It hasn’t even been 24 hours since Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi pointedly applauded President Donald Trump during his State of the Union address Tuesday night, and the moment has already become one of the Internet’s beloved memes.
But while many believed Pelosi’s pursed-lipped gesture to be sarcastic, Pelosi, told reporters on Wednesday that she was sincerely cheering in that moment.
Just before Pelosi joined a standing ovation for the president, 72, he said: “We must reject the politics of revenge, resistance and retribution and embrace the boundless potential of cooperation, compromise and the common good.”
“It wasn’t sarcastic,” Speaker Pelosi told reporters Wednesday, pointing to the language that brought her to her feet — and Trump’s own history of inflammatory rhetoric and personal attacks on his opponents.
“Look at what I was applauding,” Pelosi said. “I wanted him to know that it was very welcomed.”
New York Times photographer Doug Mills, who was shooting for the congressional press pool just two days after shooting the Super Bowl, was the only news photographer on the House floor Tuesday night and captured Pelosi during her viral clap.
“I had a unique angle and was able to put Speaker Pelosi right over the president’s shoulder,” he tells PEOPLE.
“It was a clap that was gestured right toward him [Trump],” Mills recalls. “And he looked back to get her reaction. It’s not a moment you usually see in the middle of a State of the Union address. There’s not usually a lot of interaction between the president and the speaker.”
Twitter ran rampant with responses to the moment, with many insisting that not only did Pelosi make a statement with her clap but that Trump seemed not to notice.
While others called the move “disrespectful,” slamming Pelosi for her “weird” behavior and accused her of not doing “anything meaningful in her entire career,” supporters virtually applauded the Democratic politician for what they construed to be a subtle jab.
Pelosi’s daughter Christine joined in as well, sharing a photo of the clap on Twitter with the caption, “oh yes that clap took me back to the teen years. She knows. And she knows that you know. And frankly she’s disappointed that you thought this would work. But here’s a clap.”
For his part, Mills says he had been watching both Trump and Pelosi closely.
“Knowing the dynamics between the two of them, I wanted to keep my eye on both of them — starting from the time he walked up and handed her his speech,” he says. “I didn’t know what kind of handshake that would be. It was cordial, but not overly friendly. … I’d been watching when she and Mike Pence were talking before the speech. It was awkward. So I knew there would be something between her and the president.”
“The tension between the two of them right now is pretty high,” Mills continues. “There’s a lot of poker and gamesmanship going on that started in the Oval Office when they got in that shutdown argument in front of the White House press pool. There’s no love lost there and you can tell. That’s part of the game — it’s politics. I mean, I covered the Super Bowl on Sunday and then this. Two big battles and the games are part of the battle.”
Though he was aware of the tension between the two, Mills says he saw Pelosi’s clap as completely genuine.
“A lot of people say it’s the ‘f— you’ clap, but I didn’t feel that as it happened,” he explains. “I saw it as her responding to the call for common ground and saying to him, ‘Okay, this is on you. It starts with you. I’m clapping to you. You’re saying it, but you’re also the one who has to follow through.’ ”
“She was making sure he saw her applauding,” Mills says. “She was saying, ‘You set the tone. Now let’s follow through and let’s do this.’ ”
He adds: “Maybe this is a new step forward. We’ll see.”
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In contrast to his regular elbows-out style of rhetoric, the president stuck tightly to a more conventional script for his SOTU address. In a characteristic early line, he told assembled Congressmembers: “Victory is not winning for our party. Victory is winning for our country.”
Later, however, Trump returned to his chief concerns: restricting immigration and preventing further investigations of his family, businesses and administration. In other policy proposals, Trump called for national paid family leave and a ban on late-term abortions and reiterated foreign policy goals including pushing back on Iran and negotiating with North Korea.
Following the speech, Pelosi issued a statement arguing that part of Trump’s call for an end to probes of his administration “threatened the United States Congress not to exercise its constitutional responsibility of oversight.”
“It will take days to fact-check all the misrepresentations that the President made tonight,” she said. “Instead of fear-mongering and manufacturing a crisis at the border, President Trump should commit to signing the bipartisan conference committee’s bill to keep government open and provide strong, smart border security solutions.”
Pelosi accused Trump of “completely ignor(ing) the gun violence epidemic that is claiming lives across the country,” and went on to urge the president to “end his assault on health care and the dignity of the LGBTQ community” if he wants to make an impact on ending HIV transmission in the country.
• With reporting by ADAM CARLSON