Rep. Nancy Pelosi is set to regain the House speakership Thursday and instantly cement her place as the most powerful woman in American politics.
It is a job she has done before, even during a Republican presidency, but Pelosi faces a novel challenge in her new role as President Trump’s chief adversary — how to balance her esteem for the presidency against her barely veiled contempt for the man who holds it.
“I respect the office that he holds and the agencies of government that he appoints to — I think I respect them more than he does, looking at who he has appointed to those offices,” she told The Washington Post in an interview as she prepared to take the speaker’s gavel.
Navigating that dilemma has affected the limited talks to end the partial government shutdown, now in its second week, over the president’s demand for money for a U.S.-Mexico border wall, and it is certain to define Pelosi’s dealings with Trump in the new era of divided government.
It is an unpredictable chapter in the historic career of the 78-year-old Pelosi, the nation’s first female speaker, as she retakes the gavel after eight years.
When she entered the Oval Office on Dec. 11 for a meeting with Trump and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), she had a phrase in mind that she planned to use in private — “Trump shutdown.”
She did not realize she would deliver that line in front of television cameras. The world watched as the president interrupted her after she uttered those words at the outset of a wild 15-minute exchange: “Did you say ‘Trump’ ?”
Moments later, Pelosi urged him to kick out the media and proceed with private talks more befitting, in her view, the stakes and the setting.
“What I saw in that Oval Office circus was someone struggling really to try and respect the institution of the president while having total disdain for the man himself,” said Jim Manley, who was a top aide to then-Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), who served alongside Pelosi. “She’s smart enough to know that she can’t go into the gutter, but you know she’s going to find ways to tweak the guy.”
The needling, aided by Schumer, paid political dividends after Trump proclaimed at the end of the meeting that he was “proud to shut down the government for border security” — words that have been shown on a seemingly endless loop as the president deals with the damage.
Shortly after leaving the meeting, Pelosi told a private gathering of fellow Democrats that the wall was a “like a manhood thing” for Trump, a comment seemingly calibrated to unnerve the president — and promptly and widely leaked to the media.
Trump, for his part, has needled Pelosi while expressing respect for her.
“I like her. Can you believe it? I like Nancy Pelosi. I mean, she’s tough and she’s smart,” he said after the midterm elections, when Democrats recaptured the House with a 40-seat gain. Later, he offered to solicit Republican votes when she was struggling to persuade Democrats to elect her speaker.
Pelosi said of Trump in the interview: “We have to stipulate to a set of facts if we’re going to ever negotiate. But he simply won’t do it. What he talks about with the wall isn’t true. It isn’t true about terrorists coming over the wall, people with illnesses flooding the country. I mean, really?”
Beyond the factual divide, Pelosi says she sees in Trump a lack of “shared values about our country” and belief in governance, as well as a “disrespect for the dignity and worth of a person.”
Yet she still speaks routinely — if somewhat mechanically — about her desire to work in tandem with Trump on issues of mutual interest, that she would seek to “light the way” and “extend the hand of friendship.”
“We’re about dignity and a tone that is respectful of the offices that we hold, and the office he holds,” she added. “We’re not stooping to his level, no.”
Pelosi can have difficulty masking her disdain. Often that is by implication — speaking effusively about George W. Bush’s personal character or quoting from Ronald Reagan’s 1989 farewell address, in which he said the nation should be “open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here.”
Other times, she is more explicit. At one point in the interview, Pelosi picked at a political scab of Trump’s, noting he was “elected — not by a majority of the popular vote — but nonetheless to be president of the United States.” At another, she said her dealings with Trump have been largely respectful, “except for saying I can’t speak for myself,” a reference to Trump bringing up in the Oval Office her difficulty corralling speaker votes. She secured the necessary votes a day later.
Pelosi denied trying to openly needle Trump by calling the wall a matter of “manhood” — something she did publicly in an October appearance at Harvard University before she repeated it privately to Democrats last month.
“I don’t think he has any concern about that. He likes publicity, good or bad, doesn’t he?” she said, adding, “It’s a guy thing — maybe I should say it that way. Maybe it’s a guy thing.”
Pelosi returned to the White House on Wednesday — behind closed doors and joined by a broader cast of congressional leaders, a setting several Democratic aides cast as a White House effort to avoid a repeat of the earlier fiasco. Rather than with words, this time she made her point with her power.
She declared House Democrats would vote Thursday to reopen the government without funding the wall — on Republican-written legislation, a move orchestrated to isolate Trump and split the GOP around him. “We’re asking the president to open up government,” Pelosi said. “We are giving him a Republican path to do that. Why would he not do it?”
Friends, family and foes, even those within her party who pressed for her to step aside for the next generation, praise her political skills.
“She’ll cut your head off, and you won’t even know you’re bleeding,” Pelosi’s daughter Alexandra said Wednesday on CNN.
Pressed on the advice she’s gotten on dealing with Trump, Pelosi insisted she makes her own advice — a point she made by paraphrasing a passage from a 57-year-old papal encyclical.
“I observe, judge, act — I learned that from the pope,” she said. “Observe. Judge. Act.”
Despite Pelosi’s image as a liberal partisan, an image driven relentlessly by GOP campaign ads, she has a long history working productively with Republicans — first as a junior lawmaker serving on bipartisan House Appropriations and Intelligence committees, later during her first two years as speaker, dealing with Bush.
Like Trump, Bush at the time had weak approval ratings and inspired deep enmity in the Democratic base — to the point that some lawmakers floated impeaching him. And while Pelosi was personally against the Iraq War and campaigned against it to win the majority, she was never heard to speak askance of Bush’s manhood or any other aspect of his character.
Bush signed several major laws passed by Democrats, led by Pelosi and Reid, including energy, tax and foreign-aid bills, and in the final months of his presidency, the leaders worked closely together to address an epochal financial crisis.
“President Bush was very committed to continuing what had been started [in Iraq] and to see it through, and so they clashed on that,” said Daniel P. Meyer, who served as Bush’s legislative affairs director during Pelosi’s speakership. “But it was a professional relationship. I don’t think there was personal animus in any way, shape or form.”
Her initial interactions with Trump, Meyer said, portend a different relationship: “He’s not going to hold back, and that reflects his style. And she, apparently, is going to respond somewhat in kind.”
Pelosi still speaks fondly of Bush and his late father, whose photograph she keeps in her Capitol Hill office alongside those of Presidents John F. Kennedy and Barack Obama. And she rejects entirely any comparison between her dealings with Bush and with Trump.
“He was a Republican, I’m a Democrat,” she said of Bush. “We differed on a woman’s right to choose, the war in Iraq, those kinds of things. But in our negotiations we recognized certain facts.”
Trump’s allies in the White House and on Capitol Hill are fond of pointing out — and potentially exploiting — the difficulties Pelosi will probably have managing her caucus’s aggressive left flank. Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), for instance, tweeted criticism of Democratic leaders Monday over the makeup of a special climate-change committee and Wednesday announced she would vote against rules changes backed by Pelosi.
But Pelosi has more experience managing those dynamics than they might realize. Former congresswoman Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.), a leader of the Democratic antiwar bloc, said Pelosi skillfully managed that aggressive faction while she was sparring with Bush over Iraq.
“Nancy did not lead it, but she never got in our way,” she said. In one instance, Pelosi rejected the idea of Woolsey and others inviting Tom Hayden, a controversial former student radical, to Capitol Hill.
Woolsey said Pelosi was right, as Hayden’s presence “would have been the story instead of what we were really aiming to accomplish.”
Trump, Woolsey said, “is going to know that he’s up against something very real and very tough.”