Trump gets dose of new political reality at State of the Union

It was an end-zone dance right in front of Donald Trump’s face.

The president’s State of the Union address Tuesday night — his first under a newly divided government — offered Trump an enormous platform to pitch his agenda heading into the new year.

But it was an impromptu moment between the president and the historic group of Democratic women wearing white that captured the night, shooting like a rocket across social media and encapsulating the new political reality in Washington.  


Democrats cheered, high-fived and raised the roof after Trump paid tribute to the gains women have made in the country, from their fight for voting rights a century ago to the fact that 58 percent of jobs created in the last year went to women.

It was a lightbulb moment for the Democratic women, many of whom rode an anti-Trump wave to Washington last fall.

Some Democrats said afterwards they were shocked that Trump had given them a chance to highlight the issue — and thought they’d gotten the better of him in the exchange.

After all, most women currently serving in Congress are Democrats. House Democrats have 89 female members, while the House GOP has just 13 women in its ranks. And Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Justices rule Manhattan prosecutor, but not Congress, can have Trump tax records Supreme Court rulings reignite Trump oversight wars in Congress Pelosi on Baltimore's Columbus statue: 'If the community doesn't want the statue, the statue shouldn't be there' MORE (D-Calif.), to date the only woman to serve as the highest-ranking congressional leader, sat behind him on the dais because of Democrats’ midterm gains.

“We were super excited and high-fiving. And he really didn't realize what was going on — he didn't understand what we were doing,” Rep. Ann KusterAnn McLane KusterChinese tech giants caught up in rising US-China tensions Democratic lawmakers introduce legislation to ensure US can mass-produce COVID-19 vaccine Hillicon Valley: Trump signs order targeting social media legal protections | House requests conference with Senate after FISA vote canceled | Minneapolis systems temporarily brought down by hackers MORE (D-N.H.) told The Hill after the speech.

“Part of it is that we wanted to draw attention to the contrast of our caucus that reflects the diversity of the American people. … And we were hoping that just by wearing white, that the cameras would pick that up,” Kuster continued. “We didn't realize that we've have a big opportunity to demonstrate that. ... Finally, he did [understand], because he got very — he was ticked off. ...

“I think he caught on that the joke was on him."

Republicans had plenty of reasons of their own to cheer the president. Trump laid out his plans for border security, touted the booming economy and hailed his year-old tax cut law — all of which drew quick ovations from his GOP supporters. At multiple points, the Republicans broke out into a chant of “USA! USA!”

But what couldn’t be ignored in the room were the women in white.

While the GOP side of the aisle resembled a homogeneous sea of navy and black suits worn by a predominantly male group of lawmakers, the Democratic side was marked by scores of female lawmakers donning white, the color of the suffragettes.

And in a nod to the historic diversity of the freshman class, some of the “firsts” made a point of sitting together, like the first two Muslim women elected to Congress: Rep. Ilhan OmarIlhan OmarTucker Carlson ratchets up criticism of Duckworth, calls her a 'coward' The Hill's Campaign Report: Colorado, Utah primary results bring upsets, intrigue Progressive lawmakers call for conditions on Israel aid MORE (D-Minn.), sporting a blue headscarf, and Rep. Rashida TlaibRashida Harbi TlaibDemocrats see victory in Trump culture war The Hill's Campaign Report: Colorado, Utah primary results bring upsets, intrigue Progressive lawmakers call for conditions on Israel aid MORE (D-Minn.). The first two Native American women in Congress, Reps. Sharice DavidsSharice DavidsDemocratic lawmakers call for expanding, enshrining LGBTQ rights The Hill's 12:30 Report: Fauci 'aspirationally hopeful' of a vaccine by winter WATCH LIVE: The Hill's LGBTQ+ summit featuring Adam Rippon, Rep. Sharice Davids, Chasten Buttigieg and more MORE (D-Kan.) and Deb HaalandDebra HaalandOVERNIGHT ENERGY: Internal watchdog probing Park Police actions toward Lafayette Square protesters | Democrats detail their .5T green infrastructure plan | Green groups challenge Trump water rules rollback Internal watchdog probing Park Police actions toward Lafayette Square protesters Judge orders Mnuchin to give Native American tribes full stimulus funding MORE (D-N.M.), also sat together.

When Trump said he would “never abolish our heroes from ICE,” progressive superstar Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-CortezAlexandria Ocasio-CortezTrump tweets his support for Goya Foods amid boycott Hispanic Caucus requests meeting with private detention center CEOs Trump glosses over virus surge during Florida trip MORE (D-N.Y.) looked at one of her Democratic colleagues and brushed her shoulder off.

But all of the boisterous energy that ricocheted around the packed House chamber belied the long-running tensions between Trump and his audience.

At moments, those strains erupted into the open.

As Trump slammed the “ridiculous partisan investigations” during his speech, the House camera panned to Rep. Adam SchiffAdam Bennett SchiffDemocrats blast Trump for commuting Roger Stone: 'The most corrupt president in history' Trump commutes Roger Stone's sentence Supreme Court rulings reignite Trump oversight wars in Congress MORE (D-Calif.), the new Intelligence Committee chairman who is ramping up the probe into the Trump campaign’s ties with Russia. New House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard NealRichard Edmund NealSupreme Court rulings reignite Trump oversight wars in Congress Five takeaways from PPP loan data Trump administration releases PPP loan data MORE (D-Mass.) was on hand, too; he’s seeking Trump’s tax returns.

Democrats expressed disbelief after Trump explicitly warned against the expected onslaught of House oversight investigations and declared that “if there is going to be peace and legislation, there cannot be war and investigation.”

“To actually say out loud that Congress couldn't both legislate and conduct oversight or investigations, which of course is a suggestion that we shouldn't do our job. And if the president thinks by getting up there and telling us not to do investigations we won't, he's sadly mistaken,” said Rep. David CicillineDavid Nicola CicillineNadler: Barr dealings with Berman came 'awfully close to bribery' OVERNIGHT ENERGY: DOJ whistleblower says California emissions probe was 'abuse of authority' | EPA won't defend policy blocking grantees from serving on boards | Minnesota sues Exxon, others over climate change DOJ whistleblower: California emissions probe was 'abuse of authority' MORE (D-R.I.), a Judiciary Committee member who also leads House Democrats’ messaging arm.

Rep. Joaquin CastroJoaquin CastroSteyer endorses Markey in Massachusetts Senate primary Hispanic Caucus formally endorses George Floyd Justice in Policing Act Technical difficulties mar several remote House hearings MORE (D-Texas), a member of the House Intelligence Committee, was more blunt.

“I think that telegraphed a certain nervousness that he understands the seriousness and the gravity of these investigations, and what they mean to his presidency,” Castro said.

Most of the 2020 Democrats hoping to unseat Trump — including Sens. Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisHillicon Valley: Facebook considers political ad ban | Senators raise concerns over civil rights audit | Amazon reverses on telling workers to delete TikTok Senators raise concerns over Facebook's civil rights audit Biden's marijuana plan is out of step with public opinion MORE (Calif.), Kirsten GillibrandKirsten GillibrandDemocratic lawmakers call for expanding, enshrining LGBTQ rights The Hill's 12:30 Report: Fauci 'aspirationally hopeful' of a vaccine by winter The Hill's Morning Report - Officials crack down as COVID-19 cases soar MORE (N.Y.), Cory BookerCory Anthony BookerDemocrats blast Trump for commuting Roger Stone: 'The most corrupt president in history' Koch-backed group urges Senate to oppose 'bailouts' of states in new ads Data shows seven Senate Democrats have majority non-white staffs MORE (N.J.), Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenDemocrats blast Trump for commuting Roger Stone: 'The most corrupt president in history' Pharma pricing is a problem, but antitrust isn't the (only) solution The Hill's Campaign Report: Democratic Unity Taskforce unveils party platform recommendations MORE (Mass.) and Bernie SandersBernie SandersTrump glosses over virus surge during Florida trip The Hill's Coronavirus Report: Fauci says focus should be on pausing reopenings rather than reverting to shutdowns; WHO director pleads for international unity in pandemic response Ex-Sanders aide says Biden unity task forces need to go farther MORE (I-Vt.) — couldn’t be avoided either. They occupied seats in the first few rows of the chamber.

Also on the House floor for the first time: freshman Sen. Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneyDemocrats hope for tidal moment in Georgia with two Senate seats in play Sixth GOP senator unlikely to attend Republican convention Koch-backed group urges Senate to oppose 'bailouts' of states in new ads MORE (R-Utah), the 2012 GOP presidential nominee who in an unprecedented speech more than two years ago called Trump, then the 2016 GOP front-runner, a “fraud” and a “phony.”

Then there was Pelosi. The iconic California Democrat, seated just behind Trump’s left shoulder, was a case study in shifting emotions.

At times, she rose in gentle applause, as when Trump mentioned Congress's recent enactment of criminal justice reform. At others, she shot to her feet with a clamorous ovation, as when the president promised to rein in drug prices and protect patients with pre-existing conditions — a central element of the ObamaCare law that Pelosi had ushered into passage almost a decade ago.

For the most part, however, Pelosi sat stern and sullen behind the lectern, twisting her lips in frustration, confusion (or both) at the president's message — a silent critic of Trump's agenda, from his promise to succeed in building a border wall to his calls for the elimination of late-term abortions.

On several occasions, when some Democrats on the floor began to boo, Pelosi waved them off with a dismissive swish of her hand. Hardly a reprimand, her message to her troops seemed to be: He's not worth the energy.

Leaving the Capitol afterward, Pelosi revisited Trump’s shout-out to the history-making women of the new Congress — with an asterisk.

“I liked that he acknowledged it was the largest number of women [in congressional history],” Pelosi said, before adding that “he forgot to acknowledge” that the overwhelming majority of them are Democrats.

“It was, like, weird: You’re bringing this up?”