The State of the Union address was overshadowed by the rivalry between House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the president — a battle that stretches back years.
The US president’s State of the Union address is a piece of American theatre aimed at bringing a nation together to rise above the daily divisions of politics.
Consecutive US presidents have paraded the words “the state of the union is strong” in their speeches. Donald Trump’s presidency has been no exception.
The theatrics of the State of the Union address has also given Nancy Pelosi, an arch Trump opponent and speaker of the House of Representatives, an opportunity to relay how she feels about the US president.
In a few quick seconds Pelosi, who led Trump’s impeachment process, publicly ripped up the speech that had taken the US president an hour and a half to deliver, a move that overshadowed the occasion.
Two US congressmen walked out of the speech unable to contain their frustration with the president’s remarks. “I’ve had enough. It’s like watching professional wrestling. It’s all fake,” said Democratic Representative Tim Ryan.
Another Democrat who walked out said, “I can’t stand a liar. This man’s presidency is a national tragedy.”
The divisions laid bare that despite the rhetoric at the podium, Trump’s address indicates anything but a strong union.
Pelosi’s silent protest was carefully timed at the end of Trump’s speech as Republicans stood to applaud — and Democrats to heckle — she rose up and proceeded to rip Trump’s speech into three separate bundles.
Yet Pelosi’s actions were part of an evening that began contentiously when Trump refused to shake her hand.
Pelosi then took to Trump’s favourite social media platform and posted a picture of Trump refusing to shake her hand, saying “Democrats will never stop extending the hand of friendship to get the job done.”
Wow! Pelosi tried to shake Trump's hand but he seemed to refuse pic.twitter.com/nZhpwnXKCU— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) February 5, 2020
When asked why she had ripped up the speech, she shot back that it was the “courteous thing to do considering the alternative. It was such a dirty speech.”
Pelosi’s silent act of protest was no doubt a moment of catharsis for Democratic voters frustrated by a partisan impeachment process. It also follows a chaotic Iowa process aimed at choosing a challenger to Trump. For Democrats, some of whom may be demoralised, Pelosi’s actions seemed aimed at rallying the troops.
Trump surrogates were quick to condemn Pelosi, a popular hate figure for the right. Leading the pack was Republican and Trump ally Newt Gingrich declaring, “I am disgusted and insulted by the viciously partisan action of Nancy Pelosi tearing up the speech.”
In 2019, in a similar move, Pelosi managed to derail Trump’s speech by appearing to clap sarcastically at his speech in a moment that was widely shared and has since been immortalised as an internet meme.
#waybackwednesday - oh yes that clap took me back to the teen years. She knows. And she knows that you know. And frankly she’s disappointed that you thought this would work. But here’s a clap. #youtriedit pic.twitter.com/vUCX2uAUvv— Christine Pelosi (@sfpelosi) February 6, 2019
The profoundly partisan night also drew the battle lines for the US presidential elections only 10 months away in what will likely be a fierce and polarising event.
Trump would also have been encouraged by chants from Republicans lawmakers chanting “four more years” on the eve of what many believe will likely be his acquittal in the impeachment trial.
Trump and Pelosi rivalry
In 2008 when Trump was a private citizen, he was much more upbeat towards Pelosi declaring in an interview, “When she first got in and was named speaker, I met her, and I’m very impressed by her. I think she’s a very impressive person. I like her a lot.”
In more recent times the president has changed his tune declaring that Pelosi’s “teeth were falling out of her mouth” literally and calling her “Crazy Nancy” for pushing the impeachment process forward amongst other barbs.