Stepping before the nation in extraordinary times, U.S. President Donald Trump on Tuesday extolled the “Great American Comeback” as he delivered his state of the union address on the eve of his likely impeachment acquittal and in the aftermath of the chaotic first votes of the race to replace him.
The first president to run for re-election after being impeached, Trump argued that the nation’s economic success is the chief rationale for a second term.
“In just three short years, we have shattered the mentality of American decline and we have rejected the downsizing of America’s destiny,” Trump said in prepared remarks. “We are moving forward at a pace that was unimaginable just a short time ago, and we are never going back!”
Setting a yardstick for success and then contending he’d surpassed it, Trump has gone from an inaugural address that decried “American carnage” to claiming credit for the nation’s economic success.
Republican members of Congress applauded nearly every sentence of Trump’s speech, often leaping to their feet to cheer him.
WATCH | Trump says union is ‘stronger than ever before’:
Trump spoke of the new trade deal between the U.S., Canada and Mexico, saying that striking a new trilateral trade deal was one of the biggest reasons he ran as president.
He said the deal will bring trade with Mexico and Canada “to a much higher degree, but also to a much greater level of fairness and reciprocity.”
Trump also lauded Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido, who attended the speech. Guaido has been trying to win face time with Trump since he tried to overthrow president Nicolas Maduro. In his address, Trump said Maduro’s grip of tyranny will be smashed.
“All Americans are united with the Venezuelan people in their righteous struggle for freedom,” he said. “Socialism destroys nations. But always remember, freedom unifies the soul.”
“This is a president with an enormous sense of drama and a background in television who understands that the setting gives him an opportunity,” said presidential historian Michael Beschloss. “This is an opportunity to set the course for re-election.”
WATCH | Trump directly addresses Guaido:
Trump also used the moment to honour Conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh. Limbaugh, a staunch Trump supporter, announced Monday that he is battling advanced lung cancer.
Trump surprised Limbaugh by awarding him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honour. Melania Trump, who was seated next to Limbaugh, presented the medal to him, as the president thanked him for “decades of tireless devotion to our country” and said the award recognized the millions of people Limbaugh speaks to and inspires every day, as well as his charity work.
WATCH | Trump honours Rush Limbaugh:
He also stunned a young student in the gallery with a scholarship, and he orchestrated the surprise tearful reunion of a solider from overseas with his family in the balcony.
Even for a Trump-era news cycle that seems permanently set to hyper-speed, the breakneck pace of events dominating the first week of February offered a singular backdrop for the president’s address. Yet Trump told TV anchors at a midday meal that his address would be “extraordinarily low key.”
Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts, who has presided in the Senate over only the third impeachment trial in the nation’s history, was on hand Tuesday night — this time in his more customary seat in the audience. Trump stood before the very lawmakers who have voted to remove him from office — and those who are expected to acquit him when the Senate trial comes to a close.
And perched over his shoulder, visible in nearly every camera shot, was House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a frequent thorn in Trump’s side who authorized the impeachment proceedings that charged the president with abusing the power of his office to push Ukraine to investigate a political foe, and who created a viral image with her seemingly sarcastic applause of the president a year ago.
Trump appeared no more cordial. When he climbed to the House rostrum, he did not take her outstretched hand but it was not clear he had seen her gesture.
WATCH | Trump does not shake Pelosi’s hand:
Following the speech, Pelosi ripped up her copy of the speech right behind Trump. Afterwards, she told reporters in the halls of the Capitol, “It was the courteous thing to do.” She added: “It was the courteous thing to do considering the alternative.”
Trump was also staring out at some of the Democrats vying to take his job. In a direct jab at some of them, he warned Americans that “there are those who want to take away your health care, take away your doctor, and abolish private insurance entirely.” Both Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren support universal health care for all Americans.
Trump vowed, “We will never let socialism destroy American health care.”
Two prominent House Democratic freshmen boycotted Trump’s speech over his conduct.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tweeted that she would “not use my presence at a state ceremony to normalize Trump’s lawless conduct & subversion of the Constitution,” while Ayanna Pressley said she’s boycotting because Trump “consistently demonstrates contempt for the American people, contempt for Congress & contempt for our constitution.”
In the closest historical comparison, Bill Clinton did not mention his recent impeachment when he delivered his state of the union in 1999. In his address a year ago, Trump did remain on message, making no mention of how Pelosi had originally disinvited him from delivering the speech during the longest government shutdown in the nation’s history.
Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer used the Democratic response to the address to appeal to working-class voters, saying her party is focusing on easing health-care costs and addressing other pocket-book issues.
“It’s pretty simple. Democrats are trying to make your health care better. Republicans in Washington are trying to take it away.”
Democrats’ selection of Whitmer, 48, underscored their determination to improve their performance in the Midwest in November’s elections. Trump won over enough working-class white voters there to also score slender victories in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania and to win Ohio handily.
“American workers are hurting,” Whitmer said, listing those states. “All over the country. Wages have stagnated, while CEO pay has skyrocketed.”
She added, “It doesn’t matter what the president says about the stock market. What matters is that millions of people struggle to get by or don’t have enough money at the end of the month after paying for transportation, student loans, or prescription drugs.”