Trump’s comeback-kid State of the Union address was designed to trap Democrats

The union could use improvement. The president has ideas.
The union could use improvement. The president has ideas.
Image: Ephrat Livni
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US President Donald Trump delivered his third State of the Union address yesterday in the House where he was impeached. His Senate trial is expected to end in acquittal today, and Trump was clearly feeling besieged but victorious when he gave his speech about “the great American comeback.”

“This year’s theme reflects the President’s can-do optimism versus the Swamp’s baseless pessimism,” a White House email explained ahead of the president’s address. It was a not so subtle jab at Trump’s political detractors, who—pessimistically or not—accuse him of abusing his power and obstructing Congress, prosecuting his alleged can-do approach to soliciting foreign election interference.

But as the evening progressed, it became apparent that the impeachment business was already in the president’s rearview mirror. Trump was the comeback kid and his Republican supporters were into him. They chanted “four more years!” as he made his way down the center aisle of the House chamber, shaking hands.

Meanwhile, lead House impeachment trial manager, California representative Adam Schiff, sat stoney-faced and stiff, hands folded before him, as co-counsel Jerrold Nadler of New York rifled through what looked like a tiny copy of the Constitution in between holding his head in his hands.

A trap was laid

The evening was something of a triumph for Trump and a test of Democrats’ spirit. The House trial management team in particular found themselves in the awkward position of watching the defendant they were still prosecuting relishing the spotlight and certain victory.

“Our country is thriving and highly respected again,” the president declared as the prosecutors stared ahead and Republicans clapped wildly.

However, Democrats could not remain indifferent to the president forever, or much more than 20 minutes really. As Trump listed his  successes, he also highlighted the stories of guests he brought to the event. It would have been practically un-American not to stand and clap for some of them. Take Charles McGee, a 100-year-old Tuskegee Airman who fought in World War II as part of an African American piloting group, or McGee’s great grandson, also in attendance, who “has his eye on the Space Force,” Trump’s new extraterrestrial military unit.

Who in the room could afford—politically speaking—not to cheer for Trump’s claimed “blue collar boom”?

“Members of Congress,” Trump urged the assembled politicians and government officials. “We must never forget that the only victories that matter in Washington are victories that deliver to the American people!”

This seemed to be a reference to the impeachment trial, but was also a carefully crafted formulation, made to force Democrats to agree. They couldn’t very well seem so intent on hating the president that they risked also seeming indifferent to the people. Even Hakeem Jeffries, a New York representative and part of the House impeachment team, found himself reluctantly clapping, looking trapped.

The other Trump

Bombastic Twitter Trump pulled a fast one and suddenly worked subtly. He boasted mostly, but credited a bipartisan effort to pass criminal justice reform legislation. “People in this room got it done,” the president proclaimed.

And the people in the room couldn’t help but stand and clap for themselves. Jeffries stayed seated though, laughing when a colleague on the Democratic side congratulated him personally for the reform he co-sponsored, shouting, “Good job, Hakeem!”

There were other moments of Democratic rebellion. Notably, women representatives in the House wore suffragette white and stood in stark contrast to the sea of men in dark suits that dominated the Republican side.

Democratic representatives also chanted “HR3!” and pointed three fingers in unison at the president when he took credit for drug price transparency efforts. It was a reference to House Resolution 3, sponsored by the late Maryland representative Elijah Cummings, who had an adversarial relationship with Trump.

Many on the left also rejected Trump’s contentions that he was saving American health care from a “socialist takeover” or protecting people with pre-existing conditions. Some booed and hissed while others stood beside them and clapped because, well, capitalism.

Still, infrastructure turned out to be the real bipartisan unifier. When Trump touted a highway bill to repair the nation’s bridges and roads, he got near universal approval. The room was electrified. And when he promised high-speed internet in rural regions there was almost complete glee—so much so you might imagine all those folks offline were actually streaming C-Span and planning how to vote based on that moment.

The full range of responses

It was a complicated situation that displayed the full range of Democratic views.

Trump trumpeted his border wall and restrictive immigration policies, calling for more support of law enforcement officers, including from ICE and Border Patrol. Some representatives cheered for ICE officers while colleagues stared daggers. Minnesota’s Ilhan Omar seemed particularly disgusted by her fellow Democrats’ approval of ICE, for example. She sat in the back with Michigan’s Rashida Tlaib and they made a quick exit at the end, but did not boycott the event like fellow freshman representatives, New York’s Alexandria Ocasio Cortez and Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts.

Not all Democrats were as torn as Omar or House managers about how much to cheer Trump, however. Arizona senator Kyrsten Sinema—always dressed cinematically—stood dramatically in a purple gown with puffy sleeves to applaud the president, as her somber and much less enthused colleague Kamala Harris of California sat cross-armed beside her. On the other side, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York took copious notes, except when it was impossible not to applaud apparently, like when the president gave a scholarship to a young student or when he reunited a deployed soldier with his wife and child to the surprise and delight of almost all present.

Shortly following the president’s speech, Schiff walked slowly down the House stairs to a black SUV, appearing stunned. Quartz asked how he was feeling about the State of the Union address in view of the prosecution. He declined to comment, perhaps understandably reticent. After all, Trump had just shrugged off the whole impeachment trial brouhaha and staged his comeback in the very place he was accused, right before his chief prosecutor’s very eyes.