Trump-Pelosi relations hit new low as shutdown nears second month
Tit-for-tat continues as president cancels trip to Afghanistan after letter suggests he delay his State of the Union address
As the US government shutdown approaches its second month, the impasse in Washington shows no sign of ending.
On Wednesday Pelosi fired off a letter to the White House suggesting the president delay his State of the Union address scheduled for January 29th or deliver it in writing. Pelosi politely cited security concerns. With the annual State of the Union offering a rare opportunity for the sitting president to address Congress and attract prime-time TV coverage, Pelosi would have known that suggesting a cancellation would infuriate the media-hungry president.
The response from the White House was uncharacteristically muted. Known for his instinct to hit back when aggrieved, Trump refrained from commenting on Twitter. Neither did he mention the letter during comments at the Pentagon the following day. But a plan was afoot.
By mid-afternoon on Thursday, the White House published a letter from the president to Pelosi announcing he was cancelling her trip to Afghanistan and Europe.
The letter was a bombshell. As reporters scrambled to find out what trip was being cancelled, it quickly emerged that Pelosi and others were due to depart from Washington that afternoon for Afghanistan. A coach had already begun picking up members of Congress from the Capitol complex to bus them to Joint Base Andrews, where a military plane awaited.
The coach was left stranded outside the Capitol, a lonely sight, before it eventually drove around the corner chased by dozens of reporters before ejecting its passengers.
Trump’s move was as audacious as it was unprecedented. While the US president has the authority to deny the use of a military plane to senior members of Congress, in practice he does not do so. The unorthodox move to disclose details of a congressional trip to a war zone was also frowned upon given that details of such trips are typically kept under wraps due to security concerns.
Less than a month into the 116th Congress, the Trump-Pelosi dynamic looks set to become one of the most intriguing relationships in Washington. Pelosi, a shrewd operator with more than three decades of experience on Capitol Hill, swiftly slapped down the murmurs of discontent within her own party about whether she was the right person to lead the party after the midterm elections, decisively winning the vote to become House speaker.
As a New York Times leader put it recently “love her or hate her, nobody herds the cats better than Ms Pelosi”, a reference to her formidable ability to keep her party in line.
Her cool performance during an acrimonious meeting in the Oval Office between herself, Trump and Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer last month increased her kudos among the public – the picture of her striding out of the White House, adjusting her designer sunglasses and wearing a striking burnt orange coat became an internet meme and prompted designer Max Mara to reissue the design for its 2019 collection.
While Fox News has fixated on Pelosi as something of a Clinton-esque hate figure, there were signs that Trump secretly admired her. In November he tweeted his support for her leadership bid and offered her “a great deal of credit for what she accomplished”.
While there were indications that Trump had met his match in Pelosi, the 78-year-old speaker may have overplayed her hand. Her move to effectively disinvite the president from delivering the State of the Union speech was seen as petty by some. Her proposed trip to Afghanistan via Brussels – revealed unceremoniously by Trump – also left some scratching their heads, with many contending that she should not leave Washington while the shutdown continues.
The tit-for-tat between two of the most senior figures in Washington (Pelosi is third in line to the presidency as House speaker) has pushed both sides further apart as negotiations have stalled over reopening the government. It seems difficult to see how either leader can back down. Trump continues to dig his heels in over his demand for $5.7 billion from Congress for border wall funding – the key stumbling block in the shutdown negotiations. Pelosi has dismissed the wall as “immoral” and has refused to budge.
With 800,000 federal workers affected by the longest government shutdown in US history, the public is likely to become increasingly frustrated with this week’s display of juvenile one-upmanship. Getting both sides to stop exchanging barbs and instead start negotiating is becoming increasingly urgent.