At another point, Trump looked up at the gallery and directed his wife, Melania, to bestow the Presidential Medal of Freedom on the conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh, who announced on Monday that he had an advanced form of lung cancer. The first lady draped the medal around Limbaugh’s neck while someone in the crowd shouted, “Thank you, Rush!”
Briefing reporters beforehand, one administration official said that the address would present a “positive, forward-looking vision.” But Trump spent a fair amount of time looking backward at the political personalities despised by his core supporters. Barack Obama isn’t on the 2020 ballot, of course, but you wouldn’t necessarily know that listening to Trump. Without mentioning Obama by name—at rallies, Trump often refers to the 44th president as Barack Hussein Obama—Trump said he’d reversed the “failed economic policies” of the last administration and touted the nation’s low unemployment rate. (Unemployment also dropped steadily under Obama.)
As Trump’s campaign sees it, reelection hinges on maximizing turnout of his base. Trump used the stage last night to excite his supporters with attacks that stir their nativist passions. He faulted New York City—once run by a potential general-election rival, Michael Bloomberg—for showing leniency toward undocumented immigrants who go on to commit crimes. He blamed California, the largest blue state, for adopting the same policies. Reprising an argument that he’s used at campaign rallies, he accused Democrats of trying to “bankrupt our nation” by offering government health care to undocumented immigrants. One of the guests he had invited to the speech was the brother of a man killed by an undocumented immigrant in California.
“I feel for their loss,” said Michael Waldman, the former chief speechwriter to President Bill Clinton, referring to the families of victims killed by immigrants. “But the meta-message is that brown people are going to kill you.”
A State of the Union speech is supposed to be a unifying civic ritual: two parties and three branches of government all assembling beneath the Capitol dome once a year. Mindful of the symbolism, lawmakers of opposite parties entered the House chamber together last night. After a wrenching national trauma like impeachment, a president might use a State of the Union speech to deliver a healing message. Perhaps he would express contrition for what got him impeached in the first place. Maybe even pledge not to repeat the same behavior that got him into the mess. Then again, nah.
Read: Trump will happily settle for an acquittal
That’s not Trump; he doesn’t apologize. As aides had worked through final drafts of the speech, Senate Republicans cautioned the White House to steer clear of impeachment, fearing he would upend a trial that is on a glide path to acquittal. “You don’t need to look back at this divisive time,” a person close to a top Senate Republican told me. Trump acquiesced; he owes them. The Senate Republican leader, Mitch McConnell, orchestrated a speedy trial and beat back attempts to call witnesses who might have added fresh detail to the case.