Over 10 minutes of a surreal public sparring match in the Oval Office, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi tried mightily to rise above the bluster and ego that erupted between the men in the room.
But Pelosi (D-Calif.) instead had to listen as President Trump mansplained to her the legislative process and her role in the debate, while Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer talked over her to trade barbs mano a mano with Trump.
Yet Pelosi emerged from the meeting not some wilted flower, but a symbol of a woman who doesn’t have time for male posturing. A photo of her departing the White House, dressed in a red coat and putting on her sunglasses, instantly became a meme.
Inside the Oval Office, the spectacle that played out in real time offered a window into the gender dynamics at play as the country’s most powerful woman navigates a male-dominated government that is now helmed by the ultimate alpha male. In her bid to be speaker again, Pelosi has argued the importance of having a woman at the “decision-making table” in Trump’s Washington.
And Tuesday’s show helped make her point.
Trump invited “Chuck and Nancy” to the White House to discuss their disagreements over funding for Trump’s long-promised border wall. The Democrats arrived expecting a private meeting with the president but were surprised by an audience of White House press poolers when they were seated in the Oval Office. The event quickly turned into must-see reality television rather than a serious debate about avoiding a government shutdown.
As the Fix’s Aaron Blake points out, the Democrats, particularly Schumer, seemed uncharacteristically primed for a spat. Pelosi landed a blow designed to anger the president with a reference to a “Trump shutdown” early in the exchange. “There is precisely zero chance Pelosi inserted that talking point without knowing what it would do,” Blake writes.
Schumer engaged, increasingly loudly, and sometimes over Pelosi as she made her points. At one point, after the conversation had begun to devolve between Trump and Schumer just several minutes in, Pelosi calmly urged the president to let them discuss without the press there.
“This is the most unfortunate thing,” Pelosi said. “We came in here in good faith, and we’re entering into a — this kind of a discussion in the public view.”
“But it’s not bad, Nancy. It’s called transparency,” Trump said.
At the beginning of the discussion, Pelosi, who has been in Congress for 31 years and has been the leader of her party for 16, tried to encourage Trump to ask Republican leaders to bring up his version of a government funding bill in the House if he’s so certain it could pass there with $5 billion for a wall. But Trump kept coming back to the point that, as if Pelosi didn’t know, he didn’t have the votes in the Senate. “Nancy,” he’d begin, and then explain again that 60 votes are required to pass such a bill in the Senate.
Pelosi kept her composure throughout the charade, continually trying to bring the conversation back to a place where actual dialogue could occur. But it was clear from the press presence that Trump had very little interest in finding a compromise and primarily wanted to show off his bravado for the cameras.
Then he said for the cameras, as if Pelosi wasn’t even in the room, “Nancy’s in a situation where it’s not easy for her to talk right now, and I understand, and I fully understand that,” referring to the votes she still needs to win the speakership in January.
Pelosi’s response indicated she was prepared to go toe-to-toe with Trump.
“Please don’t characterize the strength that I bring to this meeting,” she told him, firmly.
Pelosi, the first woman to be speaker, is surely accustomed to being in rooms with men who speak to her in thinly veiled tones of disrespect. But few of those meetings were available for public consumption.
In fact, in 2011, Pelosi reflected back on the Bush era recalling a meeting with President George W. Bush in which he “came into the meeting, didn’t sit down, said hello, and before he said goodbye, he said, ‘This is my package. Take it or leave it.’ "
Nowadays, she references her relationship with Bush as a model of mutual respect. Asked last month how she thought Trump would work with her as a woman in a position of power, she cited Bush.
“[Bush] would jovially call me ‘Number 3’ . . . he never began a meeting unless the speaker was present,” she said, before detailing the policies they worked on together. Bush and Pelosi embraced recently at George H.W. Bush’s funeral, which many remarked on as extraordinary by today’s vitriolic standards.
After the White House meeting, Pelosi summed it up in a closed-door meeting with Democrats this way:
“It’s like a manhood thing for him,” she said. “As if manhood could ever be associated with him.”