President Donald Trump’s State of the Union address became a shocking display of US divisions Tuesday with Democrats protesting the Republican’s boasts before their leader, Nancy Pelosi, ripped up her copy of the speech on live television.
The House speaker’s gesture at the very end encapsulated the seething atmosphere in the Capitol as Trump made a one hour and 18 minutes pitch for a second term in office.
The development came before Republican-majority Senate was set to acquit the president from impeachment later yesterday.
Instead of what traditionally has been an annual moment for political truce, this State of the Union mirrored the political war raging through the country ahead of November elections.
Trump was still on the podium, having just completed the soaring finale to his speech when Pelosi, standing just behind him, raised the papers and demonstratively tore them to pieces.
“It was the courteous thing to do, considering the alternatives,” she told a reporter afterwards.
The speech began with as much rancor as it ended, when Trump ignored past custom and declined to shake hands with Pelosi, who as speaker of the House of Representatives had overseen the push to impeach Trump for abuse of office.
She put out a hand and Trump turned away, leaving her arm in thin air.
Democrats responded to Trump’s speech, where he proclaimed a “great American comeback” and touted his achievements, by refusing to follow Republicans in repeated standing ovations. There was booing and several Democrats walked out.
“The president has no class,” House Democrat Jim McGovern told reporters afterwards. “I mean, he should have, out of respect, taken the speaker’s hand.”
“But after delivering what essentially was a campaign rally speech that was terribly dark and divisive, I think the speaker did the right thing ripping it up.”
Underlying all the tension was the fact that after months of impeachment investigations in the Democratic-led House, the Republican majority Senate is now almost certain to acquit Trump later yesterday.
The finale to the trial won’t mean an end to Democratic-led investigations, but it gives Trump momentum in his bid to win another four years after a tumultuous, scandal-filled first term.
But Trump’s speech did not once mention the word “impeachment.”
Much of the address was taken up with proclaiming his successful economic policies and the “America first” outlook.
“We have shattered the mentality of American decline and we have rejected the downsizing of America’s destiny,” he said.
The Republican said his policies of deregulation and tax cuts -- criticized by opponents as damaging the environment and favoring the wealthy over the poor -- were responsible for “unparalleled” economic success.
He listed the North American USMCA trade pact, a trade deal with China, massive military spending, “unprecedented” measures to stop illegal immigration, and his bid to “end America’s wars in the Middle East” as examples of fulfilling his commitments to voters.
He threw his conservative base strings of red meat -- tough talk on abortion, prayer in schools and the right to bear arms.
But flourishes that could have come right out of Trump’s days as a reality TV show entertainer grabbed the real attention.
At one moment he paused his speech to praise Rush Limbaugh, one of the fathers of America’s hugely influential conservative radio landscape, who disclosed this week that he has advanced lung cancer.
To the surprise of the packed audience, Trump announced that his wife Melania, who was alongside Limbaugh, was going to present the ideological star with the coveted Medal of Freedom -- the highest possible civilian award.
Later, Trump outdid even this stroke of theatrics by singling out a woman in the audience whose army husband had been away for months on foreign deployments, then telling her he had “a very special surprise.”
It was her husband, in full uniform, coming down the stairs for a tearful, surprise reunion -- in front of a primetime national television audience.
A combative Trump had already spent the earlier part of Tuesday mocking the Democrats’ shambolic kick-off to their primary season, saying that delays in the vote count in Iowa proved their incompetence.
Trump got yet more good news on Tuesday with a Gallup poll showing his approval rating at its highest ever: 49 percent.
Democratic White House candidate Pete Buttigieg seized a shock lead in the chaotic Iowa caucuses, closely trailed by leftist senator Bernie Sanders, according to partial returns released on Tuesday after the embarrassing delay in reporting the results.
Progressive standard-bearer Elizabeth Warren was in third place followed by Joe Biden, a disappointing showing for the former vice president who has claimed he is best positioned to defeat Trump in November.
Buttigieg, the 38-year-old former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, who has been battling Biden for the moderate wing of the party, hailed what he called an “astonishing victory” in the midwestern farm state which kicks off the presidential nominating process.
According to the partial results, Buttigieg, unknown nationally a year ago, leads with 26.8 percent followed by Sanders, the 78-year-old self-described democratic socialist, with 25.2 percent, followed by Senator Warren with 18.4 percent, and Biden with 15.4 percent. The centrist senator from Minnesota Amy Klobuchar was in fifth place on 12.6 percent, with 71 percent of the precincts reporting.
The results were posted some 21 hours after Iowans gathered across the state to hold the first vote of the presidential nominating season.
Troy Price, the chairman of the Iowa Democratic Party, apologized profusely for the delay and blamed it on a “coding error” with an app being used for the first time to report the returns from precincts across the farm state.
Price pledged to provide the full results as soon as possible.