It was the snub seen around the country — and in Democrats’ view, President Donald Trump's State of the Union only went downhill from there.
As Speaker Nancy Pelosi extended her hand just before the start of Trump’s address, the president quickly pivoted and turned his back, leaving the speaker hanging.
Not to be outdone, the normally restrained Pelosi put on a show herself as Trump’s speech wrapped. Standing behind the president, she meticulously ripped up page after page of the speech, while Trump and other Republicans cheered the end of an address that mostly catered to hardcore GOP partisans.
“It was the courteous thing to do considering the alternative,” Pelosi told reporters as she exited the chamber. Later as she left the Capitol, she added: “It was a manifesto of mistruths.”
A source close to the speaker said the moment was not planned. But the two bookends — the snub and the tear — perfectly encapsulate the growing chill that has defined the Trump-Pelosi relationship. Pelosi and Trump hadn’t spoken in months, and their encounter Tuesday night was the first time they were face to face since Democrats launched their impeachment inquiry.
The whole episode at the annual address left many befuddled members, who said the feuding captured the spectacle the president created on Tuesday night.
“I suppose it’s all part of the reality-show State of the Union address that we just experienced,” Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.) mused as he left the chamber.
“That was a 2020 campaign rally, that was not a State of the Union,” added Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), calling it a “disgrace. … I regret stepping one foot inside.”
Even Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), who has chided his Democratic colleagues for being too partisan during Trump’s addresses said that the snub of Pelosi’s handshake was “awful.”
“We’re better than that. We’re a better country than that,” Manchin said, adding that he was undecided how he will vote on the impeachment articles facing Trump on Wednesday. “Not yet. We’ve got another day.”
For the entirety of Trump’s hour-and-a-half address, Democrats didn’t try to disguise their disdain for the president or the policies he was touting. Throughout the speech — which was a mix of teleprompter Trump and boisterous campaigner in chief with a dash of game show host thrown in — there were audible jeers, hissing and boos from Democrats’ side of the chamber.
Even Pelosi could do little to hide her disdain at times, shaking her head and cringing.
“It was a shameful, destructive and divisive speech,” said Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.). “He did nothing to help the wounds he helped create.”
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) added: “It was demagogic, undignified, highly partisan and in too many places, untruthful.”
The president’s third State of the Union address took place during one of the most consequential moments in American history — on the eve of Trump’s expected acquittal in his Senate impeachment trial. And despite Democrats’ many protestations throughout, their grousing is unlikely to be remembered amid all of the showmanship Trump displayed in the chamber.
Trump, despite being in the middle of an impeachment storm, went on undeterred and did not once mention the House vote to impeach him in December or the ongoing Senate trial. Instead, he delivered a performance intended to feel like a highlight reel of his presidency, complete with chants of “USA” and soaring nationalist rhetoric — as well as his favorite attacks on “socialist” Democrats.
“You know what I was happy about? You tell me what I was happy about,” said Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), waiting for reporters to offer that he didn't address impeachment. “Which I think was very smart, for him not to talk about it.”
Trump’s most outrageous lines prompted a few rare reactions from Pelosi who twice mouthed “not true” from her perch behind Trump, including when the president falsely claimed Democrats want to provide taxpayer-funded health care to “millions of illegal aliens.”
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) showed a reporter a notebook after the speech that she had filled up with “all things I thought he was lying about.”
The atmosphere on the House floor was very much like one of Trump’s rallies — loud and rowdy with a crowd of adoring Republican fans making up half the chamber. But this time there was an equally large group of visibly agitated Democrats who were just as engaged, forcefully pushing back throughout.
And Republicans left the chamber praising Trump’s speech and seizing on Pelosi’s now-viral moment ripping up the president’s speech.
“That was pitiful. it was disgraceful,” Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) said of Pelosi’s move. House GOP Caucus Chairwoman Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) added that the speaker was having a “tantrum” and called Trump’s speech “excellent.”
In typical Trump fashion, the normally humdrum affair featured a few made-for-TV twists, including a surprise reunion of a military wife with her husband, who has been in Afghanistan for the past several months on his fourth deployment.
Earlier, Trump had announced first lady Melania Trump would award the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor, to conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh during the speech.
Limbaugh, who announced this week he is suffering from advanced lung cancer, seemed genuinely surprised by the gesture even though the plans for the medal — though not the setting in which it would be presented — had been announced hours before.
For Democrats, who sat on the other side of the chamber, it was an awkward few minutes. What began with lawmakers sitting respectfully in silence as Trump extolled Limbaugh — a deeply polarizing figure long criticized for racist and anti-gay stances — eventually grew less restrained, as several Democrats groaned audibly and exclaimed “oh no.”
But unlike Trump’s recent campaign rallies, Democrats were there to weigh in — and did so loudly.
“The president did three things tonight: He proved he could read from a teleprompter, he lied through his teeth and he further divided the country,” said Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.). “And then to have this bizarre presentation of a Medal of Freedom to a talk show host, the awarding of a scholarship and then the reunification of a service member with his family. It was a very strange.”
At one point during his speech, Trump called on Congress to send him a health care package: “Get a bill on my desk and we will sign it into law.”
Democrats responded instantly, holding up three fingers — a nod to H.R. 3, the caucus’ bill to allow Medicare to negotiate drug prices. Then they began chanting, “H.R.3, H.R.3, H.R.3” so loudly that Trump was forced to pause for several moments as he waited for the chamber to quiet down.
Later in the speech, Trump vowed to “always protect your Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms,” and a man in the public gallery shouted back at Trump. The man, Fred Guttenberg, lost a daughter in the 2018 shooting in Parkland, Fla. — and had been a guest of Pelosi’s. He was quickly escorted out as Pelosi appeared to gesture angrily.
And some Democrats simply chose to walk out.
Reps. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), left the chamber moments after Trump touted Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, whose nomination was pushed through despite allegations of sexual assault by multiple women and over the fierce objections of Democrats. Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said he attends only because he believes as a member of leadership, he has to show respect to the office.
On some issues, however, the reaction was more mixed, with small numbers of Democrats joining the Republicans’ applause for Trump.
“We will never let socialism destroy American health care!” Trump declared to thundering applause from the GOP side.
More than a dozen Democrats also stood up, nearly all in districts where Trump won in 2016, including Reps. Max Rose of New York, Abigail Spanberger of Virginia, Elissa Slotkin of Michigan and Angie Craig of Minnesota.
Many of those Democrats — including Spanberger, Rose and Slotkin — also stood to applaud as Trump announced the newest branch of the military: Space Force. Behind them, though, multiple Democrats chuckled.
There was also evidence of some of the unexpected legislative victories that Trump and Democratic leaders have managed despite intense personal feuding between the parties: standing ovations for paid family leave, criminal justice reform and efforts to combat the opioid epidemic.
And even Pelosi signaled her willingness to work with Trump when she can — and to fight when necessary.
“We always extend a hand of friendship,” Pelosi told reporters afterwards. “If he rejects it, that’s up to him.”
John Bresnahan, Melanie Zanona, Marianne LeVine and Andrew Desiderio contributed to this report.