With a graceless performance that began with his seeming rebuff of the outstretched hand of Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and continued with what she accurately described as a “manifesto of mistruths,” Trump managed to bait the ordinarily canny and controlled speaker into making mistakes that distracted attention from where it belonged: on Trump.
Pelosi has the patience forged from being the mother of five and the leader of Democrats. She restrained her unruly caucus until the evidence of the president committing impeachable offenses was too serious to ignore. She has treated Trump less with anger than with something closer to disdain tinged with pity. “I pray for the president,” she has said.
Perhaps as a result, few in public office have seemed so gifted at getting Trump’s goat. The president with a homing instinct for the damaging nickname has struggled to find a way to tag her. “Nervous Nancy’s unhinged meltdown!” Trump tweeted in October, over a picture that showed the speaker, the lone woman at a table full of men, standing and pointing her finger at Trump during a discussion about his decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria. But Pelosi looked commanding, not nervous.
Her capacity to get under presidential skin was revealed in Trump’s unhinged letter to Pelosi the day before the House impeachment vote. “Even worse than offending the Founding Fathers,” he wrote, “you are offending Americans of faith by continually saying ‘I pray for the President,’ when you know this statement is not true, unless it is meant in a negative sense. It is a terrible thing you are doing, but you will have to live with it, not I!”
All of which is to say, Pelosi is ahead on points. But on Tuesday night, she lost ground — first with her failure to include the ordinary salutation of respect for the office — “high privilege and distinct honor” — in introducing Trump; and then second, and more flagrantly, with her ostentatious ripping up of the State of the Union text, not once but twice, even as Trump was standing at the podium, basking in Republican cheers.
Pelosi took one set of papers and tore them in half. She briskly arranged another stack and ripped again, before gathering the pile and tossing it on the desk with evident distaste. “It was the courteous thing to do, considering the alternative,” she said afterward.
Maybe so, but it was also a mistake. You could see Pelosi’s fury building through Trump’s speech. She shook her head, examined papers as though she had something more pressing to attend to, looked everywhere but at the president standing right before her.
Every parent — this parent, anyway — has experienced that moment, when your child pushes you over the edge, you snap and you yell — or worse. In that instant, you lose the moral high ground and find yourself, instead, mired in an argument about who behaved worse.
I can hear you yelling, readers, so let me be clear about who behaved worse: Trump. Trump. A thousand times Trump.
But this is not about both-sides-ism. It is about smart tactics. And smart tactics mean not giving the opposition an opening to change the subject or go after you.
They’ll go after you as in Vice President Pence calling her paper-ripping “a new low.” As in Trump’s repeated retweets, promoting the hashtag #PelosiTantrum. Former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and (no doubt) future presidential candidate Nikki Haley chimed in, “Disappointed to see @SpeakerPelosi rip up the speech that mentioned lives we’ve lost and heroes we celebrated at the SOTU."
This is, of course, performative outrage. No one can reasonably interpret Pelosi to be disrespecting anyone other than Trump himself — which he fully deserved, even if the wiser move under the circumstances would have been to turn the other cheek. As Trump’s GOP opponents learned the hard way during the 2016 campaign — recall Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) on men with “small hands” — there is no out-Trumping Trump. You only hurt yourself by descending to his level.
At last year’s State of the Union, Pelosi owned Trump with a sarcastic clap that became an instant meme. On Tuesday night, Pelosi uncharacteristically let Trump own her.