Tension between President Trump and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was on full display Tuesday as he delivered the State of the Union in a Democratic-controlled House for the first time.
Though it was Trump at the lectern, many eyes in the chamber and on screens nationwide were looking over his left shoulder at the San Francisco Democrat, who has become his toughest domestic rival.
And although she mostly smiled politely and respectfully, at times Pelosi seemed to make no effort to hide her displeasure or bemusement.
She applauded Trump as he entered the chamber and spent portions of the speech reading over the typed copy Trump handed to her when he walked in.
She joined in several standing ovations when Trump spoke of bipartisan initiatives and introduced honored guests, such as astronaut Buzz Aldrin and World War II-era veterans.
But she appeared to smirk, chuckle, shake her head or roll her eyes several times, including when Trump called for an end to “ridiculous partisan investigations” and when he spoke about the MS-13 gang traversing the southern border.
Her subtle expressions of disapproval provided a stark contrast to Vice President Mike Pence, who often is mocked by Democrats for his almost adoring gazes at Trump.
At the same time, however, Pelosi made sure that her caucus did not go too far in displaying its opposition to Trump. When rank-and-file Democrats began to loudly groan at some of Trump’s immigration rhetoric, at least twice she lifted her hand to shush them.
Trump paid homage to the record wave of newly elected female lawmakers, which prompted one of the biggest bipartisan applause lines of the evening. “All Americans can be proud that … exactly one century after the Congress passed the constitutional amendment giving women the right to vote, we also have more women serving in the Congress than ever before,” he said.
But Trump refrained from congratulating Pelosi on her second ascent to speaker, as President George W. Bush did in the 2007 State of the Union when he said it was his “honor” to be the first president to address “Madam Speaker.” Similarly President Obama in 2010 offered an olive branch to Republican Speaker John A. Boehner by praising Boehner’s hardworking father, a Cincinnati bar owner.
When Trump arrived at the lectern, he blew through the moment at which Pelosi was to introduce him to the chamber, as is customary.
Trump and Pelosi have a complicated relationship that defines divided government. It was Pelosi who delayed the president’s originally scheduled State of the Union address for one week during the record-long government shutdown, and she continues to deny him the taxpayer funding he wants for a southern border wall.
Trump spoke of unity and bipartisanship, including pursuing an infrastructure plan and protecting people with preexisting medical conditions. But he also accused Democrats of stalling his judicial nominees and blocking funding for the wall.
In the Democrats’ official response, Stacey Abrams, the defeated Georgia gubernatorial candidate, said Democrats would use their new power in the House to help middle-class voters and to rebuff Trump’s policies.
“Families’ hopes are being crushed by Republican leadership that ignores real life or just doesn’t understand it,” she said. “This is the next battle for our democracy, one where all eligible citizens can have their say about the vision we want for our country.”
Among the lawmakers in the chamber were 100 freshmen attending their first address by the president in their new workplace. Many are young, rebellious and progressive, raising concerns they might shout out or boo.
Such breaks in decorum are rare, and Pelosi doesn’t like them. The most notable example was Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.), who infamously shouted “You lie!” at Obama during a 2009 address on healthcare.
Lawmakers largely stuck to the time-honored script for such events. Republicans applauded and stood at the party lines and Democrats listened while sitting on their hands most of the time. The most dramatic break from decorum was when Congress sang happy birthday to one of Trump’s guests.
Democratic female lawmakers wore white, in an homage to the suffragettes. Pelosi packed the gallery with some of Trump’s sharpest critics, including Dr. Leana Wen, the head of Planned Parenthood; chef Jose Andres, who has become a vocal critic of the administration’s immigration policies; and five labor leaders.
A few Democratic lawmakers boycotted the speech altogether. Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.) said he would “rather be somewhere else than listening to [Trump] come onto our floor & start talking about groups of people, particularly Latinos, and disparaging them as a people,” he wrote on Twitter.
But the vast majority of Democrats were there. Several brought federal workers who didn’t get paid during the shutdown, including contractors who won’t get back pay.
Reps. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-N.J.) and Jimmy Gomez (D-Los Angeles) brought immigrants in the U.S. illegally who spoke out about their employment at Trump’s resort in Bedminster, N.J.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) invited an activist who went viral when she cornered then-Sen. Jeff Flake in an elevator over his vote for Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh.
The drama between Trump and Pelosi, however, garnered much of the attention.
She’s called him childish and questioned his manhood. Trump, though he’s refrained from personally attacking her looks or character as he does with other rivals, said last weekend she was a danger to the country.
Pelosi’s goal for Tuesday night, experts said, was to convey firmness and self-control.
“Pelosi’s primary role and strategy over these first weeks in Congress has been to be the adult in the room at all times,” said Jennifer Nicoll Victor, an associate political science professor at George Mason University. “There’s obviously a fair amount of animosity between [them], and it seems like that should play out somehow.”