During a remarkable 17-minute televised standoff in the Oval Office, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi challenged President Trump face to face Tuesday, offering a glimpse at the coming division of federal power and sending an indelible message to her own Democratic Party that she is best equipped to battle the mercurial president.
The clash centered on Trump’s demand for a wall at the U.S.-Mexico border, but it was infused with broader implications of politics, power and gender that could define the next two years in Washington and the 2020 presidential race.
Pelosi has often spoken about the need for a woman to sit at the most rarefied negotiating table in American politics. After leaving it Tuesday, she met privately with House Democrats where she dismissed the wall as a “manhood” issue for Trump and boasted about winning the political upper hand by goading the Republican president into taking personal responsibility for a potential government shutdown.
The confrontation stands to help Pelosi (D-Calif.) settle a nagging internal dispute over her own leadership. While she has been nominated by her party to be the next speaker, Pelosi has not secured the votes she needs to reclaim the gavel in the Jan. 3 House vote.
Trump suggested Pelosi was hamstrung by that struggle in an early-morning tweet Tuesday, then again in Pelosi’s presence. “Nancy’s in a situation where it’s not easy for her to talk right now,” he told reporters crowded into the Oval Office.
“Mr. President,” Pelosi interrupted. “Please don’t characterize the strength that I bring to this meeting as the leader of the House Democrats, who just won a big victory.”
She then turned to the cameras to accuse Trump of dissembling in his comments on the wall, which he repeatedly promised Mexico would pay for, and on border security issues: “You take an oath to protect and defend, and we don’t want to have that mischaracterized by anyone.”
While Pelosi sat across from her fellow top Democratic leader — Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.), who had several barbs of his own — only Pelosi is now positioned to lead a majority next year and a corps of lawmakers who will be able to counter Trump’s policies and conduct the rigorous oversight that Republicans have largely avoided the past two years.
Pelosi and Schumer were not expecting a televised showdown, aides said, but they made the most of it.
“I am proud to shut down the government for border security,” Trump told Schumer in the midst of a sharp exchange — accepting the sort of political responsibility most presidents take extreme pains to dodge. “I will be the one to shut it down. I’m not going to blame you for it.”
To Pelosi’s Democratic allies inside the House, her performance was proof positive that this is no time to elect a rookie for the toughest negotiations in American politics.
“She’s the most effective person to have in the room where it happens — she skillfully negotiated with him, she was a statesperson, she was composed,” said Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.). “I think it seals the speakership — it has to. You saw in real time what the future looks like for the next two years.”
Republicans offered charitable reviews of the Pelosi-Trump showdown. Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) pointed out that when Pelosi’s grasp of the speakership seemed tenuous last month, Trump offered to recruit Republicans to vote for her.
“They may have a better relationship than we think,” he said. “I’m not going to try to second-guess what he’s doing.”
The Oval Office skirmish came as Pelosi’s internal critics have largely gone quiet, negotiating behind the scenes over some sort of accommodation that could give Pelosi the votes she needs while winning some progress toward their own goal of accelerating a generational turnover in the Democratic leadership.
One proposal, to impose term limits on top Democratic leaders and committee chairmen, appeared to founder Tuesday after Pelosi and other Democrats moved to postpone any changes in the rules until next year, when incoming freshmen would be able to participate in the debate.
Still, Pelosi’s opponents have found themselves isolated within the Democratic caucus, under siege from key party constituencies who are in lockstep behind Pelosi — including labor unions, women’s groups and other activist organizations — and some are even facing rumored primary challenges.
Three of the opponents — Reps. Bill Foster (Ill.), Ed Perlmutter (Colo.) and Linda T. Sánchez (Calif.) — met with Pelosi Tuesday afternoon in the hours after she left the White House.
There they hashed out a potential deal that would limit top party leaders to three or potentially four terms, according to three people familiar with the discussions but not authorized to comment on them publicly. Two of those people said the talks were nearing an agreement that would allow Pelosi to clinch the votes she needs.
Several House Democrats said Tuesday that the shutdown drama would only increase the pressure on the holdouts to come to terms.
“You have a Republican Senate and a Republican president. You need the person who is best positioned with one-third of the power to be able to negotiate, and Nancy Pelosi has proven that she’s that person,” said Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.), co-chairman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. “The way she’s handling this, the vast majority of members of the caucus are very satisfied.”
During the Oval Office meeting, she displayed skills she has honed in her three decades in Washington, half as her party’s top House leader. In a display of message discipline, she called it the “Trump shutdown.” She challenged Trump’s vote-counting skills by suggesting House Republicans could not pass wall funding without Democratic votes. And she repeatedly called on Trump to back up his claims.
“If I needed the votes for the wall in the House, I would have them in one session; it would be done,” he said.
“Well, then go do it,” she countered. “Go do it.”
Later in the day, House Republican aides said GOP leaders were exploring whether they could in fact schedule a vote on the legislation to bolster Trump’s negotiating position — and prove Pelosi wrong.
Elsewhere in the meeting, Pelosi demonstrated a talent for needling Trump. When Pelosi first spoke of a “Trump shutdown,” the president interrupted her: “Did you say ‘Trump’?”
When Trump boasted about “the lowest unemployment that we’ve had in 50 years,” Pelosi pointed out that 60 Republican House members were losing their jobs following the midterm elections.
And as soon as she returned from the White House, Pelosi strolled into a closed-door meeting in the Capitol basement, where fellow Democratic lawmakers were in the process of selecting committee chairs for the new Congress, and questioned Trump’s manhood.
“It’s like a manhood thing for him,” she said of the wall, according to an aide who was present. “As if manhood could ever be associated with him. This wall thing.”
She told colleagues that she was “trying to be the mom” in the room while Trump and Schumer bickered about the funding showdown, interrupting Pelosi at times, mansplaining at others.
“I can’t explain it to you. It was so wild. It goes to show you: You get into a tinkle contest with a skunk, you get tinkle all over you,” she said.
And she described Trump’s admission during the on-camera tete-a-tete that he would be “proud” to shut down the government as a political triumph.
“The fact is, we did get him to say, to fully own, that the shutdown was his,” she said, according to the aide. “That was an accomplishment.”
Pelosi, according to the aide, also described to colleagues how the Oval Office meeting concluded: “He said, ‘We can go two routes with this meeting — with a knife or a candy.’ I said, ‘Exactly.’ ”