President Donald Trump’s State of the Union address got off to a partisan start and came to a partisan end, highlighting once again the chasm between the Democrats and Republicans that has been growing faster than ever for the past three years. This time, it also marked Trump’s personal feud with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi.
The House chamber briefly resembled a Republican rally when Donald Trump stepped up to deliver his annual State of the Union speech on Tuesday, with Republican members of Congress erupting in cheers and some chanting, “Four more years!”
Democrats sat silently.
A tense night in Congress
That night, as in the past year, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was the embodiment of the sharp partisan divide that has plagued Congress.
As Trump climbed to the rostrum and handed the copies of his speech to Pelosi and Vice President Mike Pence, he appeared to ignore the Speaker’s outstretched hand before he turned to the crowd. She quickly withdrew her hand and shrugged with a slightly surprised look.
Seconds later, Pelosi went on to introduce Trump by deviating from the customary laudatory formula used by House speakers in the past decade. Typically, every speaker between 2007 and 2018 said something akin to “Members of Congress, I have the high privilege and the distinct honour of presenting to you the President of the United States.”
But Pelosi said concisely, “Members of Congress, the President of the United States.”
Last year, she didn’t introduce Trump at all as he launched into his address before she said anything. It wasn’t clear whether Trump’s early start was intentional. Speaking to reporters afterwards, Pelosi insisted that “there was no snub”.
Moments after Trump finished his 80-minute speech on Tuesday, Pelosi dramatically ripped up the copy of his remarks in full view of the cameras. “It was the courteous thing to do considering the alternatives,” she told Fox News, quipping she couldn’t find “one page with truth on it”.
The White House later replied: “Speaker Pelosi just ripped up: One of our last surviving Tuskegee Airmen. The survival of a child born at 21 weeks. The mourning families of Rocky Jones and Kayla Mueller. A service member’s reunion with his family. That’s her legacy.”
Speaker Pelosi just ripped up:— The White House (@WhiteHouse) February 5, 2020
One of our last surviving Tuskegee Airmen.
The survival of a child born at 21 weeks.
The mourning families of Rocky Jones and Kayla Mueller.
A service member's reunion with his family.
That's her legacy.
From bad to worse
In November 2018, when the House leadership battle was underway following the mid-term election, Trump said that Pelosi, then House Minority Leader, “deserves” to step up as Speaker and even offered to get her “as many votes as she wants” to get the position.
I can get Nancy Pelosi as many votes as she wants in order for her to be Speaker of the House. She deserves this victory, she has earned it - but there are those in her party who are trying to take it away. She will win! @TomReedCongress— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 17, 2018
Shortly after getting the gavel, Pelosi had a major battle with Trump later that year, when his request for border wall funding and the Democrats’ objections to it led to the longest government shutdown in US history. During that stand-off, Pelosi ultimately emerged as the face of Democratic opposition to the president.
During his 2019 State of the Union address, she gave Trump a pointed applause that immediately went viral. Pelosi’s pursed-lip gesture, which was described as a “walrus clap”, came after Trump called for rejecting “the politics of revenge, resistance and retribution” and embracing “the boundless potential of cooperation, compromise and the common good.”
“It wasn’t sarcastic,” she later insisted to reporters. “Look at what I was applauding. I wanted him to know that it was very welcomed.”
While colliding with Trump on most key issues such as environmental protection and gun violence, Democrats under Pelosi still sought to cooperate with Republican lawmakers on a number of legislative deals encompassing trade, workforce training and drug pricing.
“The American people elected him president, not by the popular vote, but by the electoral college,” Pelosi said in a May 2019 interview. “So I respect the office that he holds.”
In September, Trump praised Pelosi for introducing a bill on lower prices for costly prescription drugs. He called for more collaboration with the Democrats “to work together to “get it done in a bipartisan way!”
But the façade of Trump-Pelosi relations, with its smiles through gritted teeth, lost all decorum when the House Speaker championed her party’s effort to impeach Donald Trump.
Trump categorically rejected the accusations of abusing power in the Ukraine affair and repeatedly referred to Pelosi as “nervous Nancy” and “crazy Nancy”. Pelosi dismissed his denials and accused him of “cover-up” as Trump sought to block witnesses and documents from being subpoenaed for the Senate impeachment trial.
According to a Pelosi spokesman, the two have not spoken since 16 October, when a bipartisan White House meeting on Syria devolved into insults and Trump called the Speaker a “third-grade politician”. Democratic lawmakers walked out of the White House after what Pelosi described as a “meltdown” by Donald Trump. The President said it was the “Nervous Nancy” who had one.