Trump delivers campaign-style State of the Union under the shadow of Nancy Pelosi

Trump delivers campaign-style State of the Union under the shadow of Nancy Pelosi
President Donald J Trump delivers the State of the Union address, as Vice-President Mike Pence (left) and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi react, at the Capitol in Washington, DC, US, 5 February 2019. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Doug Mills / POOL)

The US president’s state of the union speech, delayed by the government’s partial shutdown, finally went ahead. Despite some efforts to reach across the aisle and join with Democrats, ultimately it was vintage Trump.

At 9 pm, Washington time, on Tuesday 5 February 2019, Donald Trump finally had the opportunity to deliver his State of the Union speech. This annual speech had initially been scheduled for some weeks earlier, but the newly ensconced Democratic Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, postponed it after her initial invitation had been issued, in response to the partial government shutdown.

Technically, the speaker invites the president to the Congress to deliver his speech in accord with tradition and the Constitution. But, given the circumstances, Pelosi decided hosting the president’s speech would simply be the wrong thing to have take place in the midst of the partial government shutdown that Trump had so eagerly embraced as his very own project, as part of the increasingly bitter dispute between the parties over his great big, beautiful wall.

In that initial round, because she could shut him out from delivering his speech, score one for the speaker as she tweaked the balance between the two parties and two branches of government. But now it was, finally, time for him to come to Capitol Hill and address the country, come what may from his language, in an effort to adjust that balance.

True to his instincts, the president failed to wait for the customary introductory words from the speaker to address the joint sitting of both houses of Congress. Instead, he just drove straight ahead. “My stage, my speech, my clock”, he must have been thinking, to even that scale. Or maybe he was just eager to get in there; kick some people around; deliver his messages, bam, bam, bam; and then get out of the building so he could go home to watch the praise singers on Fox News all night and into his “executive time” the next morning.

At least initially, if the advance leaks were anything to go by, there was going to be a kind of surface truth to the theme of reconciliation. The speech began with notes of conciliation and co-operation and appeals to bipartisanship, although they quickly morphed into the ultra-partisanship in support of his base that is at the core of his political persona.

The pivot came quickly, perhaps not quickly enough for the president’s most ferocious supporters. CNBC reported:

As the president faces a slew of investigations from the new House Democratic majority, he warned the party against coming probes into his policies and personal finances. In his State of the Union address, he claimed the only things that can stop a strong U.S. economy ‘are foolish wars, politics or ridiculous partisan investigations’.”

In a rhymed couplet of sorts, some pseudo-Muhammad Ali-esque patter, “If there is going to be peace and legislation, there cannot be war and investigation.” Okay, that doesn’t scan perfectly, but it does give a heads-up for the rhetorical assault to come.

Scattered through the speech were the now obligatory shout-outs – and standing ovations – to heroes such as a trio of 1944 Normandy landing veterans, a man liberated from the Nazi death camp at Dachau, a policeman who had been wounded multiple times in responding to the hate killings at the Pittsburgh synagogue, a child under treatment for cancer, and the family of a border patrol agent. Probably the biggest cheers were for Buzz Aldrin, the second man to walk on the Moon’s surface, back in 1969. Aldrin’s presence gave Trump the opportunity to cheer the fact that Americans would soon be returning to space in American rockets, rather than the rockets of those other folks.

Still, it took very little time for the president to move past a litany of his success on the economy – more jobs than ever before, more income, better stock market levels, lower unemployment for everybody – in order to shift into the core theme for the night, immigration and his favoured big, beautiful wall.

I will build it,” he said – thereby casting the waves of illegal immigration as the greatest threat to Americans’ safety and economic security. Or, as he said, “I am asking you to defend our very dangerous southern border out of love and devotion to our fellow citizens and to our country,” portraying a dark, foreboding picture of the risks posed to Americans by illegal immigration. The audiences on Capitol Hill, across the nation, and around the globe were yet again confronted with a mass of baleful numbers and statements – despite their having been repeatedly rebutted by experts – about the dreadful impact of illegal immigration, as well as that eerie reliance on the lurid image of human trafficked women, bound hand and foot, and with that duct tape across their terrorised, helpless mouths.

Meanwhile, inside the chamber, there was that large, very visible and newly enlarged caucus of female, Democratic legislators, all dressed in white, as a nod to the women suffragettes who had pushed for the vote 100 years ago. Simultaneously, this dress style was meant to be symbolic of their disapproval of so much of what the president has been proposing, saying, or standing for in terms of public policy. At one point, as a mark of civil rights progress, Trump acknowledged the many newly elected, female representatives, although it seems as if it did not immediately click with him that those members were largely Democratic ones, as they stood to cheer his point.

Much of this president’s speech was on foreign policy, with big dollops of self-praise, not least regarding his dealings with North Korea, Iran, Nato, the US troop deployments in the Middle East, and on Venezuela. On North Korea, he told his audiences:

If I had not been elected president of the United States, we would right now, in my opinion, be in a major war with North Korea.”

(Thereby giving pause, or whiplash, to most listeners, given the president’s bellicose rhetoric of just a year ago).

Still, he announced a second summit with Kim Jung-un at the end of February in Vietnam, so the world can hope that there may eventually be some actual, rather than rhetorical, progress on that front.

On Iran, Trump’s view of his success came from his insistence that America’s withdrawal from the six-nation agreement over nuclear developments by Iran and yet further American sanctions had been the thing that really kept the pressure on to change Iranian behaviour. That, of course, stands in contravention of his own intelligence community’s assessment that Iran remains in compliance with the accord. But remember, those people are the ones who must go back to school, per Donald Trump.

On Nato, it was his often-repeated argument that it was his tough-minded approach that had finally chivvied those slackers, the Nato partners, into coughing up more money for defence. Finally.

And with respect to American troop deployments in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, the president was clear it was about time to bring them home, essentially regardless of consequences. The president said, “Great nations do not fight endless wars,” adding that America continues to work with allies to “destroy the remnants” of the Islamic State group and that he praised “accelerated” efforts to reach a settlement in Afghanistan. Maybe there is some whiplash here too? Regardless of the president’s druthers, military and intelligence analysts have warned that ISIS fighters remain in significant numbers and they could regroup within six months to a year after the departure of US forces there. The administration’s position has put him on the road towards a collision with some in his own party, particularly those congressmen and senators who feel very differently than the president does on a continuing American military presence in that region.

As far as Venezuela is concerned, the president chose to denounce that country’s brand of socialism, using it as a neat little segue into proclaiming that America will never endure such heinous policies at home. This was a not-so-subtle slap at some new, highly visible political figures such as Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and her evil democratic socialist ways. This too may have been a marker for an attack line for the 2020 presidential race.

There was also a riff on the president’s opposition to abortion rights and the recent passage of legislation in two states, giving a little more discretionary wiggle room to doctors in the case of late-term abortions. That, naturally, gave the president a chance to take a swing at the embattled Virginia governor, Dr Ralph Northam, now that Northam has been battered by a bizarre discovery of racially offensive photographs on his yearbook page back in medical school. Hey, never skip a chance to kick a man when he’s down.

Left missing throughout the speech was any mention of climate change, educational issues such as the crisis in student loan financing, gun control, or similar issues. Nor was there any real hint of what could constitute a potential compromise solution to government funding for border security other than that wall (or whatever he chooses to name it), thus leaving open the possibility that there would be yet another government shutdown as the current continuing resolution on spending runs out.

But, as the AP noted:

Looming over the president’s address was a fast-approaching Feb. 15 deadline to fund the government and avoid another shutdown. Democrats have refused to acquiesce to his demands for a border wall, and Republicans are increasingly unwilling to shut down the government to help him fulfil his signature campaign pledge. Nor does the GOP support the president’s plan to declare a national emergency if Congress won’t fund the wall. Wary of publicly highlighting those intraparty divisions, Trump made no mention of an emergency declaration [to fund the wall regardless of Congress’ will] in his remarks.”

In a speech largely devoid of big-picture ideas of what the rest of his term of office should look like, the president offered a few ideas that surely have broad national agreement such as pushing forward – somehow – on infrastructure improvements, beating childhood cancers, finding a full cure for HIV/AIDS, and lowering prescription drug costs. Great stuff, all of them, but they are hardly the core of his political realm.

The speech, as delivered, gave few hints of the conciliatory outreach to his opponents that had been hinted at by the leaks before the speech and in the first few lines. The New York Times summarised the four big takeaways as: there is not, yet, grounds to declare a national emergency on border security (largely because it would only take four Republican senators voting with Democrats to block such a declaration); that continuing investigations into him, his administration, his campaign, or his businesses pose a threat to national security; opposition to abortion and socialism represent an effort to unify the Republican Party around him; and, through the statistics on employment, this is an effort to defend his administration on women’s issues.

Meanwhile, The Washington Post and its liar, liar, pants on fire specialists totalled up the usual litany of mistruths, half-truths and outright fabrications in the speech. This time around, they pointed to nearly 30 such statements which interested readers can peruse at their leisure here.

Following the president’s speech, as is now customary, the opposition party for its televised response chose Stacey Abrams, the rising star from Georgia who was just pipped at the finish line to become the first female, black governor of a state. She is now an increasingly likely candidate for the Senate in the next electoral cycle.

Abrams, standing in front of a gathering of enthusiastic faces, spoke movingly about the way the values of family and community leads to a nation’s spirit and its moral character. Indirectly chastising the president, she said that the recent partial government shutdown had been a political stunt that “defied every tenet of fairness and abandoned not just our people, but our values”.

There is a lot of politics yet to go before the next election in 2020, but remember, the primary campaigns for the Democrats – and even conceivably among Republicans if the president should falter in popularity further or if the various ongoing investigations prove ruinous to him – are now less than a year away. DM


Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted

We would like our readers to start paying for Daily Maverick...

…but we are not going to force you to. Over 10 million users come to us each month for the news. We have not put it behind a paywall because the truth should not be a luxury.

Instead we ask our readers who can afford to contribute, even a small amount each month, to do so.

If you appreciate it and want to see us keep going then please consider contributing whatever you can.

Support Daily Maverick→
Payment options

Daily Maverick Elections Toolbox

Feeling powerless in politics?

Equip yourself with the tools you need for an informed decision this election. Get the Elections Toolbox with shareable party manifesto guide.