No one expects President Donald Trump’s first address to a joint session of Congress on Tuesday to be a staid, traditional affair. But then again, these speeches have been bleeding into spectacle for years.
The question, as with everything these days, is how Trump will react.
The talk around the Capitol this week has been focused on what the president might do when he looks out from the well of the House chamber and sees Democrats staring stonily back at him while Republicans applaud. And though Democrats say they’re committed to being civil, many acknowledge there’s a chance that one of them might get caught up in the moment.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and other top Democrats have been checking in with members in the last few days to both urge them to keep calm and reassure them that everyone else will too. They’re hoping that the biggest form of protest is Rep. Lois Frankel’s (D-Fla.) call to have all the female members wear white.
“I think it’s a dignified occasion and should be treated that way by everyone who’s there. I hope he rises to the occasion,” said Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.).
“There are no shortage of people who seem to think that there’s good politics, at least good short-term politics, in degrading the institutions that generations of Americans have built,” Bennet said, “and I hope we won’t see that on display tomorrow, either by the president or the people who are there to hear his speech.”
It’s not on Trump, said Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah).
“I don’t see why it would be a circus. It’s some pretty serious topics, it seems to me,” Hatch said, adding of the possibility that Democrats could react in a way that grabs attention during the speech. “I hope they grow up.”
Joint addresses had become just another part of the political theater of Washington long before Rep. Joe Wilson screamed “You lie!” at President Barack Obama in 2009 for saying Obamacare wouldn’t insure illegal immigrants, or Justice Samuel Alito mouthed “Not true,” when Obama in 2010 attacked the Citizens United decision as opening “the floodgates for special interests.”
“I have no more campaigns to run,” Obama said as he began to wrap up his speech in 2015. The point he was trying to make got lost in the sarcastic applause from Republicans, prompting his smirking swipe back: “I know because I won both of them,” a comment that was greeted by a round of applause from Democrats and laughs from, among others, his appointee Justice Elena Kagan.
Obama and his staff were aware of the sharply divided environment they were headed into whenever they addressed Congress. But even after the Wilson outburst, some in the White House said, they tried not to let that overwhelm preparations for a speech that they knew was a rare chance to speak to the whole country at once.
“I’m sure afterwards we had moment where we would say ‘Can you believe he said whatever he said, or did whatever he did,’” said Jen Psaki, who was in the White House for most of the first term and returned for the last two years as his communications director. “But you can’t go in focused on that.”
Psaki said Democrats in Congress should see Tuesday’s speech as a moment that will crystallize in many Americans’ minds what kind of opposition they are being to Trump.
“If I were advising Democrats, I would say it’s not a time to turn your backs or not attend, because that makes the speech Democrats not being respectful, and not about what President Trump fails to accomplish.”
Asked if he thought Democrats would contain themselves now that the president delivering the speech is a Republican whom they don’t like, Sen. Roy Blunt (D-Mo.) started laughing.
“That’s up to them,” Blunt said.
Comparing Tuesday’s speech to the outbursts under Obama, Blunt said he thinks it would take Democrats acting worse than the Republicans did to create an issue.
“If we don’t have any more than one person saying one thing, I don’t think it’s a problem,” Blunt said.
But there’s a way these things tend to go.
Members of the president’s party jump to their feet to clap as many times as they can. Members of the opposition party sit on their hands. Reporters count the rounds of applause.
The White House fills the first lady’s box with guests for the president to tick through to make political points. Senators and representatives stock the House chamber with pointed guests of their own. For the address in 2011, just weeks after the-Rep. Gabby Giffords was shot, Republicans and Democrats sat paired off with each other rather than split on either side of the chamber. That was the rare scrambling of the partisan conventions—and of course, also was a kind of theater.
There’s the president’s walk down the center aisle after being announced by the sergeant-at-arms and the walk back at the end, which Tuesday night will be scrutinized for who goes in for what kind of handshake or conversation, and who stays away. Already, some Democrats have erupted over Sen. Joe Manchin’s (D-W.V.) decision to be part of Trump’s official escort to the front of the chamber.
“I hope that we show respect for the office even if we don’t like the things he has to say,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.). “How can what he says be any more outrageous than what we’ve been listening to already?”
Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) said he doesn’t know what to expect—but he’s sure it’ll be a big deal if something does happen.
“There’ll certainly be a lot of people tuned in,” Corker said. “Like you, we’ll see.”
Others Hill veterans say they don’t expect any fireworks.
“Almost all the Democrats voted to censure Joe Wilson,” said former Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), who spent Monday afternoon stopping by to see old colleagues in the Capitol. “I don’t see how anybody who voted to censure Joe Wilson would now turn around and do it themselves.”