The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump, Pelosi trade insults in power struggle between two party leaders

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) claimed May 23 that President Trump wants to be impeached, but that House Democrats are "not on a path" to impeachment. (Video: Reuters)
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President Trump and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi traded insults Thursday in a high-stakes power struggle between the two party leaders, with the president calling her “Crazy Nancy” and the Democrat suggesting his White House aides and family “should stage an intervention for the good of the country.”

The fight quickly escalated as Pelosi (D-Calif.) taunted Trump at her Capitol Hill news conference Thursday, a move intentionally aimed at portraying the president as erratic and upsetting him, according to an individual familiar with Pelosi’s thinking. Trump’s obstinance toward congressional oversight had caused her significant problems this week after several of her members broke with her publicly to back impeachment, much to the glee of Trump allies.

Furious with her scornful comments, Trump, 72, turned a White House event on federal aid to farmers into a gripe session, impugning the 79-year-old Pelosi’s mental clarity — “she’s lost it” — and suggesting the North American trade deal was too complicated for her to understand.

During an impromptu news conference May 22, President Trump claimed the Mueller investigation was an “attempted takedown.” (Video: The Washington Post)

The trade of salvos underscored how Trump and Pelosi are trying to either manipulate each other or the other’s party to their own political advantage ahead of the 2020 election and amid the clamor from some Democrats for impeachment.

Pelosi argued publicly and privately Thursday that Trump is goading the House into impeaching him, certain that Senate Republicans would vote to acquit and he could proclaim his innocence. Trump’s allies believe it would help his reelection bid.

“He wants to be impeached so he can be exonerated by the Senate,” she told top Democrats in a private meeting Thursday, according to several officials. “His actions are villainous to the Constitution of the United States.”

The officials and individual spoke on the condition of anonymity to freely discuss Pelosi’s comments and private deliberations.

A defiant Trump told reporters at the White House that he doesn’t want to be impeached and complained that her remark about family intervention was “very sort of a nasty-type statement.”

On Wednesday, Trump angrily walked out of a White House meeting with Pelosi and other top Democrats on upgrading the nation’s infrastructure, saying that he would not cooperate on legislation until Democrats stopped their investigations. His frustration was triggered by Pelosi’s comment hours earlier that the president was “engaged in a coverup.”

Democrats express respect for Pelosi, who prevailed over Trump in the showdown over the 35-day government shutdown this year and posted a win Thursday as the president backed down on his demands in the disaster relief bill.

“Nancy Pelosi is the only politician who consistently stands up to Donald Trump and wins,” said Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) “She doesn’t get in the mud with him. . . . She knows how to remain calm during his outbursts. . . . She knows what she’s doing. House Democrats would be wise to trust her judgment.” 

The personal attacks were a departure for Trump, who has generally held back in attacking Pelosi directly even while he mocks Charles E. “Cryin’ Chuck” Schumer (D-N.Y.) and delights in saying Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, is out of his depth. Until Thursday, Trump had not tried to give Pelosi a nickname, one of his favorite tactics to unnerve or insult an opponent. He twice called her “Crazy Nancy,” but then seemed to walk it back.

“Crazy Nancy. I don’t want to say that, because then you’ll say it’s a copy of ‘Crazy Bernie,’ ” Trump mused to reporters. “Crazy Bernie” is his nickname for presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).

Trump’s relative reserve regarding Pelosi reflects a realization that the speaker is trying to keep impeachment at bay, and an admiration for her political cunning and survival skills. That calculation may be changing as House investigations mount and Pelosi has begun to accuse him of obstructing them.

“I’ve been watching her for a long period of time. She’s not the same person,” Trump said Thursday.

Trump had called many of his senior aides into the room where he announced $16 billion in aid for farmers hurt by his China trade tariffs, although many of the aides had little direct connection to the farm announcement. Instead, Trump used them as a sort of Greek chorus, calling on each one to describe his mood and demeanor during Wednesday’s White House confrontation with Pelosi, Schumer and other Democrats.

As agriculture industry leaders and farmers shuffled awkwardly behind him, Trump queried White House counselor Kellyanne Conway, among others, about whether he had been unhinged or fuming, as Democrats suggested.

“Very calm, no temper tantrum,” Conway replied.

Deputy press secretary Hogan Gidley told the president that he would have been well within his rights to pound the table, given the migrant crisis at the southern border, but that he had not done so.

Press secretary Sarah Sanders said she has “seen both” versions of Trump’s mood, and that he was calm. Communications adviser Mercedes Schlapp and economic adviser Larry Kudlow also readily agreed that their boss had been calm.

People familiar with the three-minute session on Wednesday had described Trump as seething but composed. He did not shout, those people said, but also did not disguise his anger. He did not shake hands with his guests and left before Pelosi or others replied to him.

Trump assessed his own behavior this way: “I’m an extremely stable genius. Okay?”

The individuals spoke on the condition of anonymity to freely discuss what occurred during the meeting.

Trump had lashed out at Pelosi’s Democrats on Thursday in a tweet, portraying them as the obstacle to cooperation on infrastructure, prescription drug costs and other issues, branding them the “THE DO NOTHING PARTY!”

A few hours later, Pelosi suggested that Trump at times has no control over his own White House, questioning the power of a leader known to be obsessed with strongmen and repulsed by weakness.

“I actually ardently pray for the president,” Pelosi told reporters. “Sometimes we’re talking to him, he agrees. And then I said one time, ‘Who’s in charge here? Because you agree and all of a sudden something changes.’ What goes on there? Who’s in charge? And he says he’s in charge.”

This week, Trump’s refusal to cooperate with all congressional probes caused defections in Pelosi’s ranks wary of impeachment, temporarily undermining her authority. But just as she has in previous standoffs with Trump, Pelosi bested the president, tamping down the impeachment clamor in her caucus — at least for now.

At the same time, Trump blew up his own infrastructure push on Wednesday when he refused to work with Democrats because of their inquiries. Some Democratic officials who had been skeptical that a $2 trillion infrastructure deal would happen, however, said Trump was playing right into the speaker’s hands and that the move was intentional: If the deal was going to die, better him blow it up than the Democrats, they said.

The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity to freely discuss private talks.

The struggle comes as House Democrats have had to turn to the courts to try to force Trump and the White House to comply with their multiple investigations. This week, two separate federal judges upheld a pair of congressional subpoenas that Trump’s attorneys were trying to quash, major legal victories for Pelosi. 

But Trump’s no-cooperation strategy will still thwart Democrats’ investigative plans for the future — maybe even for several years. And those delays have only fed into the party’s frustrations and the push to impeach him, a problem Trump is causing that is not going away anytime soon for Pelosi. 

Speaking to reporters Thursday, Pelosi said, “The White House is just crying out for impeachment,” and speculated that her measured approach of not falling into that trap is “why he flipped yesterday.”

Shortly after Pelosi wrapped up her news conference, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said at a separate news conference that it was “irresponsible” for the speaker to suggest Trump wants to be impeached.

“She knows better than that,” McCarthy said. “She knows the president does not want that.”

Mike DeBonis and Felicia Sonmez contributed to this report.