Presidents have always used the presidency for political ends. Every time Barack Obama showed up at a 2012 campaign rally in Air Force One, he was doing precisely that. Every time George W. Bush held an event at a factory to talk up a jobs proposal, some part of him was aimed at his own employment.
What Trump did Tuesday night, though, was something different. It was more explicit, more obvious. It was the sort of show that seems inevitable in retrospect, the product of a man who transitioned to the presidency without jettisoning his abiding interest in television attention and ratings evaluations. Had you asked someone in June 2015 what a Trump presidency would look like, they might well have predicted that he’d combine a State of the Union address with viral YouTube tropes.
And they’d have been correct.
The speech was anchored by spectacle. At the outset, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) offered her hand to shake the president’s as he handed her a copy of his remarks; he, either not seeing it or choosing to ignore it, turned his back. When his speech was done, Pelosi stood up and tore her copy of his speech in half. She would later tell reporters that it was “the courteous thing to do considering the alternative.”
In between, Trump put on his own show. There were traditional moments of State of the Union showmanship, the sorts of introductions of people in attendance brought to the annual event by the first entertainer-president, Ronald Reagan.
At one point, for example, a 100-year-old Tuskegee airman, Charles McGee, was lauded several times, his great-grandson at his side. There was a twist. During the speech, Trump revealed that he had signed a bill awarding McGee the rank of brigadier general and that, on Tuesday, he had pinned the general’s stars on his epaulets. A standard State of the Union tactic, with a Trumpian twist.
That was subtle compared to other moments. Trump lambasted failing public schools and introduced a young girl and her mother who were waiting for a scholarship that would allow the girl to attend the school of her choice. Then the twist: Such a scholarship had been arranged for her. She smiled; her mother grew teary.
Later, a young military mother named Amy Williams and her children were introduced — and the conclusion to her story seemed predictable.
“Amy, your family’s sacrifice makes it possible for all of our families to live in safety and in peace. And we want to thank you,” Trump told Williams.
“But, Amy, there is one more thing,” he continued. “Tonight, we have a very special surprise. I am thrilled to inform you that your husband is back from deployment. He is here with us tonight. And we couldn't keep him waiting any longer."
Sgt. 1st Class Townsend Williams came down to his family. The assembled audience, or at least the Republicans, chanted “U-S-A!"
It’s hard not to appreciate how she and her kids must have felt in the moment, but it was also hard not to be aware of the more cynical side of the reunion. We’ve seen similar reunions so many times in recent years, fathers and mothers surprising their children at school assemblies or sporting events and the children, overcome, throwing themselves into their parents’ arms. Such videos aren’t as effective when they’re part of ad campaigns, though, and, at its heart, that’s what the Williamses’ reunion served as.
When Trump arrived at the lectern, the congressional Republicans in attendance had another chant: “Four more years!"
The made-for-TV moment that was most unusual came when Trump transitioned from discussing cancer to recognizing conservative commentator Rush Limbaugh, who announced a lung cancer diagnosis Monday. Trump had teased to reporters during a lunch earlier in the day that he intended to award Limbaugh the Presidential Medal of Freedom, a revelation that quickly made its way into news coverage. When Trump announced during the speech that Limbaugh would get the award, the radio host appeared to be surprised.
Everyone else was similarly surprised in short order. Limbaugh would get the award right then, bestowed, unusually, by the first lady. The State of the Union speech, mandated by the Constitution to inform Congress and recommend policy, was put on pause while the president’s wife put the nation’s highest civilian honor around the neck of a hard-right commentator and Trump supporter.
Trump’s intentions seem fairly easy to deduce. He had referred repeatedly during the speech to reasons that black Americans might support his presidency; he then awarded a scholarship to an adorable young black girl. He understands that he’s got a problem with suburban women; what could be more heartwarming to that group than reuniting a mother with her husband and children with their father? And, of course, there’s always room to play to the base by frustrating liberals, a goal that the Limbaugh award achieved several times over.
Again, politics and the presidency always overlap. They just don’t usually overlap so ostentatiously.
At the heart of the Ukraine scandal is the allegation that he sought to benefit his reelection by asking the president of Ukraine to investigate former vice president Joe Biden, a request backed up by putting a hold on military aid. On Tuesday night, we saw the fully domestic version of that sort of maneuvering, a president familiar with what plays well on television and the Internet using a big platform to flip precisely those switches.
And who can complain? Democrats can’t object to a kid getting a better educational opportunity or children getting to have their father back at home. That’s why the whole thing worked. No one can object to what Trump did in their specifics, just in the abstract, just in pointed-but-careful articles about what happened. Democrats who didn’t applaud vigorously were quickly called out by Trump’s defenders on social media, just as they were waiting to do.
Trump’s presidency changed Tuesday night, if only subtly. From now until November, we can expect a lot more Trump-as-president-as-candidate.