News & Politics

Pelosi's Biggest SOTU Mistake Wasn't Tearing Up the Speech

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of Calif., tears her copy of President Donald Trump's s State of the Union address after he delivered it to a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Feb. 4, 2020. Vice President Mike Pence is at left. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

Immediately after President Donald Trump gave his powerful State of the Union address on Tuesday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi infamously tore up her copy of the speech. The White House rightly denounced this petty tantrum, saying Pelosi tore up “One of our last surviving Tuskegee Airmen. The survival of a child born at 21 weeks. The mourning families of Rocky Jones and Kayla Mueller. A service member’s reunion with his family. That’s her legacy.”

Yet Pelosi made a far more monumental error regarding the State of the Union, one that undercuts her very argument for impeaching and removing Trump from office as soon as possible before he could supposedly derail the 2020 election. It was wrong for her to tear up the speech, but it was far worse — strategically speaking — for her to invite him in the first place.

Pelosi led House Democrats in impeaching Trump on the charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress. During the arguments for impeachment, she claimed that the process could not be delayed because Trump was a “threat” to the 2020 election. Therefore, when the White House signaled that it would use executive privilege to refuse subpoenas in the impeachment inquiry, Pelosi responded by adding a new article of impeachment for “obstruction of Congress.”

Yet she undercut the argument for haste by holding up the articles of impeachment, and she also undercut the argument by inviting Trump to deliver the State of the Union address — even before he had been acquitted.

Pelosi’s decision rises to the level of absurdity. On the one hand, she led an attempt to force the president out of office, claiming he threatened the integrity of the next election and the Consitution. On the other hand, she invited him to deliver an address full of pomp and pageantry — that he was certain to use to bolster his re-election. She naturally seemed very uncomfortable throughout the speech, but she had no one to blame for it but herself.

There is a longstanding precedent for presidents not to deliver the State of the Union as a speech before Congress. The Constitution merely requires the president to send Congress a report detailing the state of the union, as if the president were informing the more important branch of government, like a secretary or a journalist.

The very pageantry of the State of the Union is arguably problematic in a constitutional republic like the United States of America. This grand state event seems far more fitting in a monarchy like Great Britain. The government dignitaries are center stage, with the president atop them like some kind of king. His pronouncements from on high either energize or annoy his audience as he directs the entire affair.

For these reasons, President Thomas Jefferson ended the practice of giving a speech to Congress in person, preferring to send a written report. President Woodrow Wilson — the father of “war socialism” and one of the worst presidents in history — reinstituted the speech amid his substantial increases in federal government power. The advent of television turned a speech before Congress into a speech to the American people, and hence the State of the Union became the majestic event it is today.

The speech gives presidents a powerful platform to celebrate their accomplishments and present their agendas. Trump used it very effectively, to highlight the strength of the economy and the radicalism of his Democratic opponents. He used it to celebrate Rush Limbaugh, to advocate for school choice and the unborn, and to warn against the devastation of socialism.

President Trump took full advantage of the opportunity to address Congress and the nation, and Pelosi only reinforced his message by tearing up the speech at the end. Checkmate, Madame Speaker.

Yet the entire thing could have been avoided. Pelosi could have said, “Trump is a threat to the Constitution, therefore I will not invite him to speak before Congress. He can send a report just like Thomas Jefferson did.” If she had refused Trump, she would have received some backlash, but at least she would have been consistent.

Instead, Pelosi signaled the impotence of her own impeachment by inviting Trump to deliver the State of the Union. While she had already done this to some extent when she agreed to have the House vote on the U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade agreement, the State of the Union would have been a far more defensible move in her impeachment game. The USMCA is a trade deal that will help American business, while the State of the Union is a symbolic event that the House speaker arguably should deny to a president she thinks should be ousted from office.

By refusing to invite Trump, Pelosi would have signaled her intention to be serious about calling him a threat to the Constitution and removing him from office. Instead, she revealed just how empty her impeachment was by extending this Imminent Threat to Democracy an olive branch. It’s almost like she didn’t believe in her own impeachment charade…

If she can’t even deny him the State of the Union, why impeach him in the first place?

Tyler O’Neil is the author of Making Hate Pay: The Corruption of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Follow him on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.