The House speaker's gesture at the very end encapsulated the seething atmosphere in the Capitol as Trump made a one hour and 18 minutes pitch for a second term in office.
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.
"It was the courteous thing to do, considering the alternatives," she told a reporter afterward.
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.
Several Democratic lawmakers, including California Rep. Maxine Waters and New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, announced in advance of the speech that they would skip it. Other Democrats walked out early.
"The president has no class," House Democrat Jim McGovern told reporters afterward. "I mean, he should have, out of respect, taken the speaker's hand."
"But after delivering what essentially was a campaign rally speech that was terribly dark and divisive, I think the speaker did the right thing ripping it up."
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.
But Trump's speech did not once mention the word "impeachment."
Much of the address was taken up with proclaiming his successful economic policies and the "America first" outlook.
"We have shattered the mentality of American decline and we have rejected the downsizing of America's destiny," he said.
The Republican said his policies of deregulation and tax cuts – criticized by opponents as damaging the environment and favoring the wealthy over the poor – were responsible for "unparalleled" economic success.
He listed the North American USMCA trade pact, a trade deal with China, massive military spending, "unprecedented" measures to stop illegal immigration, and his bid to "end America's wars in the Middle East" as examples of fulfilling his commitments to voters.
He spoke of child-care initiatives, and efforts to combat AIDS and the opioid crisis. He called for greater transparency for medical bills, and he sought to take credit for protecting Americans with pre-existing healthcare conditions, even though his administration supports a lawsuit that would gut the Affordable Care Act.
No impeachment mention
This could have been the darkest week of Trump's administration, with only the third presidential impeachment trial in US history poised to culminate in the Senate.
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 re-election.
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.
Trump got yet more good news on Tuesday with a Gallup poll showing his approval rating at its highest ever: 49 percent.
Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer delivered her party’s official response and drew a contrast between actions taken by Democrats and the president’s rhetoric.
“It doesn’t matter what the president says about the stock market,” Whitmer said. “What matters is that millions of people struggle to get by or don’t have enough money at the end of the month after paying for transportation, student loans, or prescription drugs.”
AFP, AP and Reuters contributed this this story.