‘Gloomy.’ ‘Amazing.’ Trump’s Speech Divides the Pundits.
Posted January 31, 2018 12:50 a.m. EST
The truth-squad website PolitiFact crashed just 30 minutes in. A C-SPAN shot of Rep. Nancy Pelosi, scowling and clad entirely in black, quickly became a meme. And former Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly, making her debut as a prime-time NBC political analyst, declared that President Donald Trump “did a fine job — but I think he’s going to tweet something and we’ll forget all about it.”
Depending on your news venue of choice, Trump’s State of the Union speech on Tuesday was pronounced “gloomy” (ABC’s Martha Raddatz), “well-confected” (MSNBC’s Chris Matthews), “way too long” (Fox News’ Chris Wallace), or “amazing” (Sean Hannity). The Drudge Report blared, “Trump Shows Heart,” and Rachel Maddow on MSNBC called the speech “lumbering.”
If the White House had previewed Trump’s 80-minute address as a gesture toward uniting a divided nation, the sharply divergent reactions among journalists on Tuesday suggested that the president may have fallen short, at least among the partisan pundit class.
The general public had a lot of opinions, too: Twitter said that the speech generated upward of 4.5 million tweets, making it “the most tweeted” of any presidential State of the Union or joint address to Congress.
But on television, where a State of the Union can draw tens of millions of viewers, the address offered commentators a chance for star-making moments and, in some cases, redemption.
Van Jones, the CNN commentator, was castigated by his fellow liberals last year when he effusively praised Trump’s first joint address to Congress, describing one passage as “one of the most extraordinary moments you have ever seen in American politics, period.”
On CNN on Tuesday, Jones was not going to allow any highlight-reel editor or YouTube wag to catch him in the act of applauding the president. He came out swinging and kept on swinging.
“He was selling sweet-tasting candy — with poison in it,” Jones said. He built up to denouncing Trump’s subtextual suggestion that many immigrants are violent or dangerous, calling out, “It’s wrong! It’s wrong!”
Kelly, meanwhile, faced her own proving ground, a big political night alongside veterans like Tom Brokaw and Andrea Mitchell. Her move to NBC from Fox News last year has been mixed at best, with so-so ratings for her Sunday night magazine program and a rocky start to her 9 a.m. edition of “Today.”
On Tuesday, Kelly drew on the trademark spitfire that made her a sensation at Fox News, only this time it was aimed squarely at the Republican president in office.
“I expect very little,” she said before Trump gave the speech. “Because these events tend to be utterly forgettable, and this one probably will be, too.”
She scoffed at the notion, pushed by the White House, that Trump would take a conciliatory approach. “How can the man we’ve watched all this time come out and be conciliatory?” Kelly said. “To whom? To the 3 percent of Democrats who approve of him right now?”
Also in the hot seat on Tuesday was Chris Christie, the former governor of New Jersey, who spent his first evening as an ABC political analyst defending Trump’s remarks as “a traditional State of the Union speech.” He was the sole Trump fan on ABC News’ broadcast, where Matthew Dowd, a political consultant, quipped: “Calling this a healing speech is almost like calling going on a diet by drinking a Diet Coke and eating a pizza.”
Conservative media outlets focused on the facial reactions of Democrats in the audience, accusing the scowling Pelosi and Sen. Bernie Sanders — who was seen looking deeply bored, and halfheartedly clapping — of disrespecting military veterans and the grieving relatives whom Trump had invited to the event.
In his post-address remarks, Hannity, incredulous at the Democrats, asked his guest, “How can you sit down and not want to cheer?”
The guest, Donald Trump Jr., agreed. “It doesn’t make any sense to me,” he said solemnly.
The president, a former star of reality TV, knows the value of a grand entrance, and all three cable networks carried footage of him entering a giant black limousine before making the short drive from the White House to the Capitol.
Earlier in the day, over tomato soup and thyme roasted chicken, the president had done his own hard sell, welcoming a dozen or so television anchors to lunch at the White House, a tradition before State of the Union speeches.
Attendees described the conversation as cordial, although Trump grew agitated at times, telling the NBC journalists there that he did not like their critical coverage, especially because he had earned millions of dollars for their network back when he hosted “The Apprentice.”
Ever conscious of his audience, Trump also took a moment to assure the anchors that he was expecting a big television turnout on Tuesday night.
The State of the Union, he pledged, would have higher ratings than the Grammys.