To Democrats, what the photo conveyed was clear: the speaker “literally standing up to the president” after the House overwhelmingly voted to condemn his decision to pull out of northern Syria. The stunning moment marked the latest episode in the long-running theatrical feud between Pelosi and the president, ending, like others, with the Democratic leader reclaiming Trump’s insult as a badge of pride.
“Can a woman beat Donald Trump? Yes,” Democratic presidential contender Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) wrote on Twitter. “@SpeakerPelosi does it every day.”
Trump’s “unhinged meltdown” comment, which he tweeted with the photo, came after Pelosi walked out on a White House meeting regarding Trump’s decision to pull troops out of northern Syria, leaving Kurdish fighters previously allied with the U.S. vulnerable to a Turkish offensive. House lawmakers voted 354-60-4 to denounce Trump’s decision in a bipartisan resolution on Wednesday.
During the meeting, Trump reportedly called Pelosi a “third-rate politician,” labeled former defense secretary Jim Mattis the “world’s most overrated general” and brushed off concerns about the Islamic State taking advantage of the U.S. military’s withdrawal from the region. Pressed on a strategy going forward, Trump said his plan was “to keep the American people safe,” to which Pelosi retorted: “That’s not a plan. That’s a goal.”
As she got up and left, Trump reportedly yelled, “See you at the polls.”
“I think now we have to pray for his health,” Pelosi said afterward, “because this was a very serious meltdown on the part of the president.”
Later, when Trump attempted to use the photo to depict Pelosi as the one who had the real “meltdown,” even some conservatives questioned why Trump believed the photo would be perceived the same way by others.
“That would happen to be a woman standing up and asserting herself at a table full of men. I understand such a scene may cause a meltdown but I assure you it’s not on Speaker Pelosi’s behalf,” wrote Amanda Carpenter, a former aide to current and former Republican Sens. Ted Cruz (Tex.) and Jim DeMint (S.C.). Carpenter questioned how a Republican president could have driven her to “speak up for Nancy Pelosi? I mean, really."
Others, meanwhile, challenged a common observation made by political commentators: that Trump is skilled at controlling the narrative in the news media.
“People say Trump, for all his failings, is a media genius,” wrote Rick Hasen, a political science professor at the University of California at Irvine School of Law. “So how could he have thought posting this picture of Pelosi standing up to Trump in a room full of old white men was a good idea for him?”
White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham later defended Trump’s behavior during the meeting and disputed Pelosi’s account, saying the speaker “had no intention of listening or contributing to an important meeting on national security issues.”
“While Democratic leadership chose to storm out and get in front of the cameras to whine, everyone else in the meeting chose to stay in the room and work on behalf of this country,” Grisham said in a statement. Reporters were not allowed in the meeting.
Trump’s attempts to mock or insult Pelosi have backfired before — often after contentious meetings like the one Wednesday.
The feud between the two leaders escalated during the government shutdown, as Pelosi portrayed him as childish, inexperienced and selfish, strolling out of one of their first meetings in December 2018 wearing a red-hot coat, shades and a smirk fit for a meme. She described Trump’s obsession with the wall as a “manhood thing for him — as if manhood could ever be associated with him,” and belittled the president in comments to colleagues.
“I was trying to be the mom,” she said, as The Washington Post reported. “I can’t explain it to you. It was so wild. It goes to show you: You get into a tickle contest with a skunk, you get tinkle all over you.”
When Pelosi delayed Trump’s scheduled State of the Union address to the House the following month, Trump returned the jab by canceling Pelosi’s and other top Democrats’ scheduled trip to visit an Afghanistan war zone, describing it as a “public relations event.” But Democrats and national security experts noted that trips to war zones are typically kept secret for security purposes, and that the visit’s purpose was to show appreciation to the troops. Pelosi questioned whether “perhaps the president’s inexperience” kept him from understanding that.
Her second viral meme-generating moment rolled around shortly thereafter. In February, when the State of the Union address finally happened and Trump urged “unity,” appearing to signal a truce with the speaker, there was Pelosi in the background: her lips pursed, her hands clapping at him like a set of jaws.
The unity, of course, didn’t quite happen. By May, when it was Trump’s turn to storm out of a meeting with Pelosi, he resorted to calling her a nickname for the first time: “Crazy Nancy.” He described her as “a mess” and himself as an “extremely stable genius.” Pelosi said she was praying for the president, and urged his family, the administration or his staff to “have an intervention” with Trump for the “good of the country.”
On Wednesday, both Pelosi and Trump said they were praying for each other now, each somehow managing to transform a religious offering into an insult. “Pray for her, she is a very sick person!” Trump tweeted, just after releasing the photo of Pelosi pointing at him.
Pelosi’s daughter, Christine Pelosi, for one, appeared to identify with Trump’s position in the photo on Twitter.
“Looks like she owned you on #NationalBossDay,” she said, referring to Wednesday’s national day of appreciation for bosses. “Been there.”