Below is my column in the Hill newspaper on the controversial conduct of Speaker Nancy Pelosi at the State of the Union this week. Pelosi broke with tradition on three points: changing the greeting for the President, making demonstrations of criticism from the Speaker’s chair, and ripping up the address in protest. I previously called upon Pelosi to apologize and commit to maintaining decades of tradition for the Speaker to be neutral in the State of the Union to represent the House as a whole — Republicans and Democrats. Pelosi yesterday however doubled down and declared her protests to be perfectly appropriate and liberating. Her declaration of being “liberated” is itself both confirmatory and chilling. She liberated herself from traditions of neutrality that extends back centuries to the English Parliament.
Now liberating from rules and tradition, Pelosi is free to convert the Speakership into a more partisan role at the SOTU, including the use of the position to mock, troll, or taunt a president addressing both houses. I have joined others in criticizing Trump’s failure to shake the hand of Pelosi and his highly inappropriate comments yesterday questioning Pelosi’s and Romney’s faith. However, that does not give Pelosi license to violate this important and unbroken tradition as Speaker at the State of the Union. Indeed, the silence of Democratic members in the face of Pelosi shattering decades of tradition is equally shocking. In remaining silent, Democrats of both houses have lost any moral high ground.
Here is the column:
The House has its share of infamies, great and small, real and symbolic, and has been the scene of personal infamies from brawls to canings. But the conduct of Speaker Nancy Pelosi at the State of the Union address this week will go down as a day of infamy for the chamber as an institution. It has long been a tradition for House speakers to remain stoic and neutral in listening to the address. However, Pelosi seemed to be intent on mocking President Trump from behind his back with sophomoric facial grimaces and head shaking, culminating in her ripping up a copy of his address.
Her drop the mic moment will have a lasting impact on the House. While many will celebrate her trolling of the president, she tore up something far more important than a speech. Pelosi has shredded decades of tradition, decorum and civility that the nation could use now more than ever. The House speaker is more than a political partisan, particularly when carrying out functions such as the State of the Union address. A president appears in the House as a guest of both chambers of Congress. The House speaker represents not her party or herself but the entirety of the chamber. At that moment, she must transcend her own political ambitions and loyalties.
Tensions for this address were high. The House impeachment managers sat as a group in front of the president as a reminder of the ongoing trial. That can be excused as a silent but pointed message from the Democrats. Trump hardly covered himself with glory by not shaking hands with Pelosi. I also strongly disliked elements of his address which bordered on “check under your seat” moments, and the awarding of conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh with the Presidential Medal of Freedom inside the House gallery like a Mardi Gras bead toss. However, if Trump made the State of the Union look like Oprah, then Pelosi made it look like Jerry Springer.
What followed was an utter disgrace. First, Pelosi dropped the traditional greeting before the start of the address, “Members of Congress, I have the high privilege and distinct honor of presenting to you the president of the United States.” Instead, she simply announced, “Members of Congress, the president of the United States.” It was extremely petty and profoundly inappropriate. Putting aside the fact that this is not her tradition, but that of the House, it is no excuse to note that the president was impeached.
Such an indignity was not imposed on President Clinton during his own impeachment proceeding, and anyone respecting due process would note that Trump has been accused, not convicted, at this point in the constitutional process. Pelosi proceeded to repeatedly shake her head, mouth words to others, and visibly disagree with the address. It was like some distempered distracting performance art behind the president.
My revulsion over this has nothing to do with impeachment. Six years ago, I wrote a column denouncing Supreme Court Associate Justice Samuel Alito for mouthing the words “not true” when President Obama used his address to criticize the court for its decision in the Citizens United case. I considered his response to be a disgrace and wrote a column criticizing Chief Justice John Roberts for not publicly chastising Alito for breach of tradition. Instead, Roberts seemed to defend Alito in criticizing Obama for his “very troubling” language and saying that it was unfair to criticize the court when the justices, “according to the requirements of protocol,” have “to sit there expressionless.” That was not unfair. That was being judicious.
I also wrote a column denouncing Republican Representative Joe Wilson, who shouted “you lie!” at Obama during his State of the Union address in 2009. Wilson should have been severely sanctioned for that breach. When I wrote those columns, I had never imagined that a House speaker would engage in conduct far in excess of those controversies. After all, House speakers often have been required to sit through addresses they despised from presidents of the opposing party. The House speaker is third in line of succession to the presidency and the representative of the chamber as a whole. She is not some Sinead O’Connor ripping up a photograph of the pope on “Saturday Night Live” while shouting aloud “fight the real enemy!”
Pelosi, like her predecessors, is supposed to remain stone faced during the address even if the president leaves her personally enraged. Indeed, House speakers have been the authority who kept other members in silent deference and respect, if not to the president, then to the office. However, Pelosi appeared to goad the mob, like a high schooler making mad little faces behind the school principal at an assembly. It worked as members protested and interrupted Trump. Pelosi became another Democratic leader, little more than a twitching embodiment of this age of rage.
This is not to suggest that the House has always listened to its better angels. More than 180 years ago, a confrontation between Democratic Representative Jonathan Cilley and Whig Representative William Graves led to a duel over what Graves viewed as a slight on the House floor. In February 1838, the two decided to meet in Maryland for a duel with rifles, and Graves killed Cilley after both missed each other twice. In response, the House quickly pushed forward antidueling legislation in Congress.
Pelosi has demolished decades of tradition with this poorly considered moment. Of course, many will celebrate her conduct and be thrilled by the insult to Trump. However, even those of us who disagree with his policies should consider what Pelosi destroyed in her moment of rage. She shredded the pretense of governing with civility and dignity in the House. Notably, she did not wait to rip up her copy of the speech until after she left the House floor. Pelosi wanted to do it at the end of the speech, in front of the camera, with the president still in the chamber.
That act was more important to Pelosi than preserving the tradition of her office. In doing so, she forfeited the right to occupy that office. If Pelosi cannot maintain the dignity and neutrality of her office at the State of the Union, she should resign as the speaker of the House of Representatives.
Jonathan Turley is the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law for George Washington University and served as the last lead counsel during a Senate impeachment trial. He testified as a witness expert in the House Judiciary Committee hearing during the impeachment inquiry of President Trump.