On Tuesday night, for 1 hour 22 minutes, President Trump was supposed to be the center of attention. Delivering what would become the third-longest State of the Union address in modern history, Trump took his place at the front of the House chamber, flanked by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Vice President Pence.
But as late-night host Seth Meyers reminded his audience during Tuesday’s special live show covering the speech, “There’s a long history of the people sitting behind the president getting as much attention as the president himself.”
This year was no exception.
Despite being engaged in a tense standoff with Trump over funding for his border wall, for most of the evening, Pelosi managed to limit her reactions to subtle head-shaking, pursed lips and eye rolls. But when Trump, who has been accused of exacerbating deep divisions, declared, “We must reject the politics of revenge, resistance and retribution and embrace the boundless potential of cooperation, compromise and the common good,” she appeared to be unable to hold back.
Rising from her seat along with others in attendance, Pelosi began applauding with her arms oddly extended out toward the president. When Trump turned toward her and the pair locked eyes, Pelosi, still clapping, appeared to smirk.
Social media users proceeded to lose their collective minds. As many put it, Pelosi had just effectively issued a “literal clap back” to the president on national television and in front of a room full of the country’s most powerful people. By early Wednesday morning, Pelosi’s clap was a trending moment on Twitter, and she had been mentioned in more than 222,000 tweets.
“Respect to Pelosi,” one Twitter user wrote. “Circumstance demanded she clap, so she invented this weird walrus clap that was mocking, aggressive, and delightfully surreal all at the same time. Nobody has ever has clapped like this.”
Others, such as actor and comedian Patton Oswalt, credited Pelosi with creating a new type of clap — named after an explicit two-word exclamation commonly used to convey anger or contempt.
The clap, however, was not appreciated by everyone.
“That just seems immensely petty and childish,” one person tweeted.
Another person commented, “Huge disrespect shown by a ridiculous woman that is chewing on something and looking at her art papers/menus/notes on when to sit down, through the entire evening.”
Beyond the clapping, Pelosi’s overall mood during the address also did not go unnoticed. Described by The Washington Post’s Mike DeBonis as “the face of Democratic exasperation,” Pelosi seemed rather uninterested by Trump’s lengthy speech, many pointed out, unlike her neighbor, a moderately animated Pence. In some instances, she chose to stare at a sheaf of papers in front of her instead of at the president.
“She looks like a babysitter reading the rules of a board game while the kids are just chucking game pieces at each other,” Meyers quipped.
Appearing on “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert,” which also went live Tuesday night, “CBS This Morning” co-host John Dickerson joked that it “didn’t look like Trump sparked joy” for Pelosi, using a phrase popularized by Marie Kondo, a Japanese professional organizer who advises people to purge their homes of items that no longer “spark joy” for them.
“She’d like to Marie Kondo him out of the House,” Colbert replied.
Theories abounded about what Pelosi could have been reading that was more riveting than Trump.
On his live edition of “The Daily Show,” Trevor Noah suggested she was perusing a menu, adding, “I kept expecting a waiter to come over with an order of Buffalo wings.”
The official Twitter account of “Full Frontal With Samantha Bee” was convinced that Pelosi was absorbed in “a Jodi Picoult novel.”
A spokesman later confirmed to the New York Times that Pelosi had been looking over her own copy of the speech, but some critics still slammed her behavior during the address as “rude” and “disrespectful.”
While there was no shortage of reactions to Tuesday’s State of the Union, hours after the event was over, people still could not stop discussing what was described as the “most iconic moment of the night”: Pelosi’s applause.
“Nancy Pelosi’s ‘sarcastic’ clapping steals Trump’s thunder at State of the Union address,” read a headline from the Independent.
Slate called it the “Sarcastic Point Clapback Heard Round the World.”