On Tuesday evening, President Donald Trump stood before the assembled lawmakers and cameras on Capitol Hill to assure the nation in his State of the Union address that he definitely was not mad.
The president wasn’t there—as he so often does in public and televised settings—to gripe loudly about his impeachment, the Ukraine saga, or the soon-to-conclude Senate trial. He wasn’t there to air his many grievances about the Democratic lawmakers in the chamber whom he so routinely blames for obstructing his nationalist agenda. He wasn’t even there to rail against “Crazy Bernie,” “Sleepy Joe,” “Pocahontas,” “Alfred E. Neuman,” or “Mini Mike,” at least not by name.
He was there to stay glued to the teleprompter and to toast the “great economic success,” “blue-collar boom,” and “manufacturing might” of the Trump era. He peppered in call-outs to criminal justice reform and paid leave legislation. He even waxed longingly about his desire for long-elusive infrastructure reform.
The real heart of Trump’s address, though, was a series of moments that transformed the staid State of the Union into a made-for-TV spectacle—executive produced, of course, by Trump himself. In the span of just over an hour, Trump held forth from the dais, playing magnanimous host to a public reuniting of a military family, the awarding of a scholarship to a young student, and the bestowing of a high honor upon a gravely ill conservative hero.
Republicans were enthralled; Democrats were disgusted. “It was a right-wing reality show,” said Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-MD). “The only thing we didn’t have was a marriage proposal.”
It was suddenly morning in Trump’s America—though the way he phrased it nodded to nighttime menaces. “The days of our country being used, taken advantage of, and even being scorned by other nations are long behind us,” he said, which might come as a surprise to the other nations.
Trump, who has historically used his annual addresses to extend both olive branches and middle fingers to his Democratic rivals, dabbled in much of the same in what could be his final address to Congress.
The middle finger came before a word was even said, when the president didn’t shake House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s hand. It was there when Trump, perhaps hoping to trigger his liberal opponents, awarded the medal of freedom to Rush Limbaugh, the caustic conservative firebrand who recently announced an advanced cancer diagnosis. It was there when Trump called gun rights “under siege all across our country.” And it was there when he invoked the evils of socialism—a charge he’s been dying to use against his 2020 opponents.
At one point, the president hailed his guest, the Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó, who despite U.S. support has failed to dislodge Venezuelan leader Nicolas Maduro from power. As Guaidó received one of the night’s few enthusiastic bipartisan ovations, Trump declared in what seemed like a veiled shot at a possible 2020 rival, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), “socialism destroys nations, but always remember, freedom unifies the soul.” Later, the president called out the “132 lawmakers in this room” who he alleged “have endorsed legislation to impose a socialist takeover of our health care system.”
Although the speech was subdued by Trump standards, the hard-right, nationalist agenda that is his political trademark often burst through. He railed against “providing free, taxpayer-funded health care to millions of illegal aliens,” which he contrasted with the policy preferences of “the radical left.” Trump praised “our nation’s heroic ICE officers” and railed against the “sanctuary cities” where “radical politicians” resist cooperation with immigration raids. It wasn’t long before Trump described undocumented immigrants as “criminal aliens” and portrayed them as bloodthirsty murderers. For good measure, “radical Islamic terrorism” returned to Trump’s lexicon.
It was the first State of the Union speech that Trump has delivered as an impeached president, though the topic was never mentioned during his prime-time address. On Wednesday, Trump will almost certainly be acquitted by the Senate, marking the culmination of the Ukraine scandal that led directly to his impeachment by the House as he entered a presidential election year.
On Friday, a senior administration official previewed parts of Trump’s State of the Union speech to reporters at the White House, stressing that they wouldn’t confirm “if he’s gonna call anybody out” during the address but noting that the president would indeed feel quite “comfortable” doing so. But when Tuesday night arrived, the words “impeachment” and “Ukraine” did not appear anywhere in his prepared remarks, with Trump evidently planning on saving his rage for another venue.
Some of his top lieutenants and closest advisers were not ready to let things go, either, even after all the scandal and massive heartburn caused by Trumpworld’s Ukraine shenanigans.
When asked Monday night if he was still planning on “ramping up” his investigations into the Bidens following the president’s acquittal, Rudy Giuliani—Trump’s personal lawyer whose shadow diplomacy and Biden-related probe helped trigger his client’s impeachment—simply told The Daily Beast, “Yes, [because] it’s a matter of the fair administration of justice for real.”
Talk of revenge and investigations were nowhere to be found in Trump’s address. But the mood seemed charged by it, visible in the facial expressions of the president and the opposition party. Sitting prominently on Democrats’ side of the chamber—front and center for Trump to see—were the lawmakers who just days ago urged his removal from office: the seven impeachment managers who prosecuted the case against him on the Senate floor. One of them, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler (D-NY), held a pocket Constitution.
That Trump resisted diving into the waters of the impeachment fight must have come as a relief to congressional Republicans, many of whom publicly worried that he’d turn his State of the Union into a swaggering victory lap.
“There are a lot of really great things he should talk about and stay away from maybe what the proceedings are,” said Sen. Joni Ernst (R-IA) on Monday. “I just really want him to project a strong message about everything that he and his administration, partnered with a Republican Senate, all of those wonderful things that we’ve been able to do.”
From the second he stepped into the chamber, Trump got a raucous and adoring reception from his Republican allies, punctuated by repeated standing ovations at his applause lines and dutiful laughs at his characteristic rhetorical flourishes.
Republicans got into the election-year spirit before Trump even uttered a word, with a booming chant—“four more years!”—breaking out within the GOP ranks when he stepped into the chamber.
It was a departure from last year’s speech, which didn’t come in the context of a presidential election and which gestured at broad foreign-policy goals.
While Trump had insisted in his 2019 speech that “great nations do not fight endless wars,” he drew the U.S. deeper into conflict in the past year. After another round of vacillation on withdrawing from Syria, Trump repositioned hundreds of U.S. forces to oil fields in the east of the country after permitting Turkey to assault U.S.-allied Syrian Kurds. He canceled peace negotiations with the Taliban when they appeared on the verge of delivering a deal, and then restarted them. North Korea appears at the end of its patience after the Trump administration, much like its predecessors, resisted sanctions relief. Trump killed ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in the fall and, last month, assassinated Iranian external security chief Qassem Soleimani. The structural drivers of conflict between Washington and Tehran remain in place, even as both sides have stepped back from the brink of war.
Nevertheless, on Tuesday, Trump reiterated that he was “working to end America’s wars in the Middle East,” though the restored Afghanistan peace talks were the entirety of his evidence. Jeffrey noted last week that “we’re not planning any withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria in the near future” and Trump, who has talked about such a withdrawal repeatedly, made no mention of it on Tuesday. Nor was there any mention of Trump’s 14,000-troop buildup in the Middle East. Instead, Trump recounted the Baghdadi slaying and the end of the “barbarians’” caliphate, but, like his last two predecessors, evaded saying when the end of a mission would yield the end of a war. More poignantly, Trump paid tribute to Kayla Mueller, the American aid worker murdered by ISIS in 2015, with her parents in the chamber.
But the speech’s foreign-policy horizons for 2020 were much lower, and geared toward his re-election audience. There was the Baghdadi killing and the Soleimani killing, conflated as one undifferentiated threat. Trump declared victory over China in the trade war he launched and took credit for NATO member countries increasing their defense budgets. While Trump has spent his term insisting immigration posed a “crisis” on the southern border that required its militarization, Trump’s speech pronounced the border “secure.” His Mideast peace deal, one that permits Israeli annexation of West Bank settlements and already rejected by the Palestinians, was called “groundbreaking.” North Korea, once the locus of hope for a legacy-cementing nuclear deal, went entirely unmentioned.
For the president, Tuesday night was a Trump rally, but without the ad-libs, bizarre cultural references, or unbridled name-calling. “My fellow Americans, the best is yet to come,” he insisted at the end of his speech, which wrapped just before 10:30 p.m. ET.