The cancellation — part of an escalating and at times personal feud between the newly elected Democratic speaker and the Republican president — illustrates the extent of the dysfunction that has gripped Washington and America’s body politic amid the longest federal government shutdown in U.S. history.
The imbroglio also underscores the extent of the enmity that has developed between Trump and Pelosi, neither of whom appears ready to retreat in their standoff over the president’s demand for money to fund part of his promised wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.
Pelosi and other Democratic leaders appear increasingly confident of their position in the fight as the impact of the government closures worsens while voters in recent polls heap blame primarily on Trump and Republicans.
The sparring has now led to the effective cancellation of a decades-old tradition in which presidents aimed to unify the nation, even in times of divided government. An annual show of unity has devolved into disunity.
“We’re supposed to be doing it, and now Nancy Pelosi — or ‘Nancy,’ as I call her — she doesn’t want to hear the truth. And she doesn’t want, more importantly, the American people to hear the truth,” Trump said at a meeting with conservative leaders at the White House.
Earlier Wednesday, Trump tried to call Pelosi’s bluff, saying he planned to honor the invitation she had extended earlier this month when the partial government shutdown was still in its relative infancy. Not delivering his speech in the House chamber, Trump wrote to her, would be “very sad.”
But later Wednesday, Pelosi (D-Calif.) officially called off the address in the House chamber, asking instead for a new, “mutually agreeable” date once the government has reopened. Trump, faced with that reality, said he would be doing “something in the alternative.”
In a tweet late Wednesday night, Trump appeared to walk back on his threats, saying it was Pelosi’s “prerogative” to suggest a later date due to the shutdown.
“I will do the Address when the Shutdown is over,” he said, adding that he would not seek an alternative location “because there is no venue that can compete with the history, tradition and importance of the House Chamber.”
Pelosi responded with a tweet urging Trump to support legislation passed by the House and set for a vote in the Senate on Thursday to reopen the government without funding for a border wall.
“Please accept this proposal so we can re-open government, repay our federal workers and then negotiate our differences,” she said.
The squabbling extended a fight that erupted last week when Pelosi suggested to the president that they postpone the address, citing security concerns caused by the shutdown that were later dismissed by administration officials.
Since President Woodrow Wilson in 1913, Republican and Democratic presidents, with the House speaker and the vice president sitting behind them, have addressed the nation and Congress in a House chamber packed with members of the diplomatic corps, the Supreme Court, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, family members and guests.
Pelosi’s decision appears to be without precedent, as there seems to be no other instance of House speakers denying the use of the chamber for a president’s State of the Union, according to congressional historians.
“There’s none. There’s nothing close to it,” said Tim Naftali, a presidential historian at New York University who is the co-author of the book “Impeachment: An American History.”
The challenge for Democrats, Naftali said, is to avoid giving the impression that they are reacting to Trump’s pettiness with their own.
“They should welcome hearing from him all the time,” Naftali said of Democrats, noting that one of the recent critiques of the White House is that it has cut back on media briefings. “He should be invited in a secure location wherever he wants to, and Democrats certainly shouldn’t give the impression that they’re boycotting” any speech Trump gives.
In the battle over the border wall, both parties must be willing to compromise if they’re to break the impasse, Naftali added. “If you don’t allow both sides to emerge as winners, divided government results in paralysis.”
One similar parallel was in 1986, when Republican President Ronald Reagan asked Democratic Speaker Tip O’Neill for permission to deliver a speech lobbying lawmakers on aid for contra rebels in Nicaragua in advance of a closely watched vote. O’Neill turned down the president’s request, which was not for a State of the Union address.
It was also under Reagan’s presidency that a State of the Union was last postponed.
On Jan. 28, 1986, Reagan was preparing his speech when the space shuttle Challenger exploded. His formal address to Congress was postponed a week, and Reagan instead appeared in the Oval Office to mourn the seven crew members on board. In 1946, President Harry S. Truman postponed his State of the Union for four days, ultimately delivering it in writing instead.
In her letter to Trump on Wednesday, Pelosi said the president can give the annual speech at the Capitol once the government shutdown is over. When she extended Trump the invitation on Jan. 3, “there was no thought that the government would still be shut down,” Pelosi wrote.
“I am writing to inform you that the House of Representatives will not consider a concurrent resolution authorizing the president’s State of the Union address in the House Chamber until government has opened,” Pelosi wrote to Trump. “Again, I look forward to welcoming you to the House on a mutually agreeable date for this address when government has been opened.”
The House and Senate must pass a concurrent resolution for a joint session of Congress to hear the president.
Pelosi’s letter came just a few hours after Trump had informed her that he planned to show up at the Capitol on Tuesday to deliver his annual speech to Congress.
Asked about Pelosi’s letter at a White House event Wednesday afternoon, Trump responded, “I’m not surprised” and accused Democrats of becoming “radicalized.”
Pelosi said in a brief exchange with reporters at the Capitol that her offer to Trump still stands as long as they are able to find a “mutually agreeable date.”
Her decision drew a sharp rebuke from congressional Republicans, especially among the president’s closest allies.
Shortly before Pelosi released her letter, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) released a resolution that would permit the president to deliver his address. But Pelosi’s statement means that the measure stands little chance of being taken up by the Democratic-led House.
In a statement, Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) called Pelosi’s decision to rescind her invitation to Trump a “new low for American politics.”
“The State of the Union is a tradition which has been carried out during times of war and peace, turmoil and tranquility. It is an important piece of our history and government,” Graham said. “Speaker Pelosi’s decision to ignore this long-standing American tradition is absurd, petty, and shameful.”
It is unclear how Trump will deliver remarks if not in the House. The administration has planned possibilities both in Washington and elsewhere nationwide, and Trump has received overtures from officials in West Virginia, North Carolina and Michigan to speak there.
In the private meeting with conservative leaders, Trump remarked that Pelosi’s decision to disinvite him from the House chamber was a disgrace and that it was bad for the country, according to Mark Krikorian, the executive director for the Center for Immigration Studies, who was in attendance.
Krikorian said he suggested to the president that he deliver the speech from the border. Administration officials in the meeting gave no indication what Trump might do.
In an exchange with reporters Wednesday morning, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said the Secret Service and the Department of Homeland Security had “satisfied” the safety concerns raised by Pelosi last week, without giving further details.
In a speech to the winter meeting of the U.S. Conference of Mayors on Wednesday afternoon, Pelosi made no mention of the presidential address. She continued to accuse Trump of “holding the health, safety and paychecks of the American people hostage” and said that Democrats fear he may do so again if they agree to his demands.
“That is why we must hold the line on this shutdown,” Pelosi said.
The House has passed a number of bills that would reopen the government without border wall funding, and Democrats plan another vote Thursday. The Republican-controlled Senate is planning votes Thursday as well on two competing proposals, neither of which is expected to garner the 60 votes necessary for passage.
Mike DeBonis and John Wagner contributed to this report.