Trump actually stayed on script for an hour. Republicans got up and applauded him on cue; Democrats stayed quiet on cue. There were no dramatic outbursts by lawmakers, like Rep. Joe Wilson’s (R-S.C.) infamous “you lie!” moment at one of President Barack Obama’s addresses. Instead, Democrats waged a silent protest against Trump. Congresswomen dressed in all white in a nod to the suffragette movement and women’s rights. Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), who has made a tradition out of snagging an aisle seat and getting himself on TV shaking the president’s hand as he walks by, didn’t do either this time.
But if you were looking for excitement, that was it. It was a ceremony that, for the most part, was just as boring and routine as these things go.
Yet there was something bizarre about Trump glad-handing his way through the House chamber like past presidents and imploring Congress to enact his policies: He was appealing to a roomful of people that he’s been insulting and humiliating for the last year.
House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) sat behind Trump on the dais for the duration of his speech, smiling and applauding with everyone else. But it was just months ago that Trump lashed out at Ryan, calling him “a man who doesn’t know how to win” and “very weak and ineffective.” That was around the same time, in October, that Ryan disinvited Trump from an event in his home state, after a 2005 video surfaced of Trump making crude and sexist remarks about women.
Looking out into the crowd, a few rows in, Trump could easily spot Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), the target of some of his nastiest attacks on the campaign trail. Among other things, Trump fueled a conspiracy theory that “Lyin’ Ted’s” father was an associate of President John F. Kennedy’s murderer. Trump also tweeted an unflattering photo of the senator’s wife, Heidi Cruz, with a warning that he would “spill the beans” on something about her.
A couple of seats over from Cruz sat Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), aka “Little Marco,” who Trump accused of being corrupt. Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) also sat up front during Tuesday’s speech. Trump has called Graham “one of the dumbest human beings I’ve ever seen,” and criticized McCain’s status as a war hero because he got captured and spent five and a half years in a North Vietnamese prison.
Those are just some of the Republicans that have been on the receiving end of Trump’s assaults. He’s gone after plenty of Democrats who were in the room, too. These include Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), who Trump accused of crying fake tears, and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who he’s called “incompetent.”
“The time for small thinking is over. The time for trivial fights is behind us,” Trump declared to audible laughs from Democrats. “We just need the courage to share the dreams that fill our hearts.”
After the speech, Republicans were reluctant to say anything critical of the president or his newfound message of harmony.
“I think he and the speaker get along very well,” said Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.). “It wasn’t surreal at all.”
But some admitted they were just relieved he didn’t go off script and start insulting people.
“I count my blessings. No belligerence tonight was among them,” Rep. Mark Sanford (R-S.C.) told The Huffington Post.
Sanford acknowledged the absurdity of Trump urging unity with the same people he’s torn to shreds in the past year. He just put it more diplomatically.
“I would just say this: Memories tend to die slowly in the world of politics,” he said. “I don’t think it was lost on many of the people who have been contestants in the Republican primary, or maybe on the opposite side of a policy debate in the campaign, that some of what he said was maybe a long way from what he said ten months ago, or six months ago.”
Democrats were more willing to point out the gaping disconnect between the president’s words and his persona.
“It felt surreal to see Donald Trump walk in and be identified as the president of the United States and start giving that speech,” said Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), who Trump trolled last month on Twitter over his role in Democratic National Committee elections.
“He goes in there and gives a speech, where he says a few nice things about some people with illnesses and some soldiers and some police officers, and now all of a sudden we think he’s a good guy?” Ellison said. “He’s not a good guy. He’s a good actor.”
In the end, there was one thing that did make Trump’s joint address to Congress different from those of his predecessors: immediately after his speech, Democrats got up and left without waiting to see him off first.