White House

Trump vs. Pelosi: 5 takeaways from their tit-for-tat as shutdown plods on

Nixing Afghanistan trip also was a direct blow to House Dems’ oversight plans

Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and President Donald Trump have continued trading barbs in recent days. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Speaker Nancy Pelosi and President Donald Trump continued their high-stakes game of tit-for-tat Friday, even as the 28-day partial government shutdown plodded on with no signs of any restart of negotiations. 

White House aides scurried about Friday, initially declining to directly address a bombshell report that Trump directed former personal lawyer Michael Cohen to lie to Congress. (Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders later called the story “categorically false.”)

They lobbed charges of false statements at Pelosi and her staff about her trip to Afghanistan that Trump nixed and her attempts to fly commercial — but refused to attach their names until hours later. 

Then, suddenly, the shutdown and Buzzfeed report were pushed to the staff’s backburner as Trump summoned a North Korean envoy in town for talks with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to the Oval Office. 

“We’re waiting for negotiations for Democrats,” White House Deputy Press Secretary Hogan Gidley said Friday.

Also watch: What if Trump disagrees with SOTU delay? “We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it,” Pelosi says.

[Trump unveils his ’Ric Flair doctrine’ — after another border wall pitch]

Here are five takeaways from the remarkable fight between the president of the United States and the speaker of the House.

Early rounds

It seems so long ago, but it was only a handful of weeks. The president and the speaker, before she officially took back the gavel, both talked of striking legislative deals and getting things done. Infrastructure. Reducing prescription drug prices. And maybe, just maybe, trying again on a comprehensive immigration plan.

Then conservative mega-voices Ann Coulter, Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh lambasted Trump for initially signaling he would not shut down a quarter of the federal government over funding for the border wall.

Fast-forward a few weeks and the shutdown is in its 28th day; Trump and Pelosi are trading moves designed to frustrate the other; and they’re moving further apart just when they need to be talking so the pathway to a an eventual shutdown-ending deal is visible.

Trump clearly wanted 2019 and 2020, as he is expected to seek re-election, to be largely about revving up his base over his fights with the Democratic speaker. But Pelosi is as tough a fighter as they come, and is, so far, giving as good as she’s getting.

After word spread that Pelosi’s attempt to fly commercial to Afghanistan was re-evaluated after the State Department said comments from the president made it too unsafe to go, the speaker accused Trump of putting peoples’ lives in danger. 

“The fact that they would leak that we were flying commercial is a danger not only to us but to other people flying commercially. It’s very irresponsible on the part of the president,” she said at the Capitol. When the press followed up by saying the White House had denied the leak, she quickly shot back, “I rest my case.”

A little afterward, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Pelosi was lying when they said the administration leaked news of the speaker’s efforts to use commercial flights.

“Absolutely,” Sanders told Roll Call.

It’s too early in their bout to see who’s got the upper hand. But both have had strong rounds early on.

Senate Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham suggested neither is winning the fight. “One sophomoric response does not deserve another,” the South Carolina Republican said after Trump postponed Pelosi’s Afghanistan trip.

Faux urgency?

In a curious statement, Sanders told reporters the speaker’s trip was axed because she was scheduled to be gone six days. For federal workers to get paid as usual next Friday, a deal would have to be signed into law Tuesday night.

That would suggest White House urgency to restart talks, quickly cut a deal and get legislation moving through both chambers — which all takes time. Yet, there have been no talks between Trump and congressional leaders since he walked out of a Situation Room meeting on Jan. 9.

And there was no such meeting planned for Friday, either.

Weakening oversight

Part of the onus of the speaker’s trip was to assess the situation on the ground in Afghanistan, including meetings with NATO leaders. Graham, a longtime Armed Services member, broke with Trump on Thursday by saying his decision to prevent Pelosi from doing so is “inappropriate.” (He also said her call for Trump to delay the State of the Union address was “very irresponsible and blatantly political.”)

Trump’s decision on the trip, for now at least, has a broader impact than just Pelosi’s ability to hear from NATO officials. Other senior House Democrats such as Foreign Affairs Chairman Eliot L. Engel of New York and Intelligence Chairman Adam B. Schiff of California were also slated to make the journey.

The Afghanistan visit would have informed their oversight of Trump’s foreign policy, including in the war zone operations and relations with NATO allies. Denying them face-time with alliance commanders comes as he again Thursday criticized other NATO members for contributing less to its budget than does the U.S. (as a percentage of GDP).

“We will insist on fair burden sharing with our allies. I’ve made it clear we are protecting many, many wealthy, wealthy, wealthy, wealthy countries,” the commander in chief said.

Not exactly Gettysburg

The annals of history have highlighted some presidential documents and addresses as more statesmanlike than others. President Abraham Lincoln’s address at Gettysburg during the Civil War is one. President John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address is another. A modern example would be President Barack Obama’s 2015 eulogy to those killed at an African-American church in Charleston, South Carolina.

It’s unlikely Trump’s Thursday letter nixing military support for Pelosi’s congressional delegation will rank with those. It included several passages that bore the president’s fingerprints and mirrored his unique grammar and phraseology in his tweets.

[White House challenges predictions of political hit if shutdown slows economy]

In his letter, Trump told his top nemesis he thinks it would be “better if you were in Washington negotiating with me and joining the Strong Border Security movement to end the Shutdown.”

Another line was vintage Trump, right down the exclamation point: “I look forward to seeing you soon and even more forward to watching your open and dangerous Southern Border finally receive the attention, funding, and security it so desperately deserves!”

‘Where was she?’

A Pelosi spokesman issued a statement shortly after the president’s letter went public that, in part, noted he took a government aircraft (Air Force One) to Iraq on Dec. 26 to visit troops for the first time in a combat zone. That left one White House official immediately and clearly agitated.

“Where was she?” the White House official shot back. “She was in Hawaii.”

“So she couldn’t have been here for any talks. The president stayed here through Christmas, then went to Iraq, and then came straight back. He was here through New Year’s,” the official said. “She was still in Hawaii. So they’re totally different things.”

But Democratic sources said at the time that talks had stalled when the speaker went ahead with her holiday vacation, and that the White House had made it clear the chances for talks at the presidential-leadership level were slim.

And while both president and speaker will be on contiguous U.S. soil ahead of the Tuesday night deadline, neither is poised to make a new offer. Sources on both sides this week described, in separate conversations, floating a new offer as tantamount to calling in an airstrike on their respective — and deeply dug in — positions.

Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call on your iPhone or your Android.