Trump Isn't the First to Give State of the Union Address in Time of Turmoil

With the government shutdown, Russia investigation, and calls for his removal, Trump is far from the first president to deliver the annual speech during a crisis

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President Donald Trump delivers his State of the Union address in Washington, D.C., January 30, 2018.
President Donald Trump delivers his State of the Union address in Washington, D.C., January 30, 2018.Credit: AP

U.S. President Donald Trump is the latest chief executive to deliver a State of the Union address at a time of turmoil.

But others may have had it even worse. Abraham Lincoln delivered a written report during the Civil War, Richard Nixon spoke while embroiled in the Watergate scandal and Bill Clinton gave one of his State of the Union speeches just weeks after he’d been impeached in the very same room.

Despite all of that, presidential historian Douglas Brinkley called Trump’s upcoming address on Tuesday “a strange and bizarre State of the Union.”

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There’s the continuing federal investigation into Trump campaign contacts with Russia, calls for Trump to be removed from office and the president’s own threat to again close down parts of the government if Congress refuses to spend billions of dollars to build his long-promised U.S.-Mexico border wall.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi added to the theatrics surrounding the event by forcing Trump to postpone the speech a week because of the original shutdown, a record 35-day stoppage.

Plenty of State of the Union addresses have unfolded in turbulent times.

Two decades ago, Democrat Clinton delivered a State of the Union speech not long after the Republican-controlled House impeached him in December 1998 on grounds that he had lied to a federal grand jury and had obstructed justice in the wake of his relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky.

And just hours before Clinton delivered his speech — in the same chamber where he had become just the second president ever to be impeached — White House lawyers opened their defense of the president in a Senate trial in which they argued he was innocent of the charges and “must not be removed from office.”

No president had ever delivered a State of the Union address under such extraordinary conditions.

Speculation was rampant that Clinton would cancel, according to former Senate historian Donald Ritchie. But not only did Clinton show up, he spoke in characteristic length about a booming economy, balanced federal budgets and a proposal to protect Social Security for the ages. He did not mention the circumstances leading up to the impeachment vote that threatened his presidency.

“He came and he delivered a message as if nothing was going on,” Ritchie recalled. “It took a lot of the steam out of the impeachment effort against him.”

The Senate acquitted Clinton the following month.

Decades earlier, Nixon devoted much of his final State of the Union speech in January 1974 to the country’s energy crisis. But near the end of his remarks, he added a “personal word” about Watergate. Nixon called for the investigation to end, declaring “one year of Watergate is enough” and said he had no “intention whatever” of resigning.

But the Republican reversed course and stepped down that August, becoming the only president ever to resign. Nixon had faced impeachment by the House over his participation in the attempted cover-up of a break-in at Democratic Party headquarters executed by burglars connected to his re-election campaign.

Shortly after taking office, President Gerald Ford — Nixon’s vice president and successor — pardoned Nixon.

Ford then used his 1975 State of the Union speech to declare “the state of the union is not good” — though not due to any Watergate fallout. Ford cited high unemployment, a recession, inflation, a rising federal deficit and climbing national debt, the energy situation and other issues as reasons for his bleak assessment.

Lincoln faced a situation “more grim than it is now, by far,” said Brinkley, referencing the Civil War.

In December 1861, eight months after the war began, Lincoln noted in his State of the Union address — they were written in those days — that “a disloyal portion of the American people have during the whole year been engaged in an attempt to divide and destroy the Union.”

Lincoln also warned that “a nation which endures factious domestic division is exposed to disrespect abroad, and one party, if not both, is sure sooner or later to invoke foreign intervention.”


AP News Researcher Monika Mathur contributed to this report.

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