WASHINGTON ― On the eve of a final impeachment vote in the Senate, President Donald Trump came to Congress Tuesday night and delivered his third formal State of the Union address, focusing his speech on the strong economy and avoiding the topic of impeachment entirely.
Delivered in a House chamber that had impeached him less than seven weeks ago, Trump avoided his normal tone ― one of off-the-cuff bombast and aggrievement ― and mostly stuck to the teleprompter, delivering crafted lines peppered with an assortment of lies and half-truths.
But Trump also stoked his normal partisan cheers, with sections of his speech focused on building a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, arresting undocumented immigrants, and attacking progressive health care proposals as dangerous socialism ― even saying that “132 lawmakers in this room have endorsed legislation to impose a socialist takeover of our health care system.”
During his roughly 80-minute speech, Trump didn’t bother striking much of a bipartisan tone, and he managed to spin some of his least populist policies as popular wins. At one point, he touted 7 million people “coming off” of food stamps and 10 million people being “lifted off” of welfare, an interesting way to describe kicking millions of people off of social programs.
While Democrats in the chamber sat stoically in their seats, Republicans applauded and shouted raucously ― including chanting “four more years” before Trump even began speaking. GOP lawmakers routinely interrupted his speech to cheer everything Trump said. They gave him standing ovations for lines as anodyne as, “I kept my promises, we did our job” and as controversial as a prolonged story about an undocumented immigrant committing crimes in a “sanctuary city.”
Trump’s takeover of the GOP has been complete for years, but Tuesday night’s address was more evidence of the sheer ownership he has over Republicans. Their utter excitement from being in the same room as Trump was evident. Republican members staked out seats along the middle aisle for hours in order to have a moment with Trump as he entered the chamber. That’s a normal custom for the State of the Union, but it’s less usual when the president is this mendacious and self-serving.
Even the Republicans who think they’re in on the joke of Donald Trump found plenty of opportunities to hoot and cheer. When Trump expressed views they find more controversial ― like paid family leave, or when he spoke in support of tariffs against China instead of the free trade policies the GOP has traditionally supported ― Republicans still applauded. They’ve all become loyal foot soldiers for Trump. Instead of being in on the joke, they are the joke.
The Senate’s impeachment trial is further proof. Not a single GOP lawmaker in the House voted to impeach Trump, and in the Senate, only two Republican lawmakers even voted to have witnesses during the impeachment trial. On Wednesday, GOP senators are expected to acquit the president of two charges, even though many have acknowledged they believe Trump acted improperly by pressuring a foreign government to investigate one of his political rivals.
Trump avoided mentioning impeachment, though he has spent years obsessing over the matter. But his carefully choreographed address Tuesday was still full of rancor and lacking in the vaunted “presidential” tone.
The State of the Union almost certainly signals zero shift in Trump’s behavior, and Trump didn’t really bother pretending it would. Though he was able to draw bipartisan applause from time to time, he was still irascible in his own way, even as he read words off of a teleprompter.
While this was only Trump’s third State of the Union address, it’s actually the fourth and likely final time he will address Congress if he isn’t re-elected. Trump’s first speech before Congress, which took place about a month after he was sworn into office, was just a joint address, per custom, and it was greeted by some cable pundits as the night he “became president of the United States.”
There was, of course, no change in Trump’s style after that, just as there hasn’t been a change since before he ran for president. After his first address, Trump immediately pursued his most ambitious and divisive policy goals: the repeal and replacement of the Affordable Care Act.
But with Republicans no longer controlling the House, Trump’s policy prerogatives are mostly dead on arrival. In this State of the Union, Trump was light on offering specific proposals he expects Congress to take up. He name-checked an initiative to plant 1 trillion trees, as well as prayer in school. And he did mention paid family leave ― a policy that Democrats have championed for years and Republicans have resisted.
Unwilling to cross their president, Republicans joined Democrats in applauding the president’s call to pass bipartisan legislation to “extend family leave to mothers and fathers all across the nation.”
But with the presidential election about eight months away, the address Tuesday night was mostly a campaign event, albeit with Democratic members of Congress composing half of the crowd, and the other half trading red baseball caps for dark suits.
The big theme of Trump’s speech was the success of the economy. He began his address by pointing to the gains America has made during his time in office.
“Jobs are booming, incomes are soaring, poverty is plummeting, crime is falling, confidence is surging, and our country is thriving and highly respected again,” Trump said.
True to form, Trump managed to take full credit for economic gains that began early in the Obama administration.
“If we had not reversed the failed economic policies of the previous administration, the world would not now be witness to America’s great economic success,” Trump said, to moans from the Democratic side.
Democrats were mostly stone-faced during the speech, occasionally applauding noncontroversial lines and occasionally groaning at some Trump’s more outrageous claims. At one point, after Trump claimed he was “taking on big pharmaceutical companies” and said he wanted bipartisan legislation to address drug prices, Democrats began chanting “HR 3,” the bill number of the measure the House passed ― that’s now dead in the Republican-controlled Senate ― that would significantly lower prescription prices.
Some Democrats ― including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.), Al Green (D-Texas), and a handful of others ― boycotted the State of the Union altogether.
Before the address, Ocasio-Cortez tweeted that she would not “normalize Trump’s lawless conduct and subversion of the Constitution.”
“None of this is normal,” Ocasio-Cortez said, “and I will not legitimize it.”
Other Democrats protested in their own way. About 60 Democratic women wore white to honor the women’s suffrage movement. And there were plenty of applause lines that Democrats refrained from participating in.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) may have inadvertently delivered the most eloquent Democratic response. After Trump’s speech was over, she was caught on camera ripping it in half, delighting many Democrats and characteristically pissing off almost every Republican.
But Trump drew bipartisan applause for a lot of other lines. Some of the biggest cheers were for individuals Trump invited to the State of the Union as his guests. World War II veteran Charles McGee, one of the first black fighter pilots, drew massive cheers from both sides. And 13-year-old Iain Lanphier, McGee’s grandson, got big applause for his desire to join the Space Force.
Trump also arranged for a soldier to surprise his wife and children in the chamber by coming back from deployment.
But Republicans also had their own moments. At one point, Trump paused the State of the Union so first lady Melania Trump could award conservative radio personality Rush Limbaugh with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor.
Republicans stood and cheered during the entire impromptu ceremony in the House gallery. And eventually, some started giving Rush a Trumpian thumbs-up ― one of the president’s signature gestures.
It was a fitting moment for the Republican Party, which has been strongly influenced by Limbaugh over the last 30 years and hijacked by Trump in the last five.
Perhaps the most understated moment of the night was when Trump acknowledged Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s role in getting Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh on the Supreme Court.
McConnell has also been instrumental in scuttling a real impeachment trial in the Senate, working hard behind the scenes to ensure that senators wouldn’t even hear witnesses in Trump’s impeachment trial.
“Thank you, Mitch,” Trump said, in reference to the judges, but also, potentially more.