[ Posted Wednesday, January 23rd, 2019 – 17:25 UTC ]

That headline is a little acronym-heavy, so allow me to spell it out: the President Of The United States is locked in a battle of wills with the Speaker Of The House over the State Of The Union speech. How this all ends is anyone's guess, since it is nothing more than a side drama in the grand government-shutdown Kabuki theater we're all now trapped within. So far, it looks like Nancy Pelosi has the upper hand in the standoff, but you never really know what Donald Trump is going to do next, so it's anyone's guess precisely what is going to happen next Tuesday night.

How we got here: early this month, Pelosi sent Trump the traditional (but informal) invitation to speak to a joint session of Congress on January 29. But then the shutdown did not get resolved. So Pelosi sent a letter to Trump suggesting that he either (1) postpone the State Of The Union speech until the government was open once again, or (2) deliver his speech in written form. Trump reacted this week by attempting to bluff his way through, stating that he would be showing up on Tuesday night as if everything were normal. However, to hold a speech in front of a joint session of Congress requires a resolution pass in both houses beforehand, and Pelosi stated she was not going to bring up any such resolution until the government reopened. She clarified this stance in a letter sent to Trump today. Trump subsequently backed down (or at least it seems so at the moment), and said he would give his speech at an "alternative" event, without specifying what that would mean, exactly.

At this point, nobody's sure what is going to happen, but a few details are worth pointing out. An obvious workaround for Trump would seem to be to give his speech in the Senate chamber rather than the House. Mitch McConnell would very likely be happy to send him an invitation to do so, so this wouldn't be a problem politically. But logistically, it would, since the Senate floor isn't really big enough to hold such a crowd (there are only 100 senators versus 435 House members, remember). One further thing to point out is that in the House chambers, Nancy Pelosi controls who gets onto the floor (through the Sergeant-at-Arms) as well as when the microphones and television cameras are on.

This leaves us with several possible outcomes, some more ridiculous than others. Here they are, in no particular order:

Trump tries to bull his way in to give his speech, is physically turned away. Katy, bar the door! This would involve a confrontation between the Secret Service and the House Sergeant-at-Arms, which would certainly make for an interesting power struggle between federal cops. But it's doubtful the Secret Service would let Trump stage this confrontation in the first place, so this has to be seen as pretty unlikely.

Trump successfully bulls his way in, but Pelosi leaves mic and cameras dark. This would assume the Secret Service wins the confrontation outside the House chamber door, but inside that chamber Pelosi still sets the rules. She could easily deny any television coverage and even leave the microphone at the podium off. Would Trump just loudly shout out his speech and hope that Republicans somehow record it or live-stream it to the country? This would also certainly be entertaining.

Trump gives his speech in Senate chamber. As mentioned, Mitch McConnell would probably be happy to extend an invitation to Trump, but it would technically be an invitation to speak to only the Senate, not a joint session of Congress. Would Mitch let House members onto the floor to watch the speech? That could get pretty crowded, as the standing-room-only crowd would be huge. But at least Trump would be welcomed in and have a microphone that worked and cameras that were rolling.

Trump gives his speech as a rally in front of adoring crowds. Trump is reportedly considering this as an option. He could raise a cheering crowd pretty quickly, and pack the house with his supporters. He could give the speech in or near D.C. or hold it someplace far from the Beltway. Either way, he'd get the fawning applause he so deeply craves, even though it wouldn't be from Congress. We all know how much Trump enjoys rallies, so this option can't be dismissed as unlikely quite so easily.

Trump gives his speech in alternate location. Trump has already been offered the statehouses of both North Carolina and Michigan to give his speech, and he likely could have other offers we haven't yet heard about. This would give him a stately backdrop for his speech, in a Republican-controlled legislature. But who would get to see it from the floor? The state's legislators or the United States Congress? This would have to be worked out in advance, obviously.

Trump gives his speech from the Oval Office. This is probably the least likely option for location, since if Trump had to give his whole speech sitting in the Oval Office, he would be denied a live audience guaranteed to give him a standing ovation at least once every minute. That's the aspect of the speech Trump loves the most, so it'd be hard to see him giving that up.

Trump cancels or postpones his speech. Trump postponing his speech seems more likely than him cancelling it outright, for obvious reasons. He could agree to give his speech "one week after the government reopens," and then use this as leverage in the negotiations. Whatever happens, he's going to want to declare victory soon after, and this would assure him of the largest possible stage on which to do so. There's no hard rule saying the State Of The Union has to be given at any particular time, so Trump could just wait out the shutdown and then still get to give his speech in the end.

Democrats aren't even invited to Trump's speech. These last three deal with who will be in the audience for Trump's speech. This will depend on where and when it takes place, obviously. If Trump controls the venue, he could invite anyone he wanted -- and also snub anyone he wanted. He could invite only congressional Republicans, for instance. He could even snub Congress altogether, if he holds a rally somewhere with adoring supporters. But it's much more likely that he'd just shut the Democrats out of the audience by not inviting them to attend.

Democrats boycott his speech and don't show up. There's a flip side to that previous coin, though. If Trump gives his speech in front of Congress (just the Senate or both chambers), Democrats could boycott the speech. They could just refuse to attend, which would turn the entire thing into a mere partisan event for Republicans. This would likely only happen if Trump went ahead with his speech while the government was still shut down, which would be the whole point of the protest.

Democrats attend Trump's speech, but then stand up and walk out either (1) when he begins speaking, (2) after the first lie he tells, or (3) after the first time he badmouths Democrats. This would be highly entertaining, in a number of ways. If the speech is given in the traditional format, then Nancy Pelosi will be seated directly behind President Trump. If she at any point just stood up and walked away, it would be impossible to ignore. If she continued down the aisle towards the door followed by the entire Democratic caucus, it could possibly be the worst snub of a president's speech ever, in all of American history. That is a powerful statement to make. If Pelosi waited until the first time Trump blatantly lied about the border crisis or directly attacked Democrats for not giving in to his tantrum, then the significance would be obvious to all.

This might also have an added benefit, as well, when you consider how Trump might react to such a walkout. He would almost certainly stop giving his prepared remarks and launch into freewheeling and ad-libbing. Would he sound petulant? Almost certainly. But would he say something that he would later regret? That's the real question. Would he go too far in badmouthing Democrats? Would he say something so rude or obnoxious that it would turn the country against him? That's a real possibility, knowing Trump's speaking style.

The State Of The Union is the most heavily edited speech any president gives. Each word is agonized over by his staff, who must occasionally push back on what the president really wants to say. But if a Democratic walkout unleashed Trump from his TelePrompTer, then who knows what would pop out of his mouth in response?

The whole speech drama, as I mentioned, is but a showdown within a showdown. Both are a battle of wills between Nancy Pelosi and Donald Trump. Trump thinks he has the country behind him, but Pelosi knows she has the upper hand. Not only do all the polls show that a majority of the public blames Trump and the Republicans for the shutdown, but Democrats just won a historic midterm victory in the House in a campaign that Trump made exclusively about the southern border and immigrants. Once again, in case you missed it, Trump lost this election. Trump has tried to use the "elections have consequences" line in defending his position, but his interpretation is: "I won in 2016 on building the wall, so the people want me to build the wall." He ignores the 2018 election altogether. Pelosi knows that the most recent election has already had consequences, and the biggest consequence is that the House of Representatives does not kowtow to Trump any more. She is secure in this knowledge, in fact, and both the speech showdown and the larger shutdown showdown both show how strong her position is in this regard.

The biggest risk both sides run is getting too caught up in the fight over the speech. The rest of the country is going to see this as petty, no matter who prevails (and no matter which side you're on, really). The speech is nothing more than a symbol, and denying it is also purely symbolic. It is nothing short of playing politics, one way or the other. Both sides are going to be striving hard to paint the other as more juvenile and sophomoric than their own. Which is going to be an easy sell all around, since most people are getting pretty sick of all the posturing going on in Washington.

-- Chris Weigant


Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


18 Comments on “POTUS v. SOTH on SOTU”

  1. [1] 
    neilm wrote:

    It's very dull. I just don't care. I'm not listening in anyway. Trump doesn't know the state of his bowels, let alone the state of the Nation.


  2. [2] 
    nypoet22 wrote:

    wherever he does it, the media are bound to allow time for a democratic response. my suggestion would be to forego the policy speech in favor of a comment on all the president's lies. have someone fact-check his speech in real-time, then insert all the corrections in the response. a short introduction, followed by a fact check of all the things donald just said that were false, and finally a conclusion, this president lies constantly, spurns our allies, kisses up to our adversaries, and claims that it's democrats who are afraid of the truth. clearly, the state of the union is in grave danger.

  3. [3] 
    nypoet22 wrote:

    ... a danger not from caravans of poor mothers and children fleeing war-torn central america, but from the man currently holding the highest office in the nation. god help the united states of america.

  4. [4] 
    TheStig wrote:

    Anybody catch the PBS program "The Dictator's Playbook" featuring Mussolini? Trump has a lot of Mussolini-isms...the love of bombast, the body language and the need to create enemies. To be fair, Mussolini was a talented writer, a polished speaker, and just plain smarter. Trump is Mussolini-Lite. Maybe Trump's limitations and American Institutions will keep keep him from ending his days hanging around a gas station with a few friends.

    Seriously, well worth an hour of your time.

  5. [5] 
    Kick wrote:

    As I posted on yesterday's commentary, it is a federal crime to enter or remain on the floor of either House of Congress without authorization from that House, 40 USC Section 5104(e)(2)(A), and 40 USC Section 5109 makes it a felony to do so.

    Someone really should notify Comrade Benedict Donald Treasonous Trump regarding the laws of the United States of America before he does something stupid and unlawful... oh, wait... something else stupid and unlawful.

  6. [6] 
    Kick wrote:

    Poor Donald should just suck it up and wait until he ends the Trump Shutdown. If he wants to close down the government, then he's effectively closed himself down and should suffer the consequences of his own actions.

  7. [7] 
    Kick wrote:


    Trump doesn't know the state of his bowels, let alone the state of the Nation.

    Word on K Street is that he regularly soils his sheets and therefore will not allow staff to change them. TMI, of course, but he does "know the state of his bowels," and it's the same state as his mouth in that the BS flows freely and unabated. ;)

  8. [8] 
    Kick wrote:


    This! These! :)

  9. [9] 
    ListenWhenYouHear wrote:

    Kick [5]

    Guess we’d learn real quickly whether not being paid has influenced just how quickly the Secret Service is willing to put themselves in harm’s way for his orange butt!

    The Senate is going to allow for two votes on bills to reopen the government that the Republicans have said will not pass. Maybe they will explain why the legislation passed unanimously the last time they voted on it, but not this time?!

  10. [10] 
    chaszzzbrown wrote:

    And the winner is: Trump cancels or postpones his speech.

  11. [11] 
    nypoet22 wrote:

    probably the wisest course on his part. i didn't think he'd have the self-restraint to do it.

  12. [12] 
    Balthasar wrote:

    Like neil, I'm having trouble getting excited about this. but..

    ...the symbolism is interesting. Nancy's won this one, hands down.

    What's Trump's counter-punch? There will be an attempt at one, I'm sure. Will he fold? Naw, not yet. He's still listening to Hannity.

  13. [13] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    Haven't the Democrats missed a golden opportunity here?

    They should have put together a bill that amply funded all aspects of border security, including replacement barriers and new barriers where they could be strategically placed, and throw in a few immigration-related issues and protections for those undocumented immigrants already here.

    They might even call it, ah, wait for it, comprehensive immigration reform.

    What's not to vote for?

  14. [14] 
    nypoet22 wrote:


    i think the point is opening the government and paying its employees first, then dealing with border security.

  15. [15] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    My point was to do both.

  16. [16] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:


    Another point was to say that there is a complete failure of imagination on the part of the Democrats which does not bode well for 2020.

    Of course, getting the government open is priority one.

  17. [17] 
    C. R. Stucki wrote:

    Liz M

    You asked me on the MLK blog, "What compels me to post here?". I responded (in all seriousness, in spite of your response), and asked "what compels you?", and you responded "Very little".

    So who's using your handle on all the above???

  18. [18] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    It's me.

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