The atmosphere at the Capitol on Tuesday night, Feb. 5, was excited and tense. It was also evident that at President Donald Trump’s second State of the Union speech women would be prominent — especially two: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and first-term member of Congress Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-New York), aka AOC.
There was a visible sign of this dominance. More than half of the historic 100 women elected to Congress in 2018 wore white. They sat in a block of white in the seats designated for Congress at a State of the Union — the ones behind the wide tables. Usually, the seats in front of the tables are designated for senators, the Cabinet, the Joints Chiefs of Staff and justices of the Supreme Court (this time, there were four, including one of the three women justices, Elena Kagan). The senior members of the House typically sit in the remaining rows and the freshmen stand behind. But this year, most of the seats in that section on the Democratic side were occupied by the women in white, with AOC front-row center.
AOC was also sighted in Statuary Hall before the speech, where the television media were assembling. She had taken a detour from the House to introduce her guest, Ana Mara Archila — who gained fame by confronting Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Arizona) in a Senate elevator during the Kavanaugh hearings — to CNN anchor Dana Bash.
Everyone expected hostility, maybe even a walk-out of women, during Trump’s speech. Instead, at one point, when the president acknowledged their historic numbers in Congress, the entire block of white-clothed Democratic women leaped up from their seats and started dancing, high-fiving and cheering. TV viewers’ eyes were fixed on the reactions from Speaker Pelosi as she listened and read the president’s speech on a printout, which she held prominently in front of her.
From the press gallery over the lectern, congressional journalists concentrated on the reaction to the president’s words by the incredible gathering of all tbe U.S. government leaders seated in front of them.
The president was interrupted over 100 times by applause, mostly from the Republican section. But many times, both Republicans and Democrats on the House floor stood and applauded at a presidential statement. They even sang “Happy Birthday” to an introduced guest.
At other times, the entire Democratic delegation of senators and representatives groaned.
The loudest groans from Democrats came when the president, in talking about North Korea, said: “If I had not been elected president of the United States, we would right now, in my opinion, be in a major war with North Korea, with potentially millions of people killed.”
Dems sat silently on their hands as Republicans stood and cheered when Trump said he “would ask Congress to pass legislation to prohibit late-term abortions” and “I will work to stop illegal immigration.”
Surprisingly, many Democrats stood and applauded — as Republicans cheered — when Trump said: “We are alarmed by new calls to adopt socialism in our country … America will never be a socialist country.” Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) and Ocasio-Cortez, the oldest and youngest Democratic stars known for pushing Democratic socialism, sat with sour looks, their faces down, focused on their iPhones.
The president mentioned neither the opioid crisis nor gun violence, two of Democrats’ prime issues, in the speech of some 86 minutes.
“His narrative is so obscene, we can’t take him seriously,” said Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Illinois) in an interview in Statuary Hall, recalling the president’s comments about the fatal gathering of white nationalists in Charlotttesville, Virginia, when he said that “some of them are good people.” “What does he mean ‘politics of revenge?’ He shouldn’t be the president of the United States,” she said angrily.
“He paves a very scary and unfair picture of our border,” said four-term Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Texas), whose twin brother Julio is running for president. “Trump said El Paso is safe now after the wall was built, but it was safe before.”
The president seemed to conflate the term “walls” and “barriers” when talking about border security. “It’s not just a simple concrete wall,” he said. He did not mention DREAMers or DACA beneficiaries.
The speech, delivered by the president in a moderate, even quiet, voice, obviously was staged to have something for everyone. But it is doubtful that any minds — especially of Trump’s hard-core critics in the Democratic party — were changed, despite the chanting and dancing and groaning.