WASHINGTON — Standing before a Congress and nation sharply divided by impeachment, US President Donald Trump used his State of the Union address Tuesday to extol a “Great American Comeback” on his watch, three years after he took office decrying a land of “American carnage” under his predecessor.
The first president to run for reelection after being impeached, Trump received a raucous but divided response from Congress with Republicans in the House of Representatives chanting “four more years” while Democrats stood mute. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi ripped up her copy of Trump’s speech as he ended his address.
“America’s enemies are on the run, America’s fortunes are on the rise and the America’s future is blazing bright,” Trump declared. “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 made only a passing mention of the Middle East peace plan he unveiled last week, calling it “groundbreaking.”
“Last week, I announced a groundbreaking plan for peace between Israel and the Palestinians,” he said. “Recognizing that all past attempts have failed, we must be determined and creative in order to stabilize the region and give millions of young people the change to realize a better future.”
He also touted the recent US operations that killed Islamic State leader Abu-Bakr Al-Baghdadi and Iran’s top commander Qassem Soleimani, hosting relatives of Americans killed in attacks directed by IS and Iran.
“Our message to the terrorists is clear: You will never escape American justice. If you attack our citizens, you forfeit your life!” Trump said.
Addressing subsequent tensions with Tehran, which has gradually drawn back its commitments under the 2015 nuclear deal after Trump pulled out of it in 2018, the president said that “the Iranian regime must abandon its pursuit of nuclear weapons, stop spreading terror, death, and destruction, and start working for the good of its own people.
“Because of our powerful sanctions, the Iranian economy is doing very poorly,” he continued. “We can help them make it very good in a short period of time, but perhaps they are too proud or too foolish to ask for that help. We are here. Let’s see which road they choose. It is totally up to them.”
Setting a yardstick for success and then contending he’d surpassed it, Trump offered the nation’s economic success as a chief rationale for a second term.
Trump spent much of the speech highlighting the economy’s strength, including low unemployment, stressing how it has helped blue-collar workers and the middle class, though the period of growth began under his predecessor, Barack Obama. And what Trump calls an unprecedented boom is, by many measures, not all that different from the solid economy he inherited from Obama. Economic growth was 2.3 percent in 2019, matching the average pace since the Great Recession ended a decade ago in the first year of Obama’s eight-year presidency.
Trump stressed the new trade agreements he has negotiated, including his phase-one deal with China and the United States-Mexico-Canada agreement he signed last month.
The main suspense in the speech was over whether he would address the charges against him.
Trump spoke from the House of Representatives, on the opposite side of the Capitol from where the Senate one day later was expected to acquit him largely along party lines. The first half of his nationally televised speech was largely optimistic, not mentioning the impeachment trial that has consumed Washington in favor of a recitation of accomplishments and promises.
Yet the partisan divide within Washington was embodied by the woman over his left shoulder, visible in nearly every camera shot: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
A frequent thorn in Trump’s side who authorized the impeachment proceedings that charged the president with abusing the power of his office to push Ukraine to investigate a political foe, Pelosi created a viral image with her seemingly sarcastic applause of the president a year ago.
Immediately after Trump finished Tuesday’s speech, Pelosi appeared rip in half a copy of the address in full view of cameras in another moment that quickly went viral.
When Pelosi left, she told reporters that tearing up the speech was “the courteous thing to do considering the alternative.” Republicans denounced her action as disrespectful.
Trump appeared no more cordial. When he climbed to the House rostrum, he did not take her outstretched hand but it was not clear he had seen her gesture. Later, as Republicans often cheered, she remained in her seat, at times shaking her head at Trump’s remarks.
Even for a Trump-era news cycle that seems permanently set to hyper-speed, the breakneck pace of events dominating the first week of February offered a singular backdrop for the president’s address.
Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts, who has presided in the Senate over only the third impeachment trial in the nation’s history, was on hand again Tuesday night — this time in his more customary seat in the audience. Trump stood before the very lawmakers who have voted to remove him from office — and those who are expected to acquit him when the Senate trial comes to a close.
The leading Senate Democrats hoping to unseat him in November were campaigning in New Hampshire ahead of that state’s upcoming party caucus.
In advance of his address, Trump tweeted that the chaos in Iowa’s Monday leadoff caucuses showed Democrats were incompetent and should not be trusted to run the government.
Among Trump’s guests in the chamber: Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó, who has been trying for months to win face time with Trump, his most important international ally.
The president offered Guaidó exactly the sort of endorsement he’s been looking for as he struggles to oust President Nicolás Maduro from power. Trump called Guaidó “the true and legitimate president of Venezuela.”
“Mr. President, please take this message back to your homeland,” Trump said. “All Americans are united with the Venezuelan people in their righteous struggle for freedom! Socialism destroys nations. But always remember, freedom unifies the soul.”
Trump entered the night on a roll, with his impeachment acquittal imminent, his job approval numbers ticking upward and Wall Street looking strong.
In the closest historical comparison, Bill Clinton did not mention his recent impeachment when he delivered his State of the Union in 1999. In his address a year ago, Trump did remain on message, making no mention of how Pelosi had originally disinvited him from delivering the speech during the longest government shutdown in the nation’s history.
While the White House said the president would have a message of unity, he also spent time on issues that have created great division and resonated with his political base. He attacked Democrats’ health care proposals for being too intrusive and again highlighted his signature issue — immigration — trumpeting the miles of border wall that have been constructed.
He also dedicated a section to “American values,” discussing efforts to protect “religious liberties” and limit access to abortion as he continues to court the evangelical and conservative Christian voters who form a crucial part of his base.
The Democrats were supplying plenty of counter-programming, focusing on health care — the issue key to their takeover of the House last year. Trump, for his part, vowed to not allow a “socialist takeover of our health care system” a swipe at the Medicare For All proposal endorsed by some of his Democratic challengers.
Many female Democrats were wearing white as tribute to the suffragettes who helped win the vote for women, while a number in the party were wearing red, white and blue-striped lapel pins to highlight climate change, saying Trump has rolled back environmental safeguards and given free rein to polluters.
Several Democratic lawmakers, including California Representative Maxine Waters and New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, announced in advance of the speech that they would be skipping it, with the high-profile New York freshman tweeting that she would “not use my presence at a state ceremony to normalize Trump’s lawless conduct & subversion of the Constitution.”
Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer was delivering the party’s official response and, in excerpts released ahead of the speech, was to draw a contrast between actions taken by Democrats and the president’s rhetoric.
“It doesn’t matter what the president says about the stock market,” Whitmer says. “What matters is that millions of people struggle to get by or don’t have enough money at the end of the month after paying for transportation, student loans, or prescription drugs.”