On Trump's big night, Democratic congresswomen in white stole the spotlight

On Trump's big night, Democratic congresswomen in white stole the spotlight
© Getty Images

Since President Donald TrumpDonald TrumpTrump goes after Cassidy after saying he wouldn't support him for president in 2024 Jan. 6 panel lays out criminal contempt case against Bannon Hillicon Valley — Presented by Xerox — Agencies sound alarm over ransomware targeting agriculture groups MORE's State of the Union address was an 82-minute production, there are plenty of contenders for the most memorable moment of the evening. Holocaust and Tree of Life Synagogue shooting survivor Judah Samet was acknowledged from the crowd, while Trump conducted a moving rendition of "Happy Birthday" in his honor. Adorable 10-year-old New Jersey cancer survivor Grace Eline was recognized on camera as well. In addition to battling the disease, she has also raised $40,000 for the fight against cancer. Special guests Matthew Charles and Alice Johnson were both overcome with joy and served as icons for the bipartisan criminal justice reform legislation passed by Congress in late 2018.


Ultimately, there were way too many guests present for one in particular to stand out and be remembered for years to come. On policy matters, Trump was scattershot over the course of the evening. In one sequence, he transitioned from paid family leave to abortion, and then — even more awkwardly — to military spending levels. This tell-tale sign that multiple advisers with differing ideologies contributed to the speech, left it with no strong common theme or message. Years from now, Trump's 2019 address will be remembered for the Democratic Congresswomen who wore white and the moment they briefly abandoned their fight.

Dozens of lawmakers — most of them Democratic women — dressed in white for the speech as a tribute to the suffragette movement of the early 20th century. Something similar occurred in 2017 during Trump's address to a joint session of Congress. The color white was meant to show support for issues such as Planned Parenthood, reproductive rights, and affordable child care. The major differences between then and now are that Democrats now control the House and there are a record 91 women in their caucus.  

Rep. Ilhan OmarIlhan OmarOvernight Energy & Environment — Presented by the American Petroleum Institute — Democrats address reports that clean energy program will be axed Is Wall Street serving its own interests by supporting China's? Democrats step up pressure on Biden on student loan forgiveness MORE (D-Minn.) referenced the American flag with a blue headscarf, red sleeves, and a white suit. The Muslim congresswoman also made history by being the first to wear a hijab to witness a State of the Union address from the House floor. Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiBiden to take part in CNN town hall in Baltimore Manchin on finishing agenda by Halloween: 'I don't know how that would happen' The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Uber - Build Back Better items on chopping block MORE participated in the cause and helped drive home this solidarity theme from her prominent position behind Trump on the dais. Pelosi generally held her applause and stayed seated during the early portion of the speech, but everything suddenly changed when Trump discussed who benefited most from his "thriving economy."


During the middle of the address to tout his administration's economic gains, Trump said women have filled 58 percent of the new jobs created last year. While the House chamber filled with Democratic Congresswomen in white had previously rejected Trump's overtures, they unexpectedly made a u-turn by standing and cheering the president's comment. Trump seemed genuinely surprised by the reaction and told them — with a grin — “You weren't supposed to do that.” He then doubled down on the outreach by instructing the opposition party not to sit down because they were going to like the next statistic. Trump ended this part of his address by noting there are now more women serving in Congress than ever before.

That brought Nancy Pelosi out of her chair, and raucous applause erupted in the House chamber. High-fives were exchanged among many and a "USA" chant broke out from the crowd. Several Trump family members and administration officials even applauded. Democratic Rep. Ann KusterAnn McLane KusterTech industry pushes for delay in antitrust legislation Man charged in Capitol riot says he's running for Congress The Hill's 12:30 Report: Sights and sounds from Inauguration Day MORE of New Hampshire was prominently seen "raising the roof," footage that likely soon will become a viral internet meme.

Trump was clearly stunned that his State of the Union address had turned into an impromptu celebration of Democratic House gains in the 2018 midterm elections orchestrated by many outstanding female candidates.

It's unclear if he was aware that of the 106 Congresswomen in the House, only 15 are Republicans. If Trump did know, a State of the Union address seems an odd time to draw attention to it. Furthermore, Trump’s own policies and conduct were major contributors to the Democrats taking back control of the House.

With an historic number of women running for president in the Democratic primary, you can guarantee this exchange will re-emerge on the campaign trail and in political advertisements.

Trump is generally quite media savvy and prefers always to dominate the conversation. An unforced error, likely attributable to political hubris, shows that while Trump is president, the state of our union is sure to remain unpredictable.

Aaron Kall is the director of debate at the University of Michigan and editor/co-author of "The State of the Union Is ... Memorable Addresses of the Last Fifty Years," and “Debating The Donald.” Follow him on Twitter @AaronsUKBBBlog.