WASHINGTON: One half of the chamber was on its feet, roaring its approval for Donald Trump. The other sat in sullen silence, broken by boos and occasional hisses, until their leader Nancy Pelosi ultimately ripped up the president’s speech. Six weeks after he was impeached by the House of Representatives – and a day before his expected acquittal in the Senate – Trump’s annual State of the Union address was delivered in a triumphant vein, and could not have been more polarizing.
Chants of “Four more years! Four more years!” greeted the president as he entered the chamber headed by his chief political nemesis in Washington: the Democratic Speaker of the House. After a slow stroll down the center aisle, accepting backslaps from Republican lawmakers, Trump stepped up to the rostrum and handed Pelosi a copy of his speech.
The smiling speaker reached out for a handshake. Trump did not return the favor. And at the very end of his address, Pelosi – very deliberately – ripped up her copy of the president’s speech – in a pointed political statement delivered on live television. The bitterness between the 73-year-old president and the 79-year-old speaker is nothing new.
But the latest flashpoint comes one day before the US Senate votes almost certainly to acquit the 45th president on the impeachment charges of abuse of power and obstruction of justice. Throughout the impeachment crisis, Trump has repeatedly assailed Pelosi for her impeachment “hoax,” branding her “nervous Nancy” and “crazy Nancy” on Twitter. Trump leaned into Chief Justice John Roberts, who is presiding over his Senate trial, and spoke with him for a good seven seconds – an eternity in the walk-up to his speech.
The shadow of impeachment hung heavy over the evening – neatly illustrated by Jerry Nadler, one of the lawmakers who led the prosecution at Trump’s trial, who sat leafing through a pocket copy of the US Constitution ahead of his address. But Trump made no mention of impeachment or his expected acquittal in the one hour and 18 minutes speech, opting instead to focus on his “incredible” record on the economy. “Jobs are booming, incomes are soaring, poverty is plummeting, crime is falling, confidence is surging,” Trump said, earning a prolonged standing ovation – one of dozens during the night.
Democrats remained largely silent as Trump boasted of his achievements – with many female lawmakers dressed in white in a nod to the suffragette movement for women’s voting rights. But when he spoke of creating an “inclusive society,” elevating “every race color, religion and creed,” many in the opposing camp winced, hissed or jeered. “No!” cried one female lawmaker. Several Democrats walked out.
Democrats, many looking shell-shocked, booed further as the president accused them of being soft on “dangerous criminal aliens” and seeking to “impose a socialist takeover of our healthcare system.” In a reality TV-style flourish, Trump paid a live tribute to controversial conservative talk radio host Rush Limbaugh, who recently disclosed he has advanced lung cancer, asking Melania Trump to present him with the Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor.
Trump went on to single out a woman in the audience whose army husband had been away for months on foreign deployments, telling her he had “a very special surprise.” It was her husband, in full uniform, coming down the stairs for a tearful, surprise reunion – in front of a primetime national television audience. But Trump’s theatrics appeared to largely leave Democrats cold. “Every State of the Union has oratorical and presentation flourishes, but you don’t want to make it into a theater, you know – we didn’t go to the opera,” House Democrat Raja Krishnamoorthi said. – AFP