Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin (WV), Joe Donnelly (IN), and Heidi Heitkamp (ND) stood and applauded multiple times during President Trump’s speech to Congress Tuesday night, breaking with the bulk of the Democratic Party.
The majority of congressional Democrats were visibly critical of Trump’s address. Others laughed, groaned, or even skipped the speech altogether.
But Manchin, Donnelly, and Heitkamp are all moderate swing-state Democrats facing reelection campaigns in 2018. And their applause — singled out by the Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza — is the latest in their long-signaled distance from the Democratic caucus’s opposition to Trump.
Manchin, for his part, was the only Democrat to applaud Trump calling to “make America great again.” Heitkamp was seen enthusiastically clapping a Trump line about pipelines. Donnelly rose in support after Trump mentioned coal miners.
Trump reciprocated the gesture in at least one case:
Trump just gave Joe Manchin a bro hug and a bro handshake.— Tim Alberta (@TimAlberta) March 1, 2017
First time I've seen any of that.
“Reluctant to stand even for God”
Tuesday night was a strong visual reminder of the divisions within the Democratic caucus, but overall, Democrats’ reactions to Trump were almost uniformly negative. Besides Manchin, Donnelly, and Heitkamp, the bulk of the Democratic caucus refused to stand up or applaud much of Trump’s address.
A few examples of Democrats’ critical responses:
- At least one Democrat rebelled before the speech even began: California Rep. Maxine Waters announced her boycott of the speech ahead of time. (She appears to have been the only one to do so.)
- Over a dozen Democrats sat during the ovation for the widow of a slain Navy SEAL received a two-minute standing ovation.
- Dozens of Democrats declined to stand when Trump belatedly condemned the desecration of Jewish cemeteries, the Independent Journal Review’s Benny Johnson reported.
- Democrats groaned audibly when Trump called for the Department of Homeland Security to create a new agency, the “Victims of Immigrant Crime Engagement” — something Republicans also oppose.
- There was audible laughter when Trump said “we’ve got to drain the swamp of government corruption.” (Perhaps for good reason.)
- Democrats also laughed when Trump said “the time of trivial fights is behind us.” New York Rep. Joe Crowley raised his hand to object to that line, according to National Review’s Alexis Levinson.
- Levinson also tweeted that New York Rep. Eliot Engel was “sitting in the middle of a row far on the Dem side talking on his cell phone” during the speech.
- With the exception of Manchin and Ohio Rep. Marcy Kaptur, the entire Democratic caucus raced out of the chamber as soon as the address was completed — something some political reporters said they’d never seen before. Usually, members of both parties stay in the chamber to shake the president’s hand and greet him.
Spurred by a left-wing backlash that’s unleashed street protests and new grassroots energy, congressional Democrats’ opposition to Trump has become stiffer. They’ve boycotted his Cabinet hearings and cast an unprecedented number of votes against his nominees.
That reaction was on display tonight.
“On the usual issues that you expect Democrats to oppose, they seem even stonier than I remember — no hint of an olive branch or honeymoon period with a new president whatsoever, from what I can see,” says Matt Dickinson, a political scientist at Middlebury College. The Democratic caucus seemed, Dickinson says, “reluctant to stand even when Trump references God as their maker. And if you can’t stand for God...”
The mostly unified response was planned in advance. A House Democratic aide noted in an interview with Vox that the majority of the caucus was taking cues from the party’s leadership — particularly Maryland Rep. Steny Hoyer — on how they should react throughout the night.
Of course, that didn’t mean every Democrat would follow along.
Clarification: A review of video evidence shows that Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison and former DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz — who one reporter accused of disrespecting the widow of the slain Navy SEAL by sitting during the address — did in fact stand to applaud her. Ellison and Wasserman Schultz were seen sitting during a later ovation for the widow along with at least a dozen other Democrats, and congressional Republicans sat down shortly thereafter.