The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Pelosi shreds Trump’s speech, capping a tumultuous year in Washington

From the unemployment rate to health care to planting trees, congressional Democrats wore their thoughts of President Trump’s State of the Union on their faces. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

From the brilliant white suitcoat to the carefully assembled guest list to the health-care-focused talking points, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi sought on Tuesday to stick closely to the script she used a year ago, when she last hosted President Trump in the House chamber.

She stuck to it until the very end of Trump’s third State of the Union address — when she stood up, picked up her copy of the speech and tore it neatly in half.

It was a dramatic gesture, caught on camera, that encapsulated a tumultuous year in the relationship between the speaker and the president.

Last Feb. 4, Pelosi sat before the nation in triumph. Not only had Democrats retaken the House just months before, they had emerged victorious from a record-long federal shutdown — and through the standoff, Pelosi had cemented her leadership of a fractious party.

After President Trump gave his State of the Union speech on Feb. 4, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) ripped the written script into pieces. (Video: Reuters)

The mood of the moment was captured in a single image: A coyly smiling Pelosi clapping sideways at Trump, as if stifling a snicker.

This Feb. 4, however, the initial gesture of dominance belonged to Trump: As the president ascended the rostrum, he handed a copy of his speech to Pelosi, barely making eye contact. Pelosi extended her hand; if Trump saw it, he did not react. Leaving afterward, Trump did not even turn in Pelosi’s direction.

The tables, after all, had turned. Trump arrived at Capitol less than 24 hours before a historic acquittal on impeachment charges — an outcome that Democrats warned would unleash a monarchic president. A Gallup poll released Tuesday found his approval rating at a record-high 49 percent. And Pelosi’s party was mired in recriminations and embarrassment after a disastrous delay in reporting the first voter results of the 2020 campaign.

When President Trump urged lawmakers to send him a bill to lower prescription drug prices during his State of the Union speech, Democrats erupted in protest. (Video: The Washington Post)

Explaining her decision to tear up the speech, Pelosi (D-Calif.) told reporters, “It was the courteous thing to do considering the alternative.”

“The manifesto of mistruths presented in page after page of the address tonight should be a call to action for everyone who expects truth from the President and policies worthy of his office and the American people,” she said later in a statement.

The White House’s official Twitter account, meanwhile, accused her of ripping up a list of touching moments from the speech, including recognition of a surviving Tuskegee Airman who was present in the chamber. “That’s her legacy.”

Earlier Tuesday, Pelosi had telegraphed that she had no interest in being part of any story outside of the Democrats’ poll-tested, focus-group-approved safe space — highlighting the Trump administration’s attacks on the Affordable Care Act and Medicaid.

“Health care, health care, health care — the three most important issues in America’s working families,” she said in a tightly packed Capitol meeting room, addressing reporters with Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and a half-dozen other top Democratic lawmakers.

She fended off reporters’ questions about the Iowa debacle and the looming acquittal. Pelosi then joined her fellow House Democratic women, all wearing suffragist white. They reprised a group photo they had taken the year before.

The pose was the same, but the mood was different.

Once the speech began, the atmosphere grew more tense — and the anger could be read on Pelosi’s face.

What began as a placid smile became a grimace as Trump worked his way through remarks that alternately touted his achievements, slammed his Democratic predecessor and called for hard-line policies that infuriated Pelosi’s caucus.

The speaker stood on occasion — to welcome Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó, to praise a bipartisan expansion of paid family leave for federal employees, for rural broadband Internet — but her dismay was more often on display.

When Trump claimed he would protect health insurance coverage for preexisting conditions, Pelosi shook her head — hours after calling on Trump to drop his support for a federal lawsuit that would eliminate those very protections. When Trump went on to pledge he would “always protect your Medicare and always protect your Social Security,” she shook her head again.

When Trump announced Janiyah Davis, a Philadelphia fourth-grader, would receive a school voucher, she stayed seated and leafed through the speech she would later shred.

Ahead of the speech, some acknowledged the swagger Democrats had felt a year ago — which Pelosi had embraced in the months after her party’s midterm victory — has given way to a more reflective posture in light of the grueling impeachment.

“I think history will probably judge us in a positive light,” said Rep. Daniel Kildee (D-Mich.). “There’s a permanent, indelible mark on this presidency for good reason.”

As far back as March, Pelosi had warned that impeachment had to be for “something so compelling and overwhelming and bipartisan.” Republicans repeatedly read those words back to Democrats as Trump’s party held its ranks together — even as the facts grew so damning that several GOP lawmakers publicly conceded Trump’s alleged efforts to solicit investigations of his political enemies from a foreign power by withholding military aid and a coveted meeting were wrong, though not impeachable.

While some griped about a tactical misstep here and there, few Democrats have openly criticized Pelosi’s decision to pursue impeachment. One who did, Rep. Jeff Van Drew of New Jersey, left for the GOP in December. He could be found on the center aisle Tuesday, seeking out Trump as he entered the chamber.

In recent public appearances, Pelosi has come to terms with her decision to move forward with impeachment more bluntly: Trump, she has said repeatedly, is “impeached forever.”

“No matter what the Senate does, it can never be erased,” she said in an HBO interview last month.

Republicans are hoping the impending acquittal proves to be an inflection point, a moment where their currently dim prospects of retaking the House majority — and unseating Pelosi — begin to reverse.

“It is really clear to me that the American people are going to look at that and say, we just can’t trust the Democrats with power,” said Rep. Liz Cheney (Wyo.), the Republican Conference chairwoman. “I’m sure she’s trying to make a hard pivot away from impeachment.”

In a statement after the speech, Cheney declared that Pelosi “had a tantrum, disgraced herself, and dishonored the House” in her reaction.

But even before the speech — as Pelosi stressed a message of cooperation, not combat, some of her closest allies presciently doubted whether that was even possible.

“When it comes to prescription drugs, if we can work with him, we will work with him. On infrastructure, if we can work with him, we will work with him,” said Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) in an interview before Trump’s speech. “But I think what we’re going to hear tonight is bluster. I think that we’re going to hear lies.”