President Trump on Wednesday accepted House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s invitation to deliver his annual State of the Union address in the House chamber next week.
That should be the final word on this issue. The Constitution calls on the president to report on the state of the union “from time to time,” and the House customarily hosts a joint session of Congress early every year (aside from the first year of a newly elected president) to provide that forum.
Sadly, it was not the final word. Pelosi (D-San Francisco) responded shortly thereafter with a letter pushing the dispute to another level. Here’s the money quote: “I am writing to inform you that the House of Representatives will not consider a concurrent resolution authorizing the President’s State of the Union address in the House Chamber until government has opened.”
[Update: Late Wednesday night, President Trump tweeted that he would comply with Pelosi’s request to delay his speech to Congress until after the shutdown ends.]
Pelosi had originally extended an invitation to Trump by letter on Jan. 3, but two weeks later sent him another missive asking him to consider postponing the address — or mailing it in — because the protracted government shutdown raised concerns about the ability to provide adequate security. After all, virtually every person in the constitutional line of success to the presidency attends a State of the Union speech; if the House chamber were attacked, we could be left with a lowly Cabinet member taking over the Oval Office. (Worse, it could be a former presidential candidate who flamed out early in the Republican primaries.)
But as the Trump administration quickly pointed out, there’s no real security issue here. The Secret Service continues to work, albeit without pay. And the U.S. Capitol Police weren’t hit by the government shutdown; the legislative branch was one of the few parts of government Congress managed to fund before the impasse that led to the shutdown.
Knowing all this, Pelosi probably was just trying to get under Trump’s skin and, possibly, send a message about the coequal branch of government she helps to lead. But in the context of the lingering shutdown, which is causing real financial distress to thousands of federal workers whose paychecks have disappeared, her move looked petty. And it evoked an even pettier response from Trump and his aides, who first canceled the military flights Pelosi and a number of colleagues were scheduled to take to Afghanistan and two other countries, then barred all other congressional trips on government planes until the shutdown ended.
Now that Pelosi has effectively rescinded Trump’s invitation to speak, it’s just a matter of time before the counterpuncher in the White House snaps back. Perhaps Pelosi is betting that Trump cares so deeply about the fawning pomp and exposure he gets at a State of the Union address that he’ll concede defeat and end the shutdown in order to preserve his time at the microphone. If so, that seems like a wager that won’t pay off.
Some Trump critics argue that the Constitution doesn’t oblige Pelosi to give Trump the House podium, it merely obliges Trump to make a report to Congress every now and then, no format specified. And because Trump is known for straying from objective truth, these critics assert that it’s especially important not to put him on such a high-profile pedestal with a national audience watching.
They’re right about the Constitution but wrong about denying Trump the chance to give the customary address to Congress. He is our president. When he speaks, it’s worth tuning in — even when he says things people shouldn’t believe. The fact that he says them is worth knowing in and of itself, given the light it shines into his character.
So, Madam Speaker, stop this pointless battle and prepare to welcome Trump to your chamber on the 29th. Yes, his RSVP came in a little late. But you can manage.