A president’s State of the Union address is not generally something that spawns an ongoing political fight. That the president update Congress on the state of the union is written into the Constitution, so it can’t be avoided. In recent decades, though, that update has become a speech, televised live, centered on the president’s policy and accompanied by various expected bits of pageantry: Whom will the president invite? Which random Cabinet member has to go hide on the off chance that the entire Capitol falls into a volcano? That sort of thing.
In 2019, the State of the Union has spawned the first real feud between House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and President Trump (excluding the shutdown, which began before she took the gavel). After inviting Trump, Pelosi uninvited him, citing the shutdown, now more than a month old. Trump first replied by taking away Pelosi’s ability to travel overseas and then, Wednesday, said he was going to show up to give his speech next Tuesday anyway.
There’s just one problem: Without the House’s approval — which is to say Pelosi’s — he can’t.
This battle played out in an unexpected form in our social media age: dueling letters, containing all of the formality and idiosyncrasies that you might expect. The text of each appears below. In yellow, our notes on what various items mean.
Jan. 3: The invitation
Dear Mr. President:
The Constitution established the legislative, executive and judicial branches as co-equal branches of government, to be a check and balance on each other. The Constitution also calls for the President to “from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union.”
In the spirit of our Constitution, I invite you to deliver your State of the Union address before a Joint Session of Congress on Tuesday, January 29, 2019 in the House Chamber.
I look forward to welcoming you to the Congress.
Jan. 16: The uninvitation
Dear Mr. President:
On January 3rd, it was my privilege as Speaker to invite you to deliver the State of the Union address on January 29th. The Constitution calls for the President to “from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union.” During the 19th Century and up until the presidency of Woodrow Wilson, these annual State of the Union messages were delivered to Congress in writing. And since the start of modern budgeting in Fiscal Year 1977, a State of the Union address has never been delivered during a government shutdown.
In September 2018, Secretary Nielsen designated State of the Union Addresses as National Special Security Events (NSSEs), recognizing the need for “the full resources of the Federal Government to be brought to bear” to ensure the security of these events. The extraordinary demands presented by NSSEs require weeks of detailed planning with dozens of agencies working together to prepare for the safety of all participants.
The U.S. Secret Service was designated as the lead federal agency responsible for coordinating, planning, exercising, and implementing security for National Special Security Events by Public Law 106-544, December 19, 2000. However, both the U.S. Secret Service and the Department of Homeland Security have not been funded for 26 days now — with critical departments hamstrung by furloughs.
Sadly, given the security concerns and unless government re-opens this week, I suggest that we work together to determine another suitable date after government has reopened for this address or for you to consider delivering your State of the Union address in writing to the Congress on January 29th.
Thank you for your attention to this matter.
Jan. 17: The grounding
Dear Madame Speaker:
Due to the Shutdown, I am sorry to inform you that your trip to Brussels, Egypt, and Afghanistan has been postponed. We will reschedule this seven-day excursion when the Shutdown is over. In light of the 800,000 great American workers not receiving pay, I am sure you would agree that postponing this public relations event is totally appropriate. I also feel that, during this period, it would be better if you were in Washington negotiating with me and joining the Strong Border Security movement to end the Shutdown. Obviously, if you would like to make your journey by flying commercial, that would certainly be your prerogative.
I look forward to seeing you soon and even more forward to watching our open and dangerous Southern Border finally receive the attention, funding, and security it so desperately deserves!
Jan. 23: The reply
Dear Madam Speaker:
Thank you for your letter of January 3, 2019, sent to me long after the Shutdown began, inviting me to address the Nation on January 29th as to the State of the Union. As you know, I had already accepted your kind invitation, however, I then received another letter from you dated January 16, 2019, wherein you expressed concerns regarding security during the State of the Union Address due to the Shutdown. Even prior to asking, I was contacted by the Department Homeland Security and the United States Secret Service to explain that there would be absolutely no problem regarding security with respect to the event. They have since confirmed this publicly.
Accordingly, there are no security concerns regarding the State of the Union Address. Therefore, I will be honoring your invitation, and fulfilling my Constitutional duty, to deliver important information to the people and Congress of the United States of America regarding the State of our Union.
I look forward to seeing you on the evening on January 29th in the Chamber of the House of Representatives. It would be so very sad for our Country if the State of the Union were not delivered on time, on schedule, and very importantly, on location!
Jan. 23: The rejection
Dear Mr. President:
When I extended an invitation on January 3rd for you to deliver the State of the Union address, it was on the mutually agreed upon date, January 29th. At that time, there was no thought that the government would still be shut down.
In my further correspondence of January 16th, I said we should work together to find a mutually agreeable date when government has reopened and I hope that we can still do that.
I am writing to inform you that the House of Representatives will not consider a concurrent resolution authorizing the President’s State of the Union address in the House Chamber until government has opened.
Again, I look forward to welcoming you to the House on a mutually agreeable date for this address when government has been opened.
Update: And so it ends.