Feb 4, 2020 - Politics & Policy

Key takeaways from Trump's State of the Union address

Pence, Pelosi and Trump at state of the union

Speaker Pelosi reacts to having her handshake snubbed by President Trump, as Vice President Mike Pence looks on. Photo: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

An impeached President Trump struck a defiant and hyperbolic tone in his third State of the Union address on Tuesday night, a day before he's set to be acquitted by the Senate.

Inside the room: Tension permeated the House chamber from the outset. Trump snubbed a handshake from Speaker Nancy Pelosi, only to be met with a retaliatory slight of his own when Pelosi failed to apply the honorific language typically used to introduce presidents at joint sessions of Congress.

  • As Trump concluded his speech, Pelosi ripped up the transcript of his remarks. Trump exited the chamber without shaking her hand.


Impeachment: In stark contrast to his daily Twitter tirades, the president did not once mention the storyline that has dominated headlines for the past five months — even as he looked out at the seven House impeachment managers deliberately seated together to his right.

  • At the 2019 State of the Union, with the Mueller investigation still looming over his presidency, Trump famously declared: "If there is going to be peace and legislation, there cannot be war and investigation. It just doesn’t work that way!” A year later, the Ukraine scandal has come and gone, with an acquitted and emboldened Trump ready to seek retribution against those who crossed him.
  • The intrigue: Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) was one of the few Democrats who applauded Trump as he touted strong economic data, while Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) chose to sit with his Republican colleagues. The two moderates, along with Sen. Doug Jones (D-Ala.), could break party lines to vote to acquit the president on the last day of the Senate trial tomorrow.

The made-for-TV presidency: The address was speckled with shoutouts to special guests invited by the White House, including an emotional reunion as Trump announced the attendance of Sergeant First Class Townsend Williams, who surprised his wife Amy and children with an early homecoming from Afghanistan.

  • But perhaps the most outlandish moment of the night came when Trump announced that he was awarding conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh, who recently revealed that he has been diagnosed with lung cancer, with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
  • Why it matters: The move visibly and audibly outraged Democrats — a form of revenge on a night when Trump resisted addressing impeachment. Prior GOP presidents would have paid lip service to Limbaugh but mostly avoided him, knowing his toxicity among moderate voters, Axios' Justin Green notes. Trump gave him a medal on national TV.

Socialism: Another one of Trump's surprise guests was Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó, recognized by the U.S. as the country's rightful president. Guaidó was met with a standing ovation by most of the chamber, including many Democrats, before Trump pivoted to a theme that is sure to be a key Republican attack line during the 2020 election campaign.

  • "Mr. President, please take this message back to your homeland," Trump said as he addressed Guaidó. "Socialism destroys nations. But always remember, freedom unifies the soul."
  • The big picture: The remarks followed an extensive recitation of economic data in the Trump era, underscoring the importance of the booming economy to the president's re-election efforts.

Health care: In a section that elicited perhaps the loudest Democratic groans of the night, Trump claimed that he will "always protect patients with pre-existing conditions" — a statement that's misleading at best, Axios' Caitlin Owens notes.

  • Pre-existing conditions protections are popular, and both parties are trying to claim credit for them. But only one of the parties has a track record of defending those protections, and it's not the GOP.
  • Trump finished his health care riff with a shot at Medicare for All and the Democrats who have endorsed the policy, which he labeled a "socialist takeover": "To those watching at home tonight, I want you to know:  We will never let socialism destroy American healthcare!"
  • Why it matters: Health care is consistently ranked as the No. 1 issue among voters.

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