In his third State of the Union address, President Donald Trump Tuesday night told a bitterly divided Congress and country that his administration, in three years, has “shattered the mentality of American decline” and rejected “the downsizing of Americans’ destiny.”
Trump’s nearly hour and a half speech – filled with election-year boasting about renewed U.S. economic might, victories in trade talks, rebuilding the military and slashing unemployment for blacks and other minorities - comes as the Republican-controlled Senate is on the verge of voting Wednesday to acquit the president of two House-passed impeachment charges of abuse of power and obstruction of a congressional investigation.
“We are moving forward at a pace that was unimaginable just a short time ago and we are never ever going back!” Trump declared.
This marked the first time an impeached president delivered the annual presidential address in a year he is running for re-election.
It was an extraordinary drama as Trump was greeted in the House chambers by ebullient Republicans chanting “Four More Years!” and Democrats reacting with tepid applause or looks of contempt. The evening began with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi offering her hand for Trump to shake, but the president turned away without taking it. The speaker is considered a key nemesis by the president for her role in leading the Democrats’ impeachment process.
The evening remarkably ended with Pelosi standing and tearing a copy of Trump’s lengthy speech in pieces and dropping them on her desk on the podium.
“I tore it up,” Pelosi acknowledged to reporters. "It was the courteous thing to do considering the alternative," she said, adding that it was "such a dirty speech."
Pelosi and other Democratic women in the House were dressed in white to honor the 75-year old suffragist movement, which led to the right of women to vote in elections.
Watch the State of the Union Address:
There had been rampant speculation in Washington over whether Trump would address impeachment during his speech, either to try to extend an olive branch to the Democrats or to lash out at them. In the end, he said nothing about having become only the third president in history to be impeached by the House and tried by the Senate.
“Trump was probably smart not to mention impeachment,” said David Greenberg, a professor of history, journalism and media studies at Rutgers University. “It’s not an issue that would have moved anyone.”
"Simply because he didn't mention impeachment didn't mean that every other aspect of the speech revealed his displeasure, his annoyance, and it was very clear watching the room that the feeling was mutual," said Bill Sweeney, distinguished practitioner in residence at American University's School of Public Affairs.
The speech, with the theme of “The Great American Comeback,” mainly promoted the president’s domestic agenda and listed accomplishments ranging from trade deals to creation of the Space Force as the newest branch of the U.S. military.
WATCH: Trump lists domestic accomplishments
“His attempt to paint a rosy picture of America was a smarter way to go,” Greenberg told VOA. “The economy is strong right now, no question. But I can’t help thinking that his taking credit for the economy is a bit like the rooster taking credit for the sunrise.”
Trump said the country should be “a sanctuary for law-abiding Americans – not criminal aliens,” adding that his administration has undertaken “an unprecedented effort to secure the southern border of the United States.”
In addition to strongly defending national security and American lives, the president said, “We are working to end America’s wars in the Middle East.”
Trump said Iran’s economy is doing very poorly due to American sanctions. The United States could reverse that in a short period of time, “but perhaps they are too proud or too foolish to ask for that help,” he said. “We are here. Let's see which road they choose. It is totally up to them.”
The formal address is a rare time when members of the two chambers of Congress are brought together with most of the president’s Cabinet, the Supreme Court justices and the top military brass.
One member of the Cabinet usually does not attend, the so-called designated survivor. This year, it was Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, who remained at an undisclosed secure location not in the immediate vicinity of the U.S. Capitol building.
Among the high-profile guests invited by the White House: Juan Guaido, the opposition leader in Venezuela whom the United States regards as that country’s president.
Trump said Nicolas Maduro is an illegitimate ruler of Venezuela.“
But Maduro's grip of tyranny will be smashed and broken,” the president vowed.
Lawmakers also invited guests. A guest of Pelosi’s was Fred Guttenberg, a gun control advocate whose daughter died in a school mass shooting in Florida in 2018.
There were a couple of surprise moments during the 78-minute address.
Trump had first lady Melania Trump award the Medal of Freedom to conservative radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh, who announced the previous day he has been diagnosed with advanced lung cancer.
The family of an Army sergeant serving in Afghanistan on his fourth overseas tour of duty, invited to attend the speech by the White House, was stunned when the head of the household walked in for a reunion.
At least 10 Democratic Party House members skipped the speech.“
I will not be a witness to puffery and prevarication flowing while our Constitution and our laws are disrespectfully and dangerously flouted,” Rep. Steve Cohen of Tennessee said in a statement.
"None of this is normal, and I will not legitimize it,” said Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, accusing Trump of “lawless conduct and subversion of the Constitution.”
Two members of the so-called “Squad” of progressive wing congresswomen, (Palestinian-American) Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and (Somalia native) Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, however, decided to attend.
Omar said she was attending “on behalf of all of those targeted by this president to say, ‘We are greater than hate.’ My presence tonight is resistance.”
Trump last year, faced criticism for telling the Squad to “go back” to the “crime infested places from which they came.”
The president was more subdued in regards to his political adversaries Tuesday night.“
We will never let socialism destroy American health care” the president said after promising to “protect patients with pre-existing conditions.”
Health care is expected to be a significant issue in this year’s presidential election.
Trump’s job approval rating has risen to 49 percent, his highest in Gallup polling since he took office in 2017.
Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer delivered the Democrats’ 10-minute English-language rebuttal to Trump’s address.“
Democrats are trying to make your health care better. Republicans in Washington are trying to take it away,” she said in the remarks televised from a high school her daughters attend in East Lansing. “
It doesn’t matter what the president says about the stock market. What matters is that millions of people struggle to get by or don’t have enough money at the end of the month after paying for transportation, student loans, or prescription drugs," Whitmer said.
A Spanish-language response from the opposition party was made by Veronica Escobar, a first-term congresswoman from Texas. She spoke from a community health center in El Paso, where her family has run a dairy farm for several generations.
Escobar made reference to the August 3, 2019, targeted attack that killed 22 people and wounded two dozen others in El Paso.“
A domestic terrorist confessed to driving over 10 hours to target Mexicans and immigrants. Just before he began his killing spree, he posted his views online and used hateful language like the very words used by President Trump to describe immigrants and Latinos,” Escobar said.
Jesusemen Oni contributed to this report.