How Trump and Pelosi went from bad to worse

The Hill 3 weeks ago

The explosive meeting this week between and Democratic leaders reveals just how far relations between the president and Speaker (D-Calif.) have deteriorated amid Democrats’ escalating impeachment inquiry.

The quickly-viral photo showing Pelosi standing to confront Trump, her finger pointed sternly at the clearly agitated president, captured the height of Wednesday’s White House clash and foreshadowed the strife to follow: Pelosi leaving the room; Trump lashing out at “Nervous Nancy;” and both sides, backed by their allies, digging in over the days to follow.

But the tensions have been mounting for months, as the Democrats’ investigations into the White House have intensified.

Pelosi’s decision in late September to launch a formal impeachment inquiry only exacerbated the existing frictions, fracturing a relationship once braced by sporadic suggestions of mutual respect and raising new questions about the prospects for legislative deal-making in the weeks to come.

“It’s a shitshow,” one Republican lawmaker said of the Trump-Pelosi feud. 

The strains between Trump and Pelosi were not always so severe.

Last November, after Democrats won the House and Pelosi was vying for the Speakership, Trump endorsed her bid, saying “she has earned this great honor.”

More recently, he applauded Pelosi for introducing legislation to rein in drug prices, vowing to work together to “get it done in a bipartisan way!”

Pelosi has also promised to build bridges with the president, embracing a reverence for the office and vowing to reach across the aisle in search of legislative deals on issues as diverse as trade, drug pricing and the minimum wage.

“The American people elected him president,” she said earlier in the year. “So I respect the office that he holds.”

Even amid the impeachment battle, there has been talk about whether Pelosi and Trump could work out a deal on the new U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade agreement meant to supplant the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Yet the on-again-off-again relationship has seen plenty of battles, as well.

In a December 2018 Oval Office meeting, Trump and Pelosi bickered before the television cameras over the looming shutdown. The president pointed out how the Democratic leader was struggling to tamp down a rebellion in her ranks; then, Pelosi offered a quick comeback. 

“Mr. President,” Pelosi said, “please don’t characterize the strength that I bring to this meeting as the leader of the House Democrats, who just won a big victory.”

“Elections have consequences, Mr. President,” added Senate Minority Leader (D-N.Y.), just to emphasize how power had shifted in the new divided government. 

The meeting ended and Pelosi walked out of the White House with what she wanted: A TV clip of Trump conceding that, yes, he wanted to shut down the government over border security.

What she didn’t count on was that a photo of her victory lap — Pelosi putting on sunglasses while donning a red, knee-length Max Mara coat — would set the internet ablaze and become an iconic image of the 79-year-old grandmother of nine.

Weeks later, Trump walked out of a meeting with “Chuck and Nancy” over how to reopen the government. The president asked if Democrats would fund his border wall, Pelosi said no, so he left.  

“I said bye-bye,” Trump tweeted.

In February, another image of the president and Speaker set tongues wagging: A photograph of Pelosi, standing on the dais behind the president at his State of the Union address, sporting suffragist white and clapping with her hands extended toward the president.

Some observers dubbed the photo: “the clapback.”

Wednesday’s gathering, called by the White House, was intended to brief lawmakers from both parties on the administration’s strategy in Syria following Trump’s withdrawal of U.S. troops in the region.

The meeting started on a sour note, with Trump suggesting he’d rather be elsewhere. “Someone wanted this meeting so I agreed to it,” he said, according to a senior Democratic aide.

It went downhill from there. 

Pelosi, emphasizing the lopsided 354-60 vote hours earlier on a resolution rebuking Trump’s troop withdrawal, accused the president of having no plan in Syria while devising foreign policy designs that put Russian interests above those of the U.S. “All roads with you lead to Putin,” she said. 

Trump countered that Pelosi has sympathies for ISIS, then challenged her political prowess. “In my opinion, you are a third-grade politician,” he said.

The back-and-forth continued after Pelosi, joined by other Democratic leaders, departed the cabinet room in protest. On the White House lawn, the Speaker said Trump had experienced “a meltdown.”

The president responded in kind, tweeting the now-famous picture from inside the meeting with a biting caption: “Nervous Nancy’s Unhinged Meltdown!” Pelosi's office quickly embraced the image, making it the cover photo of her Twitter account. 

Pelosi’s Democratic backers have quickly rushed to her defense, arguing that Trump, a wealthy real estate mogul, isn’t accustomed to pushback — particularly from a woman — and hasn’t come to grips with the fact that Congress is a co-equal branch of government holding powers he doesn’t.

“He’s obviously not used to dealing with strong women and she knows that, so whenever she shows a bit of strength or pushback, that really unnerves him,” House Budget Committee Chairman (D-Ky.), a close Pelosi ally who attends her weekly leadership meetings, told The Hill. 

Rep. (D-Mich.) offered a similar assessment, saying the famously impulsive president simply doesn’t know how to respond as the impeachment investigation races forward and “the walls started to cave in.”

“The president is unstable. He resents the fact that she is so much smarter and so much tougher than he is, that he just can’t take it. He can’t take it,” Kildee said. “He’s — he’s deranged. It’s the wheels coming off.” 

“Look at what he’s going through right now. He has no one agreeing with him on his failed policy in Syria. He’s going through an impeachment process. I guess I’d be waking up on the wrong side of the bed also in the morning,” added Progressive Caucus Co-Chairman (D-Wis.).

Trump’s GOP allies have been just as fierce in their defense of the president, blaming Pelosi for the recent White House flare-up with suggestions she staged the scene just to put Trump in a negative light.

“You know what happened when Speaker Pelosi had left the room? It seemed pretty much calmer. It seemed much more productive,” said GOP Leader (Calif.), who attended the White House meeting. “It seemed as though when the Speaker was in the room, she was there for one reason and one reason only, and that's really unbecoming of a Speaker.”

Democrats said Pelosi just knows precisely what to do or say to get under Trump’s skin. She did it again on May 22. Shortly before leaving the Capitol for a White House infrastructure meeting, Pelosi stopped for the cameras and declared that the president was “engaged in a cover-up” of Russian election interference.

Trump apparently was watching. He stormed into the meeting, railed at Pelosi for her “cover-up” comments, said he couldn’t work with Democrats until they ended their “phony investigations,” then walked out.

“If I were advising Nancy, I would say, ‘Keep going,’ because every time she does it she comes out of it looking stronger and stronger,” Yarmuth said.

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