President Trump, in our opinion, made a mistake at the State of the Union speech if his failure to shake Speaker Pelosi’s hand was intended as a snub. She made a mistake, in our view, if she intended an insult by tearing up her copy of his speech at the end of Congress’ joint session. Both gestures put a slight damper on what was otherwise a rousing evening calculated to point our country toward November.
We use the word “if” above because, having watched the clip a dozen times, we can't gain a clear view of whether Mr. Trump intended to snub the Speaker at the start of the speech. He had plenty of cause to, we’ll grant. Mrs. Pelosi has been calling him a criminal. She handed up against him charges of which the Senate is likely to acquit him. If he resents the Speaker, it would be reasonable enough.
Yet it’s not so clear what Mr. Trump intended. As he approached the well of the House and then the speaker’s podium, he was moving with deliberate slowness. He had stopped to exchange words with the Chief Justice of the United States, and the camera catches him exchanging handshakes with the Joint Chiefs. As he mounts the podium, his mind has to be on the two folders.
They contain the “information on the State of the Union” that the Constitution ordains the President shall give to Congress from “time to time.” That has evolved into the tradition that unfolded last night, where the president actually hands the blasted information — a speech — to the President of the Senate, who is Vice President Pence, and the House Speaker, Mrs. Pelosi, Mr. Trump’s nemesis.
Feature, though, how this goes down. With his back to Mr. Pence and Mrs. Pelosi, Mr. Trump carefully picks up the two folders. He turns to his right (the viewers left) so that he can hand the first of the folders to the higher ranking of the two leaders of Congress, Mr. Pence. Watch for it: No handshake. Next he turns further and hands the second folder to the Speaker. She offers a handshake.
The President doesn’t shake it but instead immediately turns back to face the Congress. Mrs. Pelosi withdraws her hand gingerly. The announcer on CBS, in the above clip, isn’t sure it was a snub. “You see the speaker of the House just tried to shake the President’s hand, and he refused, or perhaps did not see her hand.” He, another announcer interjects, did not extend his hand to her.
Then again, too, Mr. Trump didn’t extend his hand to the Vice President, either. That certainly was no snub. So it may be that it wasn’t in Mr. Trump’s rehearsal to shake either of their hands. It may be that he was intent on remembering to pick up the folders and hand them to the Congressional brass and then get back to the audience. He did, though, shake both their hands last year.
Just saying. As for Mrs. Pelosi tearing up the speech at the end of it, we’re not convinced that was a snub. That’s because a certain wonderful and efficient woman with whom we’re acquainted makes a habit of tearing in two pieces of paper that she is done with. It’s her way of saying “that’s been taken care of.” No slight intended.
So was everything hunky dory? Probably not. To us the giveaway was Mrs. Pelosi’s introduction of the President. He was back facing the Congress. Her job at that point was to announce him to the legislature. She picked up the gavel, banged it for silence and then said, “Members of Congress, the President of the United States.”
It was, to our ear, way too terse. Contrast it with, say, President Reagan and Speaker Tip O’Neill. In 1986, Reagan strides in and hands over the envelopes. He does not shake the vice president’s hand. The Speaker does offer his hand — and gets a warm handshake. “How ah ya, Mistah President?” O’Neill rumbles. He lets Reagan take a loooong ovation. Then the famous words:
“Members of the Congress, I have the high privilege and distinct honor of presenting to you the President of the United States.” How nice it would have been had Mr. Trump made a point of shaking the hand of Mr. Pence and Mrs. Pelosi and had she given him a proper introduction. And refrained from tearing up his speech on national television. Maybe things will warm up if he’s acquitted.