Here are some takeaways from the speech:
1. Impeachment bad blood spills over
You wouldn’t know from Trump’s speech that he was about to wrap up his Senate impeachment trial — he didn’t mention “impeachment” once — but that didn’t mean it didn’t loom over the proceedings.
Indeed, the speech began with Trump’s not shaking the offered hand of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). Trump simply handed her a copy of his speech, as presidents do, and turned around. It’s not clear whether that was an intentional snub, but it was, at best, an awkward start to the night.
Things became more clearly adversarial from there; raw feelings were on display throughout the speech, as Democrats expressed dissent when Trump made over-the-top claims or took what they felt were unfair shots.
There was even a brief protest by Democrats. When Trump mentioned lowering prescription drug costs, they stood and chanted “H.R. 3,” putting three fingers in the air. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has declined to take up a House-passed bill on that topic. It was a scene you don’t usually see in these speeches, and it was difficult to divorce from the events of the past four months.
In perhaps the night’s most evocative moment, Pelosi concluded the scene by ripping up Trump’s speech as he left the podium.
2. A (repeatedly) overstated economic case
There is no question that the U.S. economy is strong and is a feather in Trump’s cap as he confronts a reelection campaign. But in his speech Tuesday, Trump offered plenty of trademark hyperbole — and many false claims.
“The years of economic decay are over,” Trump said toward the beginning of his remarks, declaring that he had “moved rapidly to revive the economy.”
“In just three short years, we have shattered the mentality of American decline, and we have rejected the downsizing of America’s destiny,” he said. “We are moving forward at a pace that was unimaginable just a short time ago, and we are never, ever going back."
You’d think Trump had arrested the backward momentum of his predecessor, rather than — in large part — continuing the progress and slightly bettering it. Gross domestic product growth has ticked above 3 percent in a few quarters on Trump’s watch, but otherwise it has been around 2 percent for most of his presidency — right where it was in the final years of Barack Obama’s. It has been around 2 percent over the past three quarters, in fact — far shy of the 4, 5 and even 6 percent Trump has floated.
Trump added: “Since my election, we have created 7 million new jobs, 5 million more than government experts projected during the previous administration.” And: “In eight years under the last administration, over 300,000 working-age people dropped out of the workforce. In just three years of my administration, 3.5 million working-age people have joined the workforce.”
As with Trump’s repeated comparisons of his record in three years vs. Obama’s in eight, this is in large part because of the recession that Obama inherited. Job growth under Obama in his final years was about where it has been under Trump.
Trump has a good story to tell on the economy — and creating jobs when you’re at or near full employment would be a great point to make! — but he insists on apples-to-oranges comparisons and pretending that the economy he inherited was in some kind of free fall, which just wasn’t the case.
3. Running in 2020 … against Obama?
Trump entered the House chamber to a raucous welcome, including chants of “four more years,” from the Republicans in the crowd who probably had just fought off his removal from office.
And the speech, perhaps not surprising given the man and the context, quickly took on the feel of a campaign rally. But as with some of the above quotes, you could be forgiven for thinking he was running against Obama, rather than Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden or Elizabeth Warren.
“If we hadn’t reversed the failed economic policies of the previous administration, the world would not now be witnessing this great economic success,” Trump said.
He added at another point: “That’s why my administration reversed the failing policies of the previous administration on Cuba.”
He also said “under the last administration, more than 10 million people were added to the food stamp rolls" and compared it to the drop in food-stamp recipients on his watch.
This is how Trump builds up his progress. But some of the comments seemed geared toward his long-running campaign to use Obama as a foil rather than simply making a favorable comparison with him — or making 2020 Democrats his foil.
4. The Rush Limbaugh moment
Trump chose to include an unusual moment in his speech — and one obviously designed to elicit a reaction.
Nearly an hour into the speech, Trump recognized the conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh, who was seated next to first lady Melania Trump. He then announced that he was awarding Limbaugh the Presidential Medal of Freedom — on the spot. The first lady put it around his neck right then and there, as Limbaugh expressed surprise.
Limbaugh announced this week that he has been diagnosed with advanced lung cancer. His opponents this week have been balancing their distaste for Limbaugh’s politics with their regard for his humanity. Trump seemed to invite the conversation to go even further with the highly unorthodox awarding of the nation’s highest civilian honor.