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How the 2020 Democrats reacted to Trump’s State of the Union address

Gabbard spent most of it on her phone, Sanders was editing his response

President Donald Trump and others in the House chamber applaud during his State of the Union address Tuesday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
President Donald Trump and others in the House chamber applaud during his State of the Union address Tuesday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Rep. Tulsi Gabbard was one of the few Democrats to sit next to a Republican during the State of the Union address Tuesday night, but she spent much of it on her phone. Sen. Bernie Sanders, pen in hand, reviewed and edited the prepared text of his response during the first part of the speech. Rep. Tim Ryan stood in the back looking bored most of the time.

The rest of the Democratic lawmakers running or considering bids for president in 2020 paid more attention to President Donald Trump as he spoke but often sat stone-faced in reaction to his assertions and promises.

Trump delivered his address before hundreds of lawmakers seated in a packed House chamber, but it was the 11 congressional Democrats who could be his competition next year whose reaction probably mattered most.

Five of them have already jumped in the presidential race: Gabbard of Hawaii and Sens. Kamala Harris of California, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Cory Booker of New Jersey and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York. 

The other six — Sens. Sanders of Vermont, Sherrod Brown of Ohio, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Jeff Merkley of Oregon and Reps. Ryan of Ohio and Eric Swalwell of California — have expressed interest in running but haven’t yet announced their plans. 

“I’m making a big announcement on Sunday,” Klobuchar tweeted less than an hour after Trump ended his speech. 

Because senators are typically seated in the front of the chamber, many of the 2020 contenders sat close to one another.

Only a narrow aisle space separated Warren from Harris, who was seated next to Brown. In the row behind them, Klobuchar, Booker and Gillibrand sat with other senators separating them. In a different section, Merkley sat in a row behind Sanders.

Watch: Elizabeth Warren is running for president — Here are some congressional basics

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Not paying attention

Gabbard, the only current House member who is officially in the race for the  2020 Democratic nomination, sat in the back row of the chamber, next to Republican Rep. Markwayne Mullin of Oklahoma. 

If she was attempting to show her bipartisan bonafides, the seating position seemed to have the opposite effect as Mullin stood and applauded throughout most of the speech, and Gabbard paid more attention to her phone than Trump. 

Gabbard did stand and applaud when most Democrats around her were doing so, but one line the Army National Guard major remained seated for was particularly notable. 

“Our military is the most powerful on earth, by far,” Trump said, adding the “by far” to the line from his prepared remarks. Gabbard probably didn’t hear what he said, as she was — surprise — looking at her phone.

Sanders probably stood and applauded the least out of all the 2020 contenders, most of which appeared deliberate. 

“Victory is not winning for our party, victory is winning for our country,” Trump said, drawing applause from all of his potential 2020 competitors except the Vermont independent.

Sanders was also the only one to deliberately ignore Trump as he said, “We must reject the politics of revenge, resistance, and retribution — and embrace the boundless potential of cooperation, compromise and the common good.”

Later in the speech as Trump talked about protecting people with pre-existing health conditions, most Democrats applauded as Sanders quietly laughed and shook his head.

Warren had a notable reaction when Trump called on Congress to pass legislation lowering prescription drug prices. 

“We should also require drug companies, insurance companies, and hospitals to disclose real prices to foster competition and bring costs down,” the president said, drawing several Democratic senators to stand and applaud.

As Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow stood up next to her, Warren moved forward, planted her feet and rose briefly off her chair before she stopped herself from fully standing.

Warren and Brown notably remained seated when other Democrats stood while Trump said the new trade agreement with Canada and Mexico will result in more cars being stamped with “Made in the USA.” The duo also sat as other Democrats applauded the president’s commitment to rebuilding crumbling infrastructure.

Rejecting socialism

Trump used a brief portion of his speech to express alarm at “new calls to adopt socialism in our country,” initially drawing groans from several Democrats. 

But he then offered a pledge that some couldn’t help but reluctantly agree with: “Tonight, we renew our resolve that America will never be a socialist country.”

Of the 2020 gang, Gillibrand stood first and applauded enthusiastically, as Warren, Harris and Brown slowly stood and joined those clapping.

Merkley remained seated when the other 2020 Democrats stood as Trump introduced Immigration and Customs Enforcement special agent Elvin Hernandez, as well as when the president talked about the “sadistic traffickers put behind bars.”

Booker was observed pursing his lips through much of the speech. Swalwell at one point was impatiently tapping his left leg.

Ryan was the only potential 2020 candidate not seated for the event. He stood in the back of the chamber — although for a portion of the speech he was not visible, possibly having ducked into the Democratic Cloakroom — and frequently looked bored, sometimes resting his arm on the railing that circles the back row .


Some of the 2020 candidates decided to fundraise off their reactions to Trump’s address. 

Gillibrand tweeted a GIF file of her rolling her eyes as Trump spoke, saying, “Agree? Chip in $5 so we can put an end to this.”

Warren also took to Twitter to make her pitch.

“We heard plenty of things in tonight’s #SOTU that made my blood boil,” she said. “But it’s not enough for us to just get angry at @realDonaldTrump (again). We have to fight for the change we want to see. This is our moment — chip in now.”

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