There is something about House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) that allows her to unnerve President Trump as seemingly no one else can.
“I pray for the president of the United States,” she said on Thursday. “I wish that his family or his administration or his staff would have an intervention for the good of the country. Maybe he wants to take a leave of absence.”
The proof that she had hit the giant bull’s eye of Trump’s insecurities was his response: “I am an extremely stable genius.”
Exchanging insults with Trump is not an endeavor that is normally productive, as many others who tried it have found. But Pelosi is a dangerous foil for a president who operates on impulse and outburst. While Trump succeeds in making everyone else around him dizzy, Pelosi’s unique talent is an ability to keep her focus on the endgame.
Her current goal is to assure that the president vacates the Oval Office, as swiftly and as surely as possible.
That means Pelosi must do two things at once: Keep Trump off balance, and restrain those within her Democratic caucus who are urging a precipitous drive toward impeachment.
Pelosi knows that unless and until there is overwhelming, bipartisan support for such an effort, it will end with Trump’s acquittal in the Senate. And that would only help him win another four years in office. “He wants to be impeached so he can be exonerated by the Senate,” she told top Democrats in a private meeting. “His actions are villainous to the Constitution of the United States.”
The speaker argues for another course: Continuing congressional oversight and relying on the courts to provide air cover as six different House committees seek documents and testimony from a stonewalling administration. While not as gratifying to those who are eager to begin impeachment proceedings, and who argue that anything less is a dereliction of Congress’s duty to hold Trump accountable, it is the more likely path to defeating him in 2020.
The Democratic caucus would be wise to trust her instincts and experience.
Pelosi is patient, disciplined and resilient because she has had to be. No woman in U.S. history has ever risen to a more powerful office in government than the one in which Pelosi now sits for a second time.
In her first stint, congressional scholars say, Pelosi was among the most effective speakers in modern history. She masterfully engineered the 2010 passage of the Affordable Care Act, seizing an opportunity that she knew might never come again, even though she knew it was likely to cost the Democrats their majority.
All of this has not come without a price. Pelosi’s adversaries have caricatured and demonized her, and even some of her allies have dismissed her. In polls last year, negative feelings about her often exceeded positive ones by 25 percentage points or more. The speaker-in-waiting found herself the target of what she estimates were 137,000 Republican campaign ads.
Much of what she faced was blatantly sexist, mocking her looks and demeanor, but Pelosi was not rattled by any of it. Where Trump explodes if a fellow Republican says a word of criticism, Pelosi let it be known during the 2018 midterm elections that if Democratic candidates felt it would be politically advantageous to distance themselves from her, they should go right ahead.
Pelosi reclaimed the speaker’s gavel by doing what it took to win in congressional districts where she — and her liberal party — are not particularly popular. Those are the seats she knows she must protect in 2020.
So far, her strategy of keeping one foot on the congressional oversight accelerator while tapping the brakes on impeachment is winning.
The prospect of unending scrutiny is getting to Trump. On Wednesday, he abruptly blew up a meeting that had been scheduled with Pelosi and other congressional leaders to negotiate an infrastructure package and stalked out to the Rose Garden to whine that he could not work with Democrats unless they drop what he called “these phony investigations.”
Even more bizarre was a scene a day later when, during an appearance with farmers, the president bristled at Pelosi’s characterization of that aborted infrastructure meeting as a “temper tantrum,” and pressed five different White House aides to attest he had been “calm” in his three-minute session with the lawmakers.
By Thursday night, Trump and his allies were reduced to the shameless gambit of circulating doctored and heavily edited videos suggesting it was the speaker’s mental stability that should be questioned. “I’ve been watching her for a long period of time. She’s not the same person,” Trump said.
But that’s the thing. Pelosi is exactly who she has always been. What’s changed is that Trump is beginning to understand what that means.