Donald Trump delivered his third and potentially last formal State of the Union address from the well of the House chamber where he was impeached on the eve of his likely acquittal by a deeply divided Senate. The 78-minute speech sought to look past impeachment to his re-election in November. He touted his accomplishments, claiming a strong economy, the killing of the Iranian general Qassem Suleimani and the passage of a bipartisan criminal justice reform bill.
But the mood was fraught on the eve of his acquittal, which is expected to take place on Wednesday as Republican loyalists stand by him. Few Democrats stood to clap for the president as Republicans chanted “four more years”.
Here are five key takeaways:
Trump dedicated nearly 20 minutes to ticking through his economic accomplishments, delivering a mix of dubious claims and exaggerations.
“Our economy is the best it has ever been,” Trump falsely claimed. While the unemployment rate is at a 50-year low and wages have risen, the economy is far from the “best ever”.
But other boasts were true: average unemployment is lower now than “any administration in the history of our country”. He touted the bipartisan renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement, now called the USMCA as well as a deal with China to ease the trade war.
The rosy economic indicators could provide strong tailwinds for the president as he seeks re-election, especially if he faces a Democratic opponent who seeks to remake the economy as a number of candidates have proposed.
Trump inaccurately claimed USMCA would create “100,000 new high-paying American auto jobs”. A report released by the US International Trade Commission estimated that the deal would add only 28,000 auto industry jobs in the six years following its implementation.
Ever eager to fan the flames of America’s culture wars, Trump delivered extended riffs on immigration, abortion, guns and religious liberty – red meat to his conservative base.
“We don’t punish prayer,” he declared before vowing to “always protect your second amendment right to keep and bear arms”.
He highlighted in grisly detail the stories of two US citizens murdered by an undocumented immigrant, a way to slam cities that refuse to cooperate with federal law enforcement to enforce immigration law. At another point, he called on Congress to pass a federal ban on “late-term abortions”.
He also praised his appointment of two conservative supreme court justices, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, both of whom beamed back at the president from the front of the chamber.
“We have many in the pipeline,” Trump said, as Republicans broke into another round of deafening applause.
In less than 24 hours, Trump will become the third US president to be acquitted by the US Senate after being impeached by the House. But unlike his Twitter feed, where Trump airs all manner of grievances about the trial and the House leaders who led the effort, he made no mention of it in tonight’s speech.
However, the tension was clear. When Trump approached the rostrum, the House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, appeared to extend her hand but he refused to shake it.
She then omitted the flourish of announcing “I have the high privilege and distinct honor of presenting to you the president of the United States”, instead simply introducing him directly to the chamber. Then, after Trump finished his remarks, Pelosi tore up a copy of the speech.
Asked by reporters why she did that, Pelosi replied that it was the “courteous thing to do.”
No matter who the Democratic presidential nominee is in November, Trump and Republicans already plan to define the election as a battle to protect the country against socialism.
In his speech, Trump vowed to “never let socialism destroy American healthcare!” while also dishonestly claiming that he would always protect patients with pre-existing conditions. In 2017, Republicans with Trump’s strong support, attempting to repeal the Affordable Care Act and replace it with a plan that would throw millions of Americans off their healthcare and would not guarantee its protections.
At another point, Trump pointed to one of his guests, Juan Guaidó, the Venezuelan opposition leader who the US recognizes as the country’s rightful leader. Trump called the nation’s current president, Nicolás Maduro, a “socialist dictator” and “illegitimate ruler”.
“Socialism destroys nations,” Trump said to whoops and cheers from Republicans. “But always remember, freedom unifies the soul.”
Guests and no-shows
It’s a tradition for the White House and members of Congress to invite guests who reflect their political priorities. Among the guests who attended on behalf of the president and first lady was Rush Limbaugh, the controversial conservative radio show host who announced this week that he is undergoing surgery for advanced lung cancer.
During his remarks, Trump announced that he would receive the country’s highest civilian honor, the presidential medal of freedom. In an unusual move, Trump paused his speech for Melania Trump to present him with the medal.
It was one of several surprises Trump had in store for his guests. He bestowed an education scholarship on a young girl whose mother could not afford to send her to a private school. And then, in a made-for-TV moment, Sergeant First Class Townsend Williams returned from deployment in Afghanistan to surprise his wife and children in the first lady’s box.
Meanwhile, a handful of Democratic lawmakers chose to skip the affair altogether. The New York congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said she did not want to “legitimize” the president’s actions.
“After much deliberation, I have decided that I will not use my presence at a state ceremony to normalize Trump’s lawless conduct & subversion of the Constitution,” she wrote on Twitter. “None of this is normal, and I will not legitimize it.”
The Massachusetts congresswoman Ayanna Pressley said she could not in “good conscience” attend the speech, when he “incessantly stokes fear in people of color, women, healthcare providers, LGBTQ+ communities, low-income families, and many more”.
Congressman Tim Ryan, an Ohio Democrat, attended the speech but left halfway through.
“I just walked out of the #StateOfTheUnion,” he wrote. “I’ve had enough. It’s like watching professional wrestling. It’s all fake.”