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Assured of Acquittal, Trump Makes Case for a Second Term


WASHINGTON — The defendant finally showed up to have his say. President Trump never uttered the word impeachment, but in a 78-minute speech to the nation that combined a celebration of the American economy, hard-edge policy pronouncements and reality show-style surprises for the audience, he made the case for his presidency as only he could.

It was not a case that persuaded Democrats, who remained seated stonily during the applause lines, shaking their heads and rolling their eyes, but it was not meant to. Assured of acquittal in the Senate trial on Wednesday, Mr. Trump moved past preserving his first term and focused on securing a second with an argument aimed at both his political base and dubious suburban voters.

It had a surreal quality, a president on trial for high crimes and misdemeanors addressing lawmakers in the same House chamber where he was impeached just seven weeks ago. While Mr. Trump resisted the impulse to show up at the Senate trial to reject the charges against him over the last couple of weeks, he used his State of the Union address to present a different sort of defense without the burden of cross-examination, in effect arguing that the “great American comeback” he claimed credit for outweighed the allegations against him.

If Democrats were unmoved, and Speaker Nancy Pelosi ostentatiously ripped up her copy of his speech once it was done, making sure the cameras would catch the moment, Republicans embraced the president many of them once scorned. They welcomed him with hearty applause and even chanted, “Four more years! Four more years!” as if it were a campaign rally rather than an affair of state.

On its surface, the speech presented an optimistic assessment of the country and its progress, perhaps reflecting his sense of his own. “America’s enemies are on the run, America’s fortunes are on the rise, and America’s future is blazing bright,” Mr. Trump said.

But he also laid out a darker view of an America still plagued by “criminal aliens,” terrorized by Islamic radicals and threatened by budding socialists eager to take over the health care system.

Throughout his time in the chamber, the president seemed sullen, even gloomy, barely cracking a smile and making no attempts at humor. He refused to shake Ms. Pelosi’s hand when he handed her his speech and she refused to say it was a “distinct honor” to present him when she announced him, both abandoning custom.

All around Mr. Trump were reminders of his ordeal over the last several months. One of the members of the escort committee that brought him in, Representative Hakeem Jeffries of New York, is part of the team of House Democrats prosecuting him. The president encountered Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., who is presiding over the Senate trial and seemed intent on maintaining a studious neutral expression during their brief exchange.

While he made no mention of impeachment, Mr. Trump did single out Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader who has single-handedly ensured he would survive the trial without witnesses testifying against him. “Thank you, Mitch,” Mr. Trump said at one point, referring to the senator’s help confirming judges, but it would not be surprising if he were grateful for other reasons.

The president’s grim mood belied what was otherwise a good day for him. Aside from his coming acquittal and the chance to address the largest television audience of the year uninterrupted, Mr. Trump earlier in the day reveled in the Democratic dysfunction in the Iowa caucus and avidly sought to exploit it to promote suspicion among his rivals.

He and his sons and allies pumped out Twitter messages suggesting the botched Iowa count was an effort to rig the election for former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., and against Senator Bernie Sanders, the candidate the president would rather face in the fall.

“It’s a fiasco that just plays right into us,” the president told television network anchors during an off-the-record lunch earlier in the day, according to people in the room.

“What other people would look at as a moment of completely political meltdown for this president, it all appears to accrue to his benefit,” said Matt Schlapp, the chairman of the American Conservative Union. “He actually looks like the adult in the room.”

Democrats acknowledged that the Iowa breakdown played to Mr. Trump’s advantage, at least in the short term.

“A fractious, divisive, and chaotic process inevitably takes focus away from Trump’s own failures, at least in the short term, and Trump obviously believes he has the opportunity to stir the pot against the Democrats in these circumstances,” said Geoff Garin, a prominent Democratic pollster. “All of this heightens the importance for Democrats to have a confident and united front as soon as possible.”

The Iowa debacle played out even as Gallup reported that Mr. Trump’s approval rating had climbed to 49 percent, its highest in that survey since his presidency began. While not a strong number historically, it is higher than either Barack Obama or Bill Clinton had going into their State of the Union speeches in the years they ultimately won re-election, though not as high as George W. Bush or Ronald Reagan had in theirs.

Not that he can necessarily count on any of this to last. The economy, while healthy, has slowed its growth and could take a hit from the China travel restrictions imposed to fight the coronavirus outbreak. At some point, the Democrats will anoint a nominee who could unify the party against Mr. Trump. And John R. Bolton, the former national security adviser, plans to publish a book next month that is expected to offer revelations about the president’s use of his office to further his own political interests.

Mr. Trump has shown a remarkable capacity for crossing lines and creating political problems for himself just when things appear to be better for him. Indeed, he placed the phone call to Ukraine’s president that got him impeached the day after testimony by the special counsel Robert S. Mueller III made clear that he was out of political jeopardy as a result of the Russia investigation.

But for one night, at least, the president had the stage to himself and he made the most of it. With a mix of schmaltz and showmanship, he pulled one surprise after another on the audience.

At one point, he introduced Rush Limbaugh, the conservative radio host who just announced that he has advanced lung cancer, and seemed to stun the broadcaster by announcing that he would bestow on him the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Rather than wait, the president then had Melania Trump pull the medal out and drape it around Mr. Limbaugh’s neck right there in the first lady’s box, surely the first time that has happened at a State of the Union address.

In another uplifting moment, he gave a scholarship to a fourth-grade girl also sitting in the box. At the same time, he introduced a variety of figures with tragic stories, the parents of a woman killed by the Islamic State, the widow and son of a soldier killed in Iraq, the brother of a man shot by an undocumented immigrant.

But he saved the most tear-jerking moment for the end, when he thanked the wife of an Army soldier deployed to Afghanistan — then announced that her husband in fact had returned to the country, as the soldier suddenly appeared in the box to her great surprise.

The president’s address took place just across the Capitol and hours after senators took to the floor to announce their vote in his trial — Republicans steadfastly pledging to acquit, Democrats resolutely vowing to convict, the two-thirds required by the Constitution for removal clearly nowhere in sight.

Chief Justice Roberts, Mr. McConnell, Mr. Jeffries and the rest will return to the Senate chamber at 4 p.m. on Wednesday to tally those votes, inevitable as they now seem, and to wrap up the third presidential impeachment trial in American history.

Mr. Trump presumably will not show up in person. But he told the anchors in their lunch that he wanted to make a speech after the vote, another kind of speech, not so much a state of the union but a valedictory after months of battle — in his view, a comeback of a different sort.

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