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Opinion Why Nancy Pelosi says it doesn’t matter whether Trump can be trusted

During the August recess, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) traveled to Europe for a meeting of the heads of the Group of Seven parliaments, to Africa to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the first Africans shipped as slaves to America and to Central America to see the migrant crisis firsthand. Surely, I assumed, world leaders wanted reassurance at every stop about the United States’ direction from the woman who is third in line to the presidency. But Pelosi told me in an interview last week that she didn’t engage.

“I make it a practice, I always have, of never criticizing the president of the United States when I’m overseas,” she explained, sitting in her sunlit office with a dead-center view of the National Mall. “I save that for here.”

Boy, does she ever. Pelosi is well known for keeping her cards close. But over the course of a conversation last Wednesday, the speaker offered a glimpse into what she is thinking both by virtue of what she said and what she did not say.

I started by asking her if the president could be trusted to make deals with Congress given how rarely he follows through on his commitments. After all, he once promised a “bill of love” in 2018 to address the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy. He said he wanted background checks for gun purchasers after the mass shooting in Parkland, Fla., last year. He said it again in the wake of August’s shootings in El Paso and Dayton, Ohio.

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Her answer to my question about trust was a master class in politics.

Listen to the entire podcast or read a transcript

“Whether or not the president can be trusted . . . doesn’t matter,” she told me. “What matters is what leverage we have to ensure that something is done, because every day that Senator [Mitch] McConnell holds our legislation hostage, which we passed in February, more people die. So this isn’t about trusting a president. This is about public sentiment. The public sentiment, as Lincoln said, is everything. With it, you can accomplish almost anything. Without it, practically nothing. And public sentiment, 90 percent of the American people support common-sense background checks.”

But, explained Pelosi, without the leverage that can force the Republicans to make a deal, public sentiment alone is not enough to get laws changed. “We don’t get anything from them that we don’t negotiate for or have leverage to get, because we don’t really have shared values,” she said. She defined those different values in a “What is America” riff that deftly sums up our broken politics.

“What is America? America’s our Constitution, our separation of powers, our Bill of Rights, our liberties, our freedom of the press. They don’t respect that,” Pelosi said of President Trump and McConnell. “What is America? America’s this land from sea to shining sea, this beautiful place and beyond. And what did they do? Degrade it. They dishonored the Constitution. They degrade our land. They denigrate our people, who we are, a nation of immigrants, by and large. And they undermine our values.” She concluded, “So this isn’t about a shared-values situation. This is about using your leverage. Do they have something that we want, and do we have something that they want?”

I asked the speaker if she believes Trump is a racist implementing a white supremacist agenda. “I don’t want to characterize the president for what he is or isn’t. I just want to defeat him in the election,” Pelosi added. “I just want to just make sure that we can reverse as soon as we possibly can some of the damage he’s done to America, whether it’s our values, our people, our environment or our Constitution.”

You’re probably wondering, if she feels so strongly about the danger Trump poses to the country, why doesn’t she green-light impeachment?

Pelosi takes her job as a legislator seriously. She takes her responsibility as a constitutional officer seriously. Her reverence for her office and the Constitution is second only to her devotion to her Catholic faith. Whatever the public mood about impeachment, there is no doubt in my mind that she believes Trump deserves it. But as the master class came to a close, she made it clear she is biding her time. Just listen to her words: At a press conference Thursday, she said, “Impeachment is a very divisive measure, but if we have to go there, we’ll have to go there. But we can’t go there unless we have the facts, and we will follow the facts, and we will follow the obstruction the president is making . . . and make our decision when we’re ready.”

Which means: She won’t make a move on impeachment until she has maximum leverage and public sentiment behind her. The new House inquiry is all about getting the former and enlarging the latter. Meantime, voters should not forget the one sure alternative: voting Trump out in 2020.

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