The fight over the weeks-long government shutdown hit a bizarre new low as President Trump on Thursday canceled a planned trip to Afghanistan by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a day after she angered Republicans by suggesting the president delay his State of the Union Address.
Hours before Pelosi and top Democrats were set to depart for a visit to military leaders in Brussels and to troops in Afghanistan, Trump released a letter canceling what he termed a “public relations event.”
“I also feel that, during this period, it would be better if you were in Washington negotiating with me and joining the Strong Border Security movement to end the Shutdown,” he wrote. “We will reschedule this seven-day excursion when the Shutdown is over.”
The president’s letter to Pelosi (D-Calif.) followed one she wrote to him Wednesday suggesting he postpone his State of the Union address, set for Jan. 29, if the partial government shutdown does not end this week, citing security concerns because of Secret Service and other personnel who are working without pay.
Trump uncharacteristically did not respond Wednesday to Pelosi’s suggestion that he postpone his speech. Instead he struck back Thursday afternoon, canceling a trip that for security reasons had not yet been made public.
Relations between Trump and Pelosi, the most powerful two politicians in Washington, have spiraled downward since Pelosi regained the speakership this month as Democrats retook control of the House. Now they have assumed the character of a schoolyard spat, in the process all but extinguishing any remaining hopes that the partial government shutdown that entered its 27th day on Thursday will end anytime soon.
Democrats responded furiously to Trump’s cancellation and accused the president of acting like a child.
Lawmakers’ visits to war zones are typically kept secret for security reasons, and House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) said Trump’s decision to disclose Pelosi’s travel plans was “completely and utterly irresponsible in every way.”
“I can say that all too often the last two years the president has acted like he’s in the fifth grade, and to have someone who has that kind of character running the country is an enormous problem at every level,” Schiff, who was to have joined Pelosi and other lawmakers on the delegation, told reporters assembled outside Pelosi’s office in the Capitol.
Things could spiral further: Though Pelosi asked Trump to reschedule his State of the Union address, her office made clear that she was not, at this point, denying him an invitation.
The House and Senate must pass a resolution to formally invite Trump to come to Congress, and if Pelosi blocks the measure this year, it would almost certainly deny Trump a traditional State of the Union platform.
Trump himself visited Iraq after the partial government shutdown began Dec. 22, raising questions about his stated rationale for blocking Pelosi’s travel. But the president Thursday canceled a U.S. delegation’s trip to the annual economic conference in Davos, Switzerland. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and other top officials had been slated to attend.
“Out of consideration for the 800,000 great American workers not receiving pay and to ensure his team can assist as needed, President Trump has canceled his Delegation’s trip to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland,” White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said in a statement.
Trump did not explain what authority he has to cancel Pelosi’s trip, but her travel probably would have required the use of military aircraft controlled by his administration. He said Pelosi could fly commercial if she chose.
A U.S. defense official said Pelosi submitted a request to the Pentagon for support for overseas travel, which the Defense Department approved. The president does retain the authority to cancel such support, said the official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to disclose internal information. The Defense Department typically extends such support for congressional trips as a courtesy to lawmakers.
“The purpose of the trip was to express appreciation & thanks to our men & women in uniform for their service & dedication, & to obtain critical national security & intelligence briefings from those on the front lines,” Pelosi spokesman Drew Hammill wrote on Twitter.
In Brussels, Pelosi, Schiff and other participants had planned to meet with top NATO officials to affirm their commitment to the alliance, a counter to Trump’s at-times wavering support for the alliance.
It was uncertain whether Pelosi would find some other way to make her trip, which had been scheduled for what was supposed to be a congressional recess next week, before the nation’s longest-ever government shutdown forced House leaders to announce they would remain in session.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) had mentioned keeping the Senate in session to work next week as well, but no votes are expected until the last week of January, suggesting there will be little if any movement in negotiations in the near future.
Vice President Pence and presidential adviser Jared Kushner appeared at the Capitol to meet with Senate GOP leaders late Thursday. Elsewhere, a bipartisan group of senators continued to work on gathering signatures on a letter to Trump asking him to reopen the government while talks continue, but scant progress has emerged from such sessions thus far.
Trump and Pelosi remain far apart on the issue of Trump’s border wall, with the president continuing to demand $5.7 billion for a wall he repeatedly claimed Mexico would pay for, and Pelosi refusing to offer more than $1.3 billion to extend existing funding for border barriers and fencing.
Even one of Trump’s top Republican allies questioned his move.
“One sophomoric response does not deserve another. Speaker Pelosi’s threat to cancel the State of the Union is very irresponsible and blatantly political,” Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) said in a statement. “President Trump denying Speaker Pelosi military travel to visit our troops in Afghanistan, our allies in Egypt and NATO is also inappropriate.”
Others backed the president.
“I can see why he’d do it,” Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.) said of Trump’s cancelling Pelosi’s trip. “She’s the top leader of the House and she’s the top negotiator to open up the government. You can’t open up the government from Afghanistan, so I think he has every right to do it.”
Inhofe also pushed back against the idea that Pelosi had a right to visit the troops whenever she wanted.
“No she doesn’t,” he said. “She needs to be staying here and opening government again.”
But Democrats were uniformly disgusted.
“I’ve been here seven or eight presidents . . . but I haven’t seen any do as many petty things as this president does,” Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) said.
Paul Kane, Paul Sonne, Karoun Demirjian, Damian Paletta, Jeff Stein and Mike DeBonis contributed to this report.