Despite all the pomp and ceremony, the State of the Union is actually a rather mundane event. The president outlines his agenda for the coming year, boasts of recent accomplishments and takes a few minutes to recognize ordinary Americans. Lawmakers clap — or don’t — and put out brief statements afterward.
If it happens, this year’s State of the Union will be anything but routine, however.
In a potent symbol of the divide between the newly Democratic-controlled House of Representatives and the White House, the annual address will not be given in the House chambers after a tense back-and-forth between Speaker Nancy Pelosi and President Donald Trump.
In remarks to reporters, Trump said that he was now looking for alternative venues to host the address, which has generally been given in person before Congress since Woodrow Wilson.
“The State of the Union speech has been canceled by Nancy Pelosi because she doesn’t want to hear the truth,” he said. “She doesn’t want the American public to hear what’s going on. And she’s afraid of the truth.”
The drama started on Jan. 16, when Pelosi sent a letter to Trump informing him that, because of the partial government shutdown, he should postpone the State of the Union, which had been scheduled for Jan. 29 in the Capitol. Pelosi argued that the government officials helming security would be doing so without pay, which could pose possible security concerns.
Although the Department of Homeland Security rebuffed those claims, insisting that the workers would gladly fulfill this duty, Pelosi did not budge. The stalemate was only exacerbated after Trump, in what seemed like retaliation, informed her he was grounding the military plane she and a Congressional delegation were planning on using to visit Afghanistan.
On Wednesday, Trump, buoyed by the support of members of his own party who want to see him deliver the address in the House chamber, wrote a letter to Pelosi telling her he would still be delivering the address.
“I look forward to seeing you on the evening of January 29 in the chamber of the House of Representatives,” Trump wrote. “It would be very sad for our our country if the State of the Union was not delivered on on time, on schedule, and very importantly, on location!”
Pelosi responded less than three hours later, telling Trump that she would not authorize the speech, even though she had unofficially invited him earlier in the month.
“The House of Representatives will not consider a concurrent resolution authorizing the President’s State of the Union address in the House chamber until government has opened,” she wrote. “I look forward to welcoming you to the House on a mutually agreeable date when government has been opened.”
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, even Trump allies, were in agreement that Pelosi ultimately controls the timing of the address.
“Elections have consequences,” said Republican Rep. Mark Meadows. “The people’s house is controlled by Nancy Pelosi and her gavel. And if she’s not willing to put forth that effort, this President, or any previous President or any future President, can only come and address the people from the people’s house upon an invitation from the Speaker.”
Democratic Rep. Gerry Connolly concurred. “We are a separate but coequal branch of government. And he has no more right to come and speak before a joint session than any of us have to crash the White House,” he said.
But lawmakers also acknowledged they are in uncharted territory. Since there does not appear to be a case in recent history where Congress refused to authorize the President to deliver the State of the Union in the chamber, there is not any immediate precedent for how to proceed if Trump tried to show up anyway.
“He would be a lonely person I think,” Connolly replied when asked about this possibility. “What’s he gonna do if there is no sergeant at arms there are no lights on, the doors are locked?”
“I just think it’s not a very tenable kind of thing,” Connolly continued. “I don’t think he wants to – I hope – subject the Presidency to that kind of indignity, or test the right of a separate but coequal branch of government to invite the President as its guest or not.”
With hundreds of thousands of government workers missing yet another paycheck this week, the fight over the location of a speech seems unimportant. But experts said it’s actually a key part of the address.
“At this point in our nation’s history, the State of the Union is arguably as much of a visual television ritual as it is a moment for a rhetorical transaction between the president and the members of Congress,” said Vanessa B. Beasley, a communication studies Professor at Vanderbilt University. “Even if he gives the address in another location or another fashion, the fact that the traditional stage is not part of the visual will be telling.”
With reporting from Tessa Berenson in Washington