Updated 7:33 p.m. | In apparent retaliation to Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s plea that President Donald Trump delay his State of the Union address due to the government shutdown, Trump has canceled all military support for a previously unannounced congressional delegation trip the speaker was scheduled to take.
“Due to the Shutdown, I am sorry to inform you that your trip to Brussels, Egypt, and Afghanistan has been postponed. We will reschedule this seven-day excursion when the Shutdown is over,” Trump wrote in a letter to Pelosi.
“Obviously, if you would like to make your journey by flying commercial, that would certainly be your prerogative,” he wrote.
A White House official said any president oversees all U.S. government and military aircraft.
“We approve all these congressional trips that use government or military planes,” the official said. “That’s not new or anything. That’s just how it has always worked.”
The planning that goes into such congressional delegations is significant, particularly the security measures. “All other CODELs are also being pulled down during the shutdown,” the White House official said, using shorthand for government-paid congressional trips.
Initial reports suggested a Treasury Department delegation to the World Economic Forum in Davos, led by Secretary Mnuchin, was going ahead as planned. “The officials who are going are not directly involved in re-opening the government,” the White House official said.
Then, hours later, after Democrats had accused the White House of hypocrisy over the Davos issues, the administration announced the trip was off.
“Out of consideration for the 800,000 great American workers not receiving pay and to ensure his team can assist as needed, President Trump has canceled his Delegation’s trip to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland,” White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said in a statement.
Pelosi spokesman Drew Hammill responded to Trump’s letter using the president’s preferred mode of communication, Twitter.
“The CODEL to Afghanistan included a required stop in Brussels for pilot rest,” Hammill said. “In Brussels, the delegation was scheduled to meet with top NATO commanders, U.S. military leaders and key allies — to affirm the United States’ ironclad commitment to the NATO alliance. This weekend visit to Afghanistan did not include a stop in Egypt.”
“The purpose of the trip was to express appreciation & thanks to our men & women in uniform for their service & dedication, & to obtain critical national security & intelligence briefings from those on the front lines,” he added. “The President traveled to Iraq during the Trump Shutdown as did a Republican CODEL led by Rep. [Lee Zeldin].”
The White House decision was abrupt enough that an Air Force bus ostensibly to be used to transport members of Congress to Andrews Air Force Base was parked around 2 p.m. between the Longworth and Rayburn buildings.
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The decision immediately rang alarm bells about operational security: The speaker is second in line to be president, and any trip a government official of that rank takes to a war zone or other such area is typically kept under wraps for safety and security reasons.
In his letter, Trump told Pelosi, quickly becoming his top nemesis, that 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.”
Earlier Thursday, House Minority Whip Steve Scalise had told reporters that Pelosi was scheduled to be out of the country through Wednesday as he complained about her not negotiating with Trump on border security and questioned who would be authorized to negotiate in her absence.
The president’s decision on the Pelosi trip was to ensure she is in the country for any potential shutdown talks, not the cost of the trip, the White House official said, adding that Trump did not make his decision about the speaker’s trip in retaliation for her State of the Union letter.
While Trump asserted that he made his decision so Pelosi would be on U.S. soil for potential shutdown talks, a White House official said no invitation for new face-to-face talks has been extended.
White House officials declined to comment when asked if Trump considered the implications of announcing she was planning to go to still-dangerous Afghanistan, since he left the door open to her going after the shutdown.
House Intelligence Chairman Adam B. Schiff, who was planning to participate in the CODEL, told reporters that Trump’s decision was clearly meant as an affront to Pelosi.
“As far as we can tell, this has never happened in the annals of congressional history,” the California Democrat said. “But at the end of the day, we’re determined our oversight will continue no matter what the President’s actions are. It’s just too important we make sure that our service members have what they need and that our NATO allies are reassured at a time where there are increasing questions about the President’s commitment to our alliances.”
Asked if that meant the trip was somehow still on, Schiff declined to comment on the speaker’s travel plans, but said Trump disclosing the trip to a war zone was “completely and utterly irresponsible in every way.”
Senate Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham criticized both Trump and Pelosi for their recent actions during the partial shutdown.
“One sophomoric response does not deserve another. Speaker Pelosi’s threat to cancel the State of the Union is very irresponsible and blatantly political,” the South Carolina Republican said. “President Trump denying Speaker Pelosi military travel to visit our troops in Afghanistan, our allies in Egypt and NATO is also inappropriate.”
In one historical anecdote that illuminates presidential authority over U.S. government aircraft, President Lyndon B. Johnson was once at a military base reviewing Vietnam-bound Marines.
He started to walk toward the wrong helicopter. A soldier told him, “That’s your helicopter over there, sir.”
Johnson replied pithily, “Son, they are all my helicopters,” according to biographer Hugh Sidey in his book “A Very Personal Presidency.”