In the very moment he started to speak, President Donald Trump split his State of the Union address in two.
Before giving the annual address to Congress, the president is traditionally introduced by the Speaker, whose chamber he’s visiting. It’s a nicety, a nod to the separation of powers being ceremonially set aside for the speech.
But either accidentally or intentionally, Trump began his speech before Pelosi could introduce him. An otherwise by-the-book opening with tips to “Madam Speaker, Mr. Vice President” and his fellow Americans was marred by a slight against his archrival.
It was symbolic of the entire State of the Union, which veered so wildly between soaring calls for unity and pitched partisan jabs that he may as well have given two different speeches.
In one State of the Union, Trump called on Congress to set aside petty grievances and work together to cure childhood cancer, lower prescription drug prices, rebuild America’s roads and airports and end the HIV epidemic in the U.S. within a decade. He highlighted American heroes like pioneering astronaut Buzz Aldrin, reminisced about the defeat of the Nazis in World War II and called on America to reject anti-Semitism.
In another State of the Union, Trump belittled congressional oversight as “ridiculous partisan investigations,” continued to call for a border wall that led to a partial government shutdown and argued inaccurately that Democratic governors in New York and Virginia had all-but endorsed infanticide with recent abortion bills. He referred to a “Democrat agenda,” a minor but annoying tic to the opposition party, and failed to congratulate Pelosi for becoming Speaker.
Trump seemed to almost accidentally create a genuine moment of goodwill and warmth in the chamber when, while listing off the high water marks of the economy, he said women have filled 58% of the new jobs created in the past year. Dozens of Democratic women dressed in white in honor of the suffragette campaign for women’s equality stood and clapped. “You weren’t supposed to do that,” Trump joked. “Don’t sit down,” he added, “you’re going to like this.” Trump went on to say, “We also have more women serving in Congress than at any time before,” sparking a series of “USA” chants from the Democratic side of the aisle.
At other times, the shifts in tone were abrupt, and undercut what had just happened.
At one point, Trump highlighted Holocaust survivor Judah Samet, who survived the shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue, briefly noting that it was his birthday on Tuesday. In one of the most touching moments in a State of the Union ever, lawmakers began singing “Happy Birthday,” and Samet shouted “Thank you!” to the president. Trump responded, jokingly but with a telling sense of grievance, “They wouldn’t do that for me, Judah.”
At another point, Trump highlighted the bipartisan criminal justice reform he signed into law in December, singling out two former inmates who were his guests. In a moment made for the State of the Union, Alice Johnson — whose sentence of life in prison Trump commuted after lobbying from Kim Kardashian West — wiped away tears as the tough-on-crime president spoke about disparities in sentencing and the possibility of redemption.
“When I saw Alice’s beautiful family greet her at the prison gates, hugging and kissing and crying and laughing, I knew I did the right thing,” Trump said.
Then, in a pivot so sharp it would turn a figure skater’s ankle, Trump shifted to calling on Congress to approve money for him to build a border wall or potentially face another painful government shutdown. In a play to the Republican base, the president returned to his standard dark talk of “ruthless coyotes,” “the savage gang MS-13” and “the very dangerous southern border.” At the mention of “large, organized caravans” a murmur of boos even started to surface among some Democrats before Pelosi signaled with her hand to stop.
The contradictions were not just limited to the speech itself.
In the days and hours leading up to the State of the Union, White House staffers previewed it for reporters, sharing excerpts and telling allies to call the president’s words “inclusive,” “inspiring” and “unifying,” among other things. But even as he prepared to deliver an address calling on lawmakers to “reject the politics of revenge,” Trump was practicing that very art in an off-the-record meeting with TV anchors where he reportedly called former Vice President Joe Biden “dumb,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer a “nasty son of a bitch” and again referred to Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren as “Pocahontas.”
Before the speech, many political observers noted that it could be Trump’s last chance for a big reset in his relationship with Democrats in Congress before House oversight, Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation and the looming 2020 presidential race intervene.
Though he had his moments on Tuesday night, it was clear by the end that no reset was coming.
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