for her to attend a better school.
And he surprised a military spouse by announcing her husband was back from deployment, orchestrating a tearful reunion in the gallery as their two young children looked on.
Those moments helped Trump avoid the unspoken drama in the room: the still-lingering impeachment, which is set to conclude in acquittal on Wednesday. Aides had insisted ahead of time that Trump would bypass mention of the impeachment, and he did not surprise them with any angry asides, despite his festering resentment.
Instead, Trump touted economic achievements he claims have restored the nation’s standing.
“In just three short years, we have shattered the mentality of American Decline and we have rejected the downsizing of America’s destiny. We have totally rejected the downsizing,” Trump said, using the national address to again undermine his predecessor, under whom the US economy began its recovery after the 2008 financial crisis. “We are moving forward at a pace that was unimaginable just a short time ago, and we are never, ever going back.”
While Trump likes to claim he inherited a weak economy, the job gains and economic growth he trumpets began under President Barack Obama. And last week the government reported the US economy in 2019 grew at its slowest pace in three years.
Still, Trump remains bullish in his economic assessment, which he believes will prove convincing to voters this year. Underscoring the campaign-like message: chants of “four more years” from Republicans in the audience nearly as soon as Trump began speaking.
“The vision I will lay out this evening demonstrates how we are building the world’s most prosperous and inclusive society – one where every citizen can join in America’s unparalleled success, and where every community can take part in America’s extraordinary rise,” Trump said.
Trump did not deliver overt criticism of any potential rival from a crowded Democratic field. But he did warn against a “socialist takeover of our health care system,” an implicit rebuke of democratic socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders, who emerged in a strong position from the messy Iowa caucuses.
“To those watching at home tonight, I want you to know: We will never let socialism destroy American health care!” Trump said.
A meltdown in reporting the results of Monday’s Iowa Democratic caucuses deprived any one candidate of a momentum jolt heading into Tuesday. And earlier Tuesday, a Gallup poll showed Trump reaching the best numbers of his presidency, with 49% of respondents approving of his job performance and 50% disapproving.
The economy has fueled much of Trump’s support, and on Tuesday he touted new trade deals with China and North American countries. He also heralded the newly formed Space Force military branch and advanced tough border security positions, including railing against so-called “sanctuary cities.”
“The United States of America should be a sanctuary for law-abiding Americans, not criminal aliens,” he said.
He also offered dubious claims like a commitment to protect health insurance for Americans with pre-existing conditions. Though Trump says he would do this, his administration has consistently taken steps to undermine the Affordable Care Act – including joining a lawsuit aimed at striking down the law – without presenting alternative plans that would offer similar benefits.
Trump hoped to convince one of the year’s biggest television audiences that his ideas and record warrant another four-year term, despite having been only the third president in US history to be impeached.
Trump and his aides once hoped to use the speech as a victory lap of sorts following an acquittal vote. But a procedural compromise extended the trial into another week and now a final vote on the two impeachment articles won’t come until Wednesday afternoon.
While he wasn’t the first to address Congress mid-trial – President Bill Clinton delivered his 1999 State of the Union just as arguments were getting underway – Trump will be the first president to be impeached before facing voters, lending an unpredictability to the coming campaign. The themes laid out on Tuesday are expected to form the core of his message in the coming 10 months.
Trump spent part of the weekend preparing for the speech, which a team of speechwriters has been drafting for months. Typically, White House aides solicit recommendations from across the administration for ideas to include in the speech.
Trump offered his own themes and specific lines that were included in Tuesday night’s address, often scrawling them out in Sharpie on pieces of paper that are then delivered to his writing team. He was expected to rehearse his delivery from the White House basement earlier in the day.
It’s Trump’s third State of the Union speech and his fourth address to a joint session of Congress.
Before he spoke, the White House announced a roster of guests meant to underscore Trump’s message: a former addict who has benefited from one of the administration’s “opportunity zone” job training programs; the deputy chief of the US Border Patrol; a mother and son whose father was killed by a roadside bomb the White House says was supplied by slain Iranian commander Qasem Soleimani; and a former police chief in Venezuela who was imprisoned for years in the country before escaping to Florida.
The White House also invited Charles McGee, a onetime Tuskegee airmen, and the parents of Kayla Mueller, the American aid worker killed by ISIS in Syria.
In the days leading up to the speech, Trump flashed anger at Democrats for impeaching him, downplaying the prospects he’d be able to work across the aisle in the year ahead.
“It’s pretty hard when you think about it,” Trump told Fox News. “I’m not sure that they can do it, to be honest. I think they just want to win. And it doesn’t matter how they win.”
There was little sign afterward that bipartisanship is in store moving forward. After the handshake snub and speech-ripping moments went viral online, both sides sought to take advantage.
“Democrats will never stop extending the hand of friendship to get the job done #ForThePeople,” Pelosi wrote on Twitter, accompanied by a photo of her unrequited handshake. “We will work to find common ground where we can, but will stand our ground where we cannot.”
The White House, in turn, claimed Pelosi was being petty.
“For such a really big night, she sure behaved pretty small,” one White House official said.
On the White House’s Twitter account, a post asserted that Pelosi “just ripped up: One of our last surviving Tuskegee Airmen. The survival of a child born at 21 weeks. The mourning families of Rocky Jones and Kayla Mueller. A service member’s reunion with his family. That’s her legacy.”