Trump Avoids Impeachment in Speech, But Pelosi Tension Is Clear


(Bloomberg) -- Donald Trump didn’t mention impeachment in his State of the Union address, but the partisan tension gripping the Capitol was made plain in the evening’s two enduring images. The president turned his back on Nancy Pelosi’s outstretched hand as he assumed the dais, and the House Speaker then ripped her copy of his speech in two after he concluded his remarks.

The dueling displays of rancor overshadowed an address the president and his speechwriters designed with the intention of elevating Trump above the division and scandal that have defined his first term, broadening his appeal to the electorate ahead of November’s re-election battle.

Trump entered the House chamber on Tuesday riding high, buoyed by a surging economy goosed by recent trade deals, his certain acquittal in the Senate’s impeachment trial and a Democratic opposition reeling from a high-profile face-plant in the Iowa caucuses.

Trump Avoids Impeachment in Speech, But Pelosi Tension Is Clear

And he was eager to push his advantage, making an appeal to swing-state voters by spending nearly the first half-hour of his speech describing economic gains under his leadership. The darker and more vitriolic rhetoric characteristic of his biggest speeches came later, in passages attacking Democratic immigration policies and recounting military strikes he ordered against American adversaries.

Trump made no explicit reference to his recent impeachment, nor the ongoing Senate trial, which is expected to end with his acquittal on Wednesday. And his speech at times took on the flavor of a traditional State of the Union, replete with a laundry list of new initiatives on school choice, paid family leave and lowering the cost of health care. Ever the reality show host, Trump also laced in made-for-TV moments including the reunification of a military family and awarding the Medal of Freedom to ailing talk radio host Rush Limbaugh.

But the frosty reception from Democrats -- who groaned, eye-rolled, and stayed glued to their seats throughout nearly the entirety of the president’s speech --betrayed how deeply set partisan divisions have become in the era of Trump, and how much ground the president must make up if he hopes to expand his support ahead of his re-election contest.

Potential Pivot

The animosity flared in the moments following the speech. After Pelosi dramatically tore her copy of the speech in two as Trump left the dais, the White House accused her of ripping up “the mourning families” of those killed by Islamic State fighters and roadside bombs in the Middle East, and “the survival of a child born at 21 weeks.”

Pelosi said she was “trying to find one page with truth on it” in the speech, but “couldn’t.”

Trump Avoids Impeachment in Speech, But Pelosi Tension Is Clear

The back-and-forth ultimately overshadowed a moment the White House viewed as a potential pivot point in Trump’s administration. Markets have surged in recent weeks after the White House secured passage of Trump’s renegotiated trade deal with Mexico and Canada, as well as a preliminary agreement with China to boost purchases of U.S. agricultural products.

Gallup said on Tuesday before Trump’s speech that 49% of registered voters approved of his performance, the best he’s ever done in what’s considered the gold standard measure of public support for the president.

Democrats were unable to persuade Senate Republicans to support additional witnesses in the president’s impeachment trial, staving off potentially embarrassing testimony from Trump’s former national security adviser, John Bolton, or other White House officials.

Adding to that, the Democratic field seeking to replace Trump appears to be in disarray. Not only did the party bungle the release of results after Monday’s first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses, but partial returns released Tuesday afternoon show former Vice President Joe Biden in a disappointing fourth-place.

But even as the president celebrated what he called his “Great American Comeback,” the obstacles Trump faces to re-election loomed large.

Trump Avoids Impeachment in Speech, But Pelosi Tension Is Clear

Appeal to Blacks

Trump devoted significant chunks of his speech to improving his standing with minority voters, singling out a black family from Philadelphia who have sought to move their daughter from what Trump described as “failing government schools” and a black man the White House said benefited from the “Opportunity Zone” investment program created by his 2017 tax overhaul.

Trump also recognized 100-year-old Charles McGee, one of the last surviving Tuskegee Airmen, the first black military aviators to serve in the U.S. armed forces. The president said he pinned stars on McGee’s shoulders earlier in the day in the Oval Office marking his promotion to brigadier general.

But he employed his usual rhetoric on immigration, depicting so-called “sanctuary cities” as a Democratic scourge that endangered American citizens. Among the guests in the first lady’s box was Border Patrol deputy chief Raul Ortiz, who Trump used to highlight his campaign promise to construct his signature border wall.

The president attacked the concept of “socialism,” in an implicit criticism of Democratic presidential nominees. He offered a dark vision for how health care could change under proposals advocated by his progressive opponents, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, saying that socialism “destroys nations” and depicting Democrats as a “radical left” that was “forcing American taxpayers to provide unlimited free health care to illegal aliens.”

‘Very Negative’

Painting his political opponents as extreme is crucial for the president, who has been unable to move significant chunks of moderate voters despite the economic gains he touted throughout his address. Some 51% of Americans disapprove of his job performance, according to a NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll released Sunday, while 43% say they have a “very negative” view of the president, and 49% say they are “very uncomfortable” with the prospect of his re-election bid.

Even in the Gallup poll, more voters -- 50% -- still disapprove of Trump’s performance than approve.

This isn’t the first time Trump has tried to repackage his record in the State of the Union address -- which customarily draws one of his biggest television audiences of the year -- only to see the effort eclipsed by a partisan spat.

During Trump’s first State of the Union in 2018, he promised to unify the country “as one team, one people and one American family” behind the “new American moment” afforded by his tax cuts. And last year, the president said the agenda he was presenting was “not a Republican agenda or a Democrat agenda” but rather that of “the American people.”

But the president’s speech last year was overshadowed by comments he made during a lunch with national television anchors before his address, in which he described Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer as a “nasty son of a bitch.”

And on Tuesday, the president’s speech seemed destined to again be remembered for at least an implied vulgarity. Asked why she tore up the speech, Pelosi told reporters it “was the courteous thing to do considering the alternative.”

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