President Donald Trump’s State of the Union address became a display of US divisions Tuesday with Democrats protesting the Republican’s boasts before their leader, Nancy Pelosi, ripped up her copy of the speech on live television.
And that on a day when Pete Buttigieg had seized a shock lead in Iowa’s debut US presidential nomination vote, according to partial Democratic Party results that placed Bernie Sanders in close second and national frontrunner Joe Biden a distant fourth.
The seething atmosphere in the Capitol throughout Trump’s one hour and 18 minutes speech was encapsulated by the House speaker’s gesture at the very end.
Instead of what traditionally has been an annual moment for political truce, this State of the Union mirrored the political war raging through the country ahead of November elections.
Trump was still on the podium, having just completed the soaring finale to his speech when Pelosi, standing just behind him, raised the papers and demonstratively tore them to pieces.
“It was the courteous thing to do, considering the alternatives,” she told a reporter afterwards.
The speech began with as much rancor as it ended, when Trump ignored past custom and declined to shake hands with Pelosi, who as speaker of the House of Representatives had overseen the push to impeach Trump for abuse of office.
She put out a hand and Trump turned away, leaving her arm in thin air.
Democrats responded to Trump’s speech, where he proclaimed a “great American comeback” and touted his achievements, by refusing to follow Republicans in repeated standing ovations. There was booing and several Democrats walked out.
Underlying all the tension was the fact that after months of impeachment investigations in the Democratic-led House, the Republican majority Senate is now almost certain to acquit Trump on Wednesday.
No impeachment mention
This could have been the darkest week of Trump’s administration, but since being reassured that his party will come through with full acquittal, Trump has shown growing signs of confidence that he can march forward with a bid for a second term.
His speech did not once mention the word “impeachment.”
A combative Trump had already spent the earlier part of Tuesday mocking the Democrats’ shambolic kick-off to their primary season, saying that delays in the vote count in Iowa proved their incompetence.
“Nothing works, just like they ran the country,” Trump said on Twitter.
Trump got yet more good news on Tuesday with a Gallup poll showing his approval rating at its highest ever: 49 percent.
Buttigieg leads Iowa
The first wave of results, following a delay due to technical issues in Monday night’s Iowa caucuses, gave a major boost to the campaign of Buttigieg, a 38-year-old former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, who has trailed the frontrunners for months but surged at the right time.
And it marked a disappointing start for Biden, who has repeatedly stressed on the campaign trail that he is the candidate best-positioned to defeat President Donald Trump in November’s election.
With 62 percent of precincts reporting, Buttigieg led with 26.9 percent of what Iowa calls the state delegate equivalent, the all-important metric that determines the allocation of delegates who choose the Democratic nominee at the party’s national convention.
Sanders, the senator running as a self-declared democratic socialist and who had led the polling in Iowa, was closely behind at 25.1 percent, with fellow progressive Senator Elizabeth Warren at 18.3 percent
Biden, the best-known moderate in the race, was at 15.6 percent, narrowly ahead of Senator Amy Klobuchar, also a centrist, with 12.6 percent.
Like other candidates, Buttigieg has already shifted his attention to New Hampshire, the state which votes next, on February 11.
Iowa’s results were posted about 21 hours after the opening of caucuses that kickstart the race, in a vote that was marred by what the party called reporting “inconsistencies” due to a “coding error.”
In Iowa’s quirky system, caucus-goers commit to their candidate of choice, but if that candidate fails to reach the viability threshold of 15 percent, his or her supporters can re-align with a more viable hopeful.
In the realignment, Buttigieg appeared to be particularly successful, drawing support from many voters who saw him as their favorite choice after their failed candidate.
US officials and cyber experts warned Tuesday that the voting debacle in the Democratic caucuses in Iowa underscored the vulnerabilities in the country’s election infrastructure in everything from hacking to trust-eroding conspiracy theories.
The technology problems which have prevented a complete vote count in the first test for the 2020 election were founded on what experts described as a poorly-tested, poorly performing vote reporting smartphone app.
“We have every indication that our systems were secure and there was not a cyber security intrusion,” the Iowa Democratic Party said in a statement.
But specialists said that the episode has shown how vulnerable state-based voting is to unproven systems.
“Given the amount of scrutiny that we have on election security these days, this is a concerning event. It really goes to the public confidence of our elections,” acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf told Fox News.
“The continuing chaos in Iowa is illustrative of our overall failure to take sufficient steps to protect the integrity of our election systems,” said Democratic Senator Mark Warner, co-chair of the Senate Cybersecurity Caucus.
“We need to look holistically at protecting the security, integrity, and resiliency of election systems – from registration systems, to e-poll books, voting machines, tabulation machines, and election night reporting systems.”
The 2016 national election hangs over the coming November presidential and Congressional contests.
The US government says Russian hackers broke into Democratic party communications and systems, stealing documents and emails which were released on WikiLeaks to embarrass the party.
The hackers, who US intelligence says were tied to Russian spy agencies, also made repeated efforts, some partly successful, to break into systems in all 50 states, according to a Senate investigation.
The activity exposed a large gulf between federal cybersecurity efforts and those in the states – where distrust of federal involvement, even assistance, was widespread.
US intelligence officials believe that Russia and other countries are preparing to interfere in the 2020 election, from hacking to disinformation.
And weaknesses are still widespread, especially at local levels.
The McAfee cybersecurity group reported that “significant majorities” of the official election websites in the 13 states viewed as crucial battlegrounds in the presidential race had fundamental security issues.
Many of the websites do not use “https” encryption, McAfee said.
Many also do not use the US government-vetted “.gov” address which can assure users that it is an authentic election website.
Both measures help “prevent malicious actors from launching copycat web domains posing as legitimate county government sites,” McAfee said.
Out of 1,117 counties, 83 percent of websites didn’t use “.gov” and 46 percent lacked “https” protection.
Alex Stamos, director of the Stanford Internet Observatory and former Facebook security chief, describes risks from voter registration rolls to failing voting machines to the possible injection of ransomware into voting systems.
All of that, he says, can be exacerbated by online distortion and false news reporting.
“The largest external risk to American democracy is an attack that combines a technical assault against our widely distributed and poorly secured election infrastructure with disinformation that American partisans will happily amplify,” he said on Twitter Tuesday.
The issue of fake news was present Tuesday with widespread rumors and conspiracy theories swirling around the Iowa vote.
“This chaos has created an environment where misinformation is now running rampant online, further undermining confidence in the democratic process,” Warner said.
“As we get further into the 2020 primaries, what happened in Iowa is an early warning sign that Congress, local officials, and the social media platform companies have much more work to do to ensure the integrity of our elections.”