Three years into his presidency, President Trump is still the most comfortable when he’s leaning into his previous life as a reality TV star.
Tuesday’s State of the Union address featured several staged “surprises,” meant to delight — or infuriate — Trump’s audience.
The annual presidential speech before Congress has always been theatrical, with the topics a President chooses to highlight and even his selection of guests laden with symbolism.
But Trump, as is his wont, made the somewhat quiet part very, very loud, with family reunions, scholarship giveaways, and even an awards ceremony perfectly crafted for the cameras.
The most controversial such moment was his on-the-spot presentation of a Presidential Medal of Freedom — the highest civilian award — to conservative firebrand Rush Limbaugh, who recently announced a lung cancer diagnosis.
Trump’s interest in granting Limbaugh the honor was floated in an off-the-record lunch the White House held with broadcasters earlier Tuesday. News that the President invited him to the speech seeped out around the same time.
Trump’s move to highlight Limbaugh, who has a history of racist and sexist commentary, divided the room. When his presence was announced, Republicans gave a standing ovation while Democrats sat quietly. There were some Democratic groans of disbelief when Trump had First Lady Melania Trump present the medal to Limbaugh right there in the balcony.
Democrats were more reserved for Trump’s bit awarding an African American girl from Philadelphia with a so-called “school choice” scholarship. Trump at first highlighted the presence of his guest, fourth-grader Janiyah, to bash Democratic Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf’s veto of a program expanding tax credits for donations to scholarships for children to attend private or charter schools.
As Trump then announced that Janiyah would receive such a scholarship, Republicans cheered enthusiastically. Democrats lent some applause, but others looked uncomfortable with the moment.
The ultimate example of Trump’s use of the speech for made-for-TV moments was the family reunion he staged between a military wife, her small children and her husband, a sergeant who had been serving in Afghanistan. The wind-up for the moment included Trump’s gratitude for the “sacrifice” of Amy Williams, the wife who was sitting with the First Lady as a guest, while noting her 3-year old and 6-year-old had not seen their father in “many months.”
He then departed from his prepared remarks to announce the “very special surprise” that her husband Sergeant First Class Townsend Williams was back from his deployment and was at the Capitol tonight. With perfect timing, the veteran came down the balcony for Trump’s guests, and was greeted with hugs from his children and a kiss from his wife.
That moment earned bipartisan applause, including a standing ovation from some Democrats, who were willing to go along with this segment of Trump’s show.
For all the stagecraft of the night, the grand finale was robbed from President Trump by Speaker Nancy Pelosi. After he ended the address, she dramatically tore up his speech, while still in her position immediately behind the President, right where the cameras could see her.