Editor’s note: This story has been edited to reflect Rush Limbaugh was awarded the Medal of Freedom, not the Medal of Honor.
And then she tore up the speech.
Right there, on camera, behind Trump’s back. As he stepped down, she ripped again. Then a third time. And a fourth. If Trump knew about the American carnage going on behind him, he didn’t react as he left. But Pelosi was on her turf, with a deep understanding of her audience — and she wasn’t finished. In case any confusion remained, Pelosi held up what remained of the address to her family in the gallery, in full view of reporters.
“It was a manifesto of mistruths,” Pelosi told reporters as she left the Capitol. The ripping was not planned, according to a person close to the Democratic speaker who was unauthorized to speak publicly.
Republicans dismissed her display, on the eve of Trump’s acquittal in the Senate impeachment trial, as a tantrum.
“She might as well rip up any plans for attracting independent voters,” Trump campaign spokesman Tim Murtaugh said. “Pelosi and the Democrats sat on their hands through all of the good news for Americans in that speech.”
“This speech was about American heroes and American workers,” tweeted Steve Scalise of Louisiana, the Republican vote-counter. “She decided THAT was worth literally tearing apart.”
Tearing the speech gave Pelosi the last visual word over Trump, who had spoken to the House from a position of strength. He arrived in the chamber with the full force of the Republican Party behind him. She is leading a party in the throes of a divisive presidential nomination fight that had botched the kickoff Iowa caucuses only the night before. The House had impeached Trump on her watch. But the Senate was poised to acquit him.
From the start, the event was awkward because the history between those two was so icy. They had not spoken since October, when Pelosi pointed at Trump over a White House conference table, suggested that Russia controls him and walked out.
Now, Trump was returning to the very chamber where he was impeached, standing before the same Democrats who have called him unfit for office and sought to oust him. He stepped to the podium and handed navy blue folders containing his speech to Pelosi and Vice President Mike Pence. Photos from that moment show that Trump mistakenly handed Pence’s copy to Pelosi. The outside reads in gold letters: “The President of the Senate of the United States.” That’s Pence’s title.
At that moment, Pelosi extended a hand. Trump did not acknowledge it, instead turning around to begin his speech.
Pelosi, famous for casting shade, especially on Trump, gave a look.
For 78 minutes, Trump went on to extol a “Great American Comeback” on his watch, just three years after he took office decrying a land of “American carnage” under his predecessor. Pelosi read through her copy as he spoke.
Trump bestowed the Medal of Freedom on Rush Limbaugh to raucous applause and a glum reception from House Democrats.
“My fellow Americans, the best is yet to come,” he finished.
Pelosi had already gathered the papers for her big finish, which she later said was “the courteous thing to do, considering the alternative.”
The moment was a less joyful echo of last year’s State of the Union, when Pelosi stole the show with a smirk-and-clap, eye to eye with Trump. Then, Democrats were triumphant after election gains that flipped the House from Republican control and put Pelosi back in the speaker’s chair.
That night, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez arrived on the scene wearing a white caped pantsuit and sat prominently at the center of the Democratic section. Tuesday night, on the eve of Trump’s acquittal, the congresswoman skipped the speech altogether.
“After much deliberation, I have decided that I will not use my presence at a state ceremony to normalize Trump’s lawless conduct & subversion of the Constitution,” Ocasio-Cortez tweeted a few hours before the speech. “None of this is normal, and I will not legitimize it.”