Reliving The Game: The very, very petty fight over the State of the Union

Soenke Pietsch (‘21)

As the world cheered towards and into 2019, there was not much smiling to be seen in the White House. Starting just before Christmas in 2018, a government shutdown, the result of failing to pass a funding bill providing the government with money, had kicked off that would become the longest in the history of the United States. The main reason: President Trump’s insistence on including funding for the border wall with Mexico in the bill and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s insistence on not including funding for one of Trump’s core campaign promises. Yet, the unintended effect of this dispute would have implications that stretched beyond either party’s original intentions and make history in the process.

Among the array of effects, whose origins’ trace back to the closing of our government,  may have been one our President would have liked to avoid. On January 16, Nancy Pelosi basically uninvited President Trump from giving the State of the Union speech in a letter, citing security concerns amid the government shutdown. She told him she could pick another date once the shutdown was over, or he could send his speech over in writing. This was, of course, part of the broader shutdown fight. Pelosi was well aware of the fact that President Trump loves public attention, and she had total control over whether Trump would be able to be officially invited to give the State of the Union at the Capitol or not.

To give a little context, Article II, Section 3 of the United States Constitution states that the president “shall from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union, and recommend to their Consideration such Measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.” Beyond this basic description, it doesn’t go into specifics. In other words, it was essentially up to Nancy Pelosi whether President Trump could deliver his State of the Union as it’s been done in recent years — from a podium on the House floor — or not. Therefore, the other option open to Trump at that moment, was writing his State of the Union in the form of a letter. Although it is common practice nowadays for our Presidents to give their speeches in front of an assembled House and swaths of camera crews streaming the speech live to the entire nations, it is still possible, as stated earlier, to deliver the State of the Union by letter. Doing this would have allowed President to relive the game of writing the State of the Union in  form of a letter and repeat unfamiliar history in the process.

For much of American history, the traditional State of the Union Address, informing citizens of the United States about the condition of their nation, had been delivered in writing. For the first 12 years of the US, Presidents George Washington and John Adams traveled to Congress to deliver an oral speech, but from Thomas Jefferson until Woodrow Wilson, the State of the Union had been sent to the House of Representatives in writing. If Trump had been provided with no other opportunity than writing his State of the Union, he may have put the union in a state it hadn’t been in for over 80 years.

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