WASHINGTON: US Vice President Mike Pence claps as Speaker of the US House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi rips a copy of US President Donald Trump’s speech after he delivered the State of the Union address at the US Capitol on Tuesday. – AFP

WASHINGTON: A bitter feud between US President Donald Trump and top Democrat Nancy Pelosi boiled over at his State of the Union speech on Tuesday, with Trump denying her a handshake and Pelosi ripping apart a copy of his remarks behind his back. Trump avoided the subject of his impeachment drama in a pugnacious 80-minute speech, but the raw wounds from the battle were evident with fellow Republicans giving him standing ovations while rival Democrats for the most part remained seated.

The Republican-led Senate was expected to acquit him of charges he abused his powers and obstructed Congress during a vote later yesterday. Seeing Pelosi, the US House of Representatives speaker, for the first time since she stormed out of a White House meeting four months ago, Trump declined to shake her outstretched hand as he gave her a paper copy of his remarks before starting to speak.

Despite having not spoken to Trump since their last meeting, Pelosi appeared to be taken aback. She avoided citing the customary “high privilege and distinct honor” that usually accompanies the speaker’s introduction of the president to Congress. “Members of Congress, the President of the United States” was all she said in introducing Trump. When his speech ended, Pelosi stood and tore up her copy of the remarks he had handed her, later telling reporters it was “the courteous thing to do, considering the alternative”.

“The president has no class,” House Democrat Jim McGovern told reporters afterwards. “I mean, he should have, out of respect, taken the speaker’s hand. “But after delivering what essentially was a campaign rally speech that was terribly dark and divisive, I think the speaker did the right thing ripping it up.” Kayleigh McEnany, Trump’s campaign spokeswoman, said of Pelosi: “Her hatred for @realdonaldtrump has blinded her to the repulsive nature of her smug, elitist behavior.”

After the event, Pelosi tweeted a photo of her with her hand reaching out to Trump and said, “Democrats will never stop extending the hand of friendship to get the job done #ForThePeople. We will work to find common ground where we can, but will stand our ground where we cannot. #SOTU”

The tension was a sign that little legislative progress should be expected with the presidential election nine months away. The impeachment case has intensified bitter feelings between Trump, a former reality TV star-turned conservative politician, and Pelosi, a California liberal, that have existed throughout his presidency. He routinely calls her “Crazy Nancy” at his campaign rallies.

As he began the speech, Republicans from both houses of Congress chanted “four more years” while he stood at the lectern in the chamber of the House. Democrats sat silently and some could be seen shaking their heads as Trump declared, “The state of our union is stronger than ever before.” Pelosi, who dropped her opposition to impeachment and allowed Democratic lawmakers to seek the charges against him, sat stoically and grim-faced behind Trump and paged through a paper copy of his speech as he spoke.

Trump presented himself as a big improvement over Democratic President Barack Obama, whom he succeeded three years ago, saying he had bolstered US economic growth and increased jobs. “In just three short years we have shattered the mentality of American decline and we have rejected the downsizing of America’s destiny,” he said. The House impeachment managers, acting as prosecutors in the Senate impeachment trial, were seated together at the front of the Democrats’ section.

Many House Democratic women wore white for a second year in a row, a sign of the suffrage movement that won women the right to vote 100 years ago. Several Democratic lawmakers refused to attend the annual speech to protest Trump, such as liberal firebrand Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Trump, using the speech to lay out his vision for a second four-year term, said a Democratic plan to expand government-funded health insurance amounted to a “socialist takeover” that would bankrupt the country, cut benefits for those who have them now and provide care to illegal immigrants.

Democratic presidential candidates and many lawmakers have proposed healthcare plans that would be run by the government, a sharp departure from the current, private system in which millions of Americans receive medical insurance from their employers. Trump’s lack of a healthcare plan has left him open to criticism that he has not put enough work into finding a way to reduce rising insurance costs that burden middle-class Americans. “We will never let socialism destroy American healthcare!” Trump said.

Democratic women stood and chanted “HR 3” – a reference to a Democratic bill that would lower drug costs. In the televised Democratic response to Trump’s speech, Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer said: “Democrats are trying to make your healthcare better. Republicans in Washington are trying to take it away.”

Trump said his policies of deregulation and tax cuts – criticized by opponents as damaging the environment and favoring the wealthy over the poor – were responsible for “unparalleled” economic success. He listed the North American USMCA trade pact, a trade deal with China, massive military spending, “unprecedented” measures to stop illegal immigration, and his bid to “end America’s wars in the Middle East” as examples of fulfilling his commitments to voters. He threw his conservative base strings of red meat – tough talk on abortion, prayer in schools and the right to bear arms.

But flourishes that could have come right out of Trump’s days as a reality TV show entertainer grabbed the real attention. At one moment he paused his speech to praise Rush Limbaugh, one of the fathers of America’s hugely influential conservative radio landscape, who disclosed this week that he has advanced lung cancer. To the surprise of the packed audience, Trump announced that his wife Melania, who was alongside Limbaugh, was going to present the ideological star with the coveted Medal of Freedom – the highest possible civilian award.

Later, Trump outdid even this stroke of theatrics by singling out a woman in the audience whose army husband had been away for months on foreign deployments, then telling her he had “a very special surprise”. It was her husband, in full uniform, coming down the stairs for a tearful, surprise reunion – in front of a primetime national television audience.

Trump got yet more good news on Tuesday with a Gallup poll showing his approval rating at its highest ever: 49 percent. At the State of the Union, his guests reflected the political themes he hopes will maintain his ferociously loyal base, including a senior border patrol officer, a woman whose brother was murdered by an illegal immigrant in 2018. Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido, recognized as the country’s interim president by the United States, was also a guest in a public show of support for his efforts to dislodge President Nicolas Maduro.

Trump also revived his polarizing arguments that migrants should be stopped from crossing the southern US border and that so-called “sanctuary cities” where migrants are protected are wrong. His immigration policies are opposed by Democrats. Pelosi could be seen shaking her head as Trump spoke of his views on immigration. After coming close to a broad conflict with Iran after he ordered the killing of Iranian military commander Qassem Soleimani, Trump said, “We are working to end America’s wars in the Middle East.” – Agencies