OP-ED: This State of the Union was a joust between Trump and a sea of women in white

Lorraine Ali
Los Angeles Times

Marching pioneers of the suffragette movement couldn’t have known a century ago when they wore white as a symbol of their cause that it would someday make its way into the chambers of Congress and upstage one of the country’s stagiest presidents.

But that’s exactly what happened Tuesday, when dozens of newly elected female lawmakers — members of the most diverse Congress ever — showed up to President Trump’s State of the Union address wearing white. They lighted up the Democratic side of the aisle as cameras panned across the chamber, and stood in contrast to the sea of white men in dark blue suits on the other side.

And they weren’t just out in the seats. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, also dressed in white, sat behind Trump as he at one point spoke of all the advancements women had made in the workforce since he took office. She bit her lip, literally, as the women on the floor — who had sat arms folded through much of his speech — cheered. But not for him. They were high-fiving one another, especially when he mentioned there were more women than ever in Congress now. They broke out in a chant of “USA! USA! USA!” countering an earlier chant from the Republicans.

The speech was the first time in Trump’s presidency that he met a majority opposition in the chamber, and after facing a muted response to many of his remarks, he wasn’t quite prepared for the ebullient reaction. “You weren’t supposed to do that,” he half-joked.

Twitter erupted. “Trump tells our women: “you weren’t supposed to do that,” read a tweet that went out on Pelosi’s account. “We’ve heard enough. He wants us to believe that he and his Administration are fighting for women. … There’s a reason why support among women and independents is dropping.”

House Democratic women, including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), middle, are dressed in white for President Trump's State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2019. (Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/TNS)

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It was a twist for what at first seemed to be a fairly normal State of the Union address in abnormal times.

Trump stayed on message as he read from a teleprompter, striking a conciliatory tone for the first half-hour or so of his speech, paying lip service to the idea of compromise and progress. It was as if he was tucking everything unusual about his presidency behind a facade of tradition. He praised the World War II veterans he’d invited for their service, spoke of the need to lift all Americans up, and led the room in singing “Happy Birthday” to a Holocaust survivor.

But with his approval rating hovering around 37 percent, it was near impossible to keep all that other abnormal stuff — a looming possible second government shutdown; the indictments, investigations and subpoenas plaguing his inner circle; his inflammatory rhetoric — at bay. In fact, his address was delayed a week due to a congressional standoff over the funding of his proposed border wall.

And there were breaks from tradition in Trump’s remarks. His first wasn’t a booming statement, but came within seconds of taking the rostrum. He effectively shut out Pelosi, who was supposed to introduce him. And it happened in her house. Flub or power play? The debate picked up steam on social media but subsided as the speech wore on.

Then came the moment everyone knew was coming. About two-thirds of the way into his address, Trump began dropping familiar buzz words: “Caravans!” “MS-13!” “The dangerous southern border!”

The topic of immigration was inevitable, given that Trump threatened to shut the government down again in 10 days if he doesn’t get funding for a border wall between the United States and Mexico.

“Walls save lives!” he proclaimed. He then qualified: “A smart, strategic, see-through barrier. Not just a concrete wall.”

The sea of women in white were red with anger, at least in spirit, when the president began using the plight of women and children as emotional leverage to make a case for his wall, especially given that many children separated from their mothers and families at the border still haven’t been reunited.

“One in three women is sexually assaulted on the long journey north,” he said.

Then it was on to abortion: New York lawmakers recently passed late-term abortion legislation, which he said would allow “babies (to be) ripped from a woman’s womb,” he said.

Pelosi kept her eyes on the printed speech Trump had handed her, and Vice President Mike Pence — well, he hasn’t come up until now because he was essentially a nonentity. A man who looked as if he’d left his body and was floating somewhere over the Bahamas during the long address.

But even the seasoned Pelosi lowered the paper and gasped when, during his plea for unity, Trump said:

“We must reject the politics of revenge, resistance and retribution and embrace the boundless potential of cooperation, compromise and the common good. ... If there is going to be peace and legislation, there cannot be war and investigation.”

Presidential hopeful Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., shook her head. Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., laughed. New House representative and progressive rock star Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez sat stone-faced, her arms folded.

The free pass in Congress that was Trump’s for his first two years in office was clearly gone.

He’d promised early in his address that we, as a nation, “were stepping boldly into the next chapter of this great American adventure.” It was the women in white on the House floor — like the Muslim immigrant and Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar — who ensured we’re already on our way.