In the moments after a president gives the State of the Union, Statuary Hall becomes a carnivalesque madhouse. Television networks from around the country have set up shop on the floor of the airy pillared hall that sits between the Capitol Rotunda and the House chamber: the lights are blinding, the energy high, and the wiggle room minimal as lawmakers trickle out of the chamber and share their thoughts on the speech with the press. In simpler times, even the other party can summon a couple of platitudes.
Not tonight. “Tonight we got Teleprompter Trump,” grumbled Democratic Sen. Mazie Hirono of Hawaii shortly after President Donald Trump’s first State of the Union address. It was, compared to the steady logorrhea of his Twitter feed, a measured and optimistic speech, one that touched on themes of economic revival and national self-worth, with only occasional intimations to his otherwise fiery rhetoric on those subjects.
Democrats weren’t buying it. “I would be pleasantly surprised if he changed and became a compassionate, caring human being,” Hirono said archly. “Maybe he tried to be tonight, but he’s spent an entire year being not compassionate, not caring — trying to get rid of the Affordable Care Act and being proud of it, attacking Muslims, attacking immigrants.”
The endemic bitterness among congressional Democrats after the State of the Union — a speech that, at eighty minutes, clocked in as the third-longest to date, per the New York Times — was perhaps the logical culmination of a year of frustration. For the first time in a decade, Republicans control the White House and both chambers of Congress, an advantage they have wielded as a cudgel. They have made it a policy priority to repeal Obamacare, they passed a sweeping tax reform bill in December with minimal Democratic input, and they remain at an impasse with Democrats in the fight for immigration reform — an increasingly time-sensitive issue, with protections for the 800,000 undocumented young immigrants known as Dreamers set to expire in early March.
“I don’t think the speech was conciliatory at all,” Rep. Sandy Levin, a long-serving Democrat from Michigan, said after the speech. “I think at times he tried to have a lower tone, but for example, when he talked about immigration and used as his example gangs, I think it so misshapes what the immigration issue is all about.”
This was a point echoed by Sen. Dick Durbin, the Illinois Democrat who has served as his party’s helmsman in immigration discussions on the hill. “To conflate MS-13 gang activity with our goals on immigration is just unfair,” Durbin told reporters as he walked across the Capitol to his office after the speech. “We’re dealing with Dreamers, who are some of the most inspirational people you’ll ever meet, and it just pains me that he made that reference. In my experience — and I’ve been to a few of these now — is that tomorrow’s another day, and these speeches will be quickly forgotten.”
Meanwhile, Republicans didn’t bother to contain their happiness after the speech: on their side of the aisle, at least, “Teleprompter Trump” had killed. “I think it was an A+,” Republican Rep. Mark Meadows of North Carolina who chairs the conservative House Freedom Caucus, told TIME in Statuary Hall. “He told the story of the American people, and whenever you tell the story of real American hardships and successes, it breeds hope.”
Even Mitch McConnell, the characteristically aloof Senate Majority Leader, let a smile slip and indulged media questions as he walked back to his office. Over the course of Trump’s first year in office, McConnell’s relationship with the president has at times been less than close. McConnell has occasionally alluded to his frustration with Trump’s bluster and inexperience, while Trump’s base — often a weathervane of the president’s sentiments — reviles the Kentucky Republican as an Establishment figurehead. But no hard feelings tonight.
“It was really an outstanding speech,” he said. “It was terrific — far beyond what I anticipated. He’s come a long way.”
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