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‘All roads lead to Putin’: Pelosi questions Trump’s loyalty in White House clash

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) spoke to reporters Oct. 17 about a White House meeting that ended with a walkout. (Video: Reuters)

The now-famous photo captured House Speaker Nancy Pelosi standing up in the Cabinet Room, pointing her finger at a visibly angry President Trump, and, in her telling, questioning his loyalty to the country he leads.

Why, she asked, did he withdraw U.S. troops from Syria — a geopolitical calculation that allowed a toehold in northern Syria for Russian President Vladimir Putin?

Why, she asked with lawmakers and aides watching and a White House photographer snapping away, do “all roads lead to Putin”? With that, Pelosi (D-Calif.) told reporters Thursday, she left the White House meeting Wednesday.

It was a staggering accusation from one constitutional officer to another, and it marked the moment that a relationship once marked by elements of mutual esteem finally shattered, after multiple heated confrontations, into absolute mutual disdain.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) told reporters "all roads seem to lead to Putin with the President" at a news conference on Oct. 15. (Video: Reuters)

Trump called it an “unhinged meltdown.” For Pelosi, it was a grave but considered rebuke.

Coming amid the high drama of congressional impeachment proceedings, the clash left Capitol Hill agog — thanks in no small part to the photograph that Trump quickly tweeted as evidence of a House speaker run amok.

“The Do Nothing Democrats, Pelosi and Schumer stormed out of the Cabinet Room!” Trump tweeted hours later, referring to Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.), who followed Pelosi out of the room. Other Republicans joined in the opprobrium Thursday.

“I would not stand up in the Cabinet Room, in front of the president of any party, and shake my finger at them,” said Rep. Paul Mitchell (R-Mich.). “I don’t care how important you think you are. Conduct yourself with some level of dignity.”

But Pelosi and her allies saw something very different: an unforgettable tableau of power being asserted, a lesson in checks and balances being taught in a royal blue pantsuit. Within hours, Pelosi had plastered the photo across her social media profiles.

“She’s a woman of dignity and grace. . . . He’s an eighth-grade bully,” said Rep. John B. Larson (D-Conn.), assessing the meeting. “I think it was appropriate that they got up and walked out when they’re facing childish behavior.”

It was only the most recent instance where Democrats emerged from a heated White House showdown with Trump accusing him of impetuous and unpresidential behavior, rallying behind Pelosi.

Weeks after Democrats won their House majority, Pelosi and Trump sparred as cameras rolled — asserting her power as the incoming speaker before emerging from the West Wing smiling in sunglasses and a dazzling red coat. In May, it was Trump who stormed out of a White House meeting called to discuss infrastructure, accusing Democrats of playing “games” and pursuing “phony investigations.”

Analysis | The images of Pelosi and Trump that cemented her as a symbol of a woman in command

But unlike the past blowups, Wednesday’s meeting was set to be squarely focused on a matter of national, if not global security, with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff seated next to Trump and a pall of bipartisan concern hanging over the meeting.

Barely an hour before it began, the House voted overwhelmingly to rebuke Trump’s decision to withdraw a small garrison of U.S. troops from northern Syria, paving the way for a Turkish campaign targeting the United States’ long-standing Kurdish allies. National security officials fear that the operation has led to the release of dozens of captives affiliated with the Islamic State terrorist group being held by the Kurds.

Pelosi’s remark came after Trump has spent years signaling his desire to forge closer ties to Russia over the objections of many Republicans who see Putin as a threat to American global leadership. Trump has publicly sided with Putin over U.S. intelligence in dismissing the possibility of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and suggested this year it would be “appropriate” for Russia to rejoin the Group of Seven richest countries — reversing the 2014 expulsion after Russia invaded Ukraine.

No Trump foreign policy move, however, has redounded so directly to Russia’s benefit as the Syrian pullout, with the Kurdish forces striking a deal with Russia.

The meeting, according to Schumer and multiple other people familiar with it who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak frankly, got off to a poor start when Trump — who had invited the bipartisan group of lawmakers to the White House — appeared to suggest that it was Democrats who had wanted the meeting.

Pelosi took the opportunity to raise the just-passed House resolution condemning the Syrian pullout, which has passed on a 354-60-4 vote — garnering support from about two-thirds of House Republicans. Trump reacted, according to multiple people familiar with the meeting, by defending his decision and denigrating the Syrian Kurds being targeted by the Turks.

At one point, in an apparent reference to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, he referred to some of the Kurds as being communists and suggested that “you Democrats would like that,” according to Schumer.

Schumer then began making his case against Trump’s decision by reading to the president comments made by former defense secretary Jim Mattis on NBC’s “Meet the Press” earlier this week.

Mattis, whose resignation late last year centered on his disagreement with Trump on Syria, said the United States needed to keep up the pressure in the region, arguing that if it did not, “then ISIS would resurge,” using another name for the Islamic State.

Trump then interjected, calling Mattis “the world’s most overrated general” who was not “tough enough” and saying that Trump himself “captured” the Islamic State, according to three officials familiar with the comments.

Trump also boasted that his timeline for capturing the Islamic State was much faster than what Mattis predicted, falsely claiming, “I captured them in one month.” At another point, according to Schumer and two other officials, Trump lambasted his predecessor, Barack Obama, for his inability to prevent mayhem in Syria.

Trump tries to distance himself from chaos in Syria as tensions with lawmakers in both parties escalate

Throughout, Schumer and Pelosi pressed Trump on his strategy for the region, whether his plan involved relying on the Turkish and Syrian regimes to secure Islamic State fighters who could pose a threat to the U.S. homeland. Trump said his “plan is to keep the American people safe.”

Pelosi retorted, “That’s not a plan. That’s a goal.”

At another point, according to Schumer, Trump said he had little choice but to withdraw the troops, claiming that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told him in an Oct. 6 phone call that “we’re going to go in whether you want it or not.” He then pulled out a stack of copies of an Oct. 9 letter Trump sent to Erdogan warning him against “slaughtering thousands” inside Syria: “Don’t be a tough guy. Don’t be a fool!”

“The president could have said, ‘You go in, and you’re going to have real trouble,’ and 99.9 percent, Erdogan wouldn’t have gone in,” Schumer told reporters Wednesday. “He’s very tough with the media, with his letters. But when it comes face to face, he’s weak-kneed.”

Schumer and another official said Trump sought to play down the threat posed by the escaped Islamic State detainees, and when Schumer pressed Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper, seated next to Trump, to confirm whether intelligence reports supported Trump’s claims, he declined to do so.

But it was a bout of name-calling that ultimately prompted the walkout, multiple people familiar with the meeting said. “You’re just a politician,” Trump told Pelosi as the confrontation grew. “A third-grade politician.”

“This is not useful,” said House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), seated next to Pelosi, as the invective flew. The two then stood and left the meeting.

“We’ll see you at the polls,” Trump said multiple times as the Democrats left the room to brief the media. Pelosi told reporters Trump “couldn’t handle” the House rebuke and had a “meltdown.”

Later, after returning to the Capitol, she was more pointed: “I think now we have to pray for his health, because this was a very serious meltdown on the part of the president.”

The White House rejected Pelosi’s characterization, with press secretary Stephanie Grisham asserting that Trump remained “measured, factual and decisive” and that the speaker’s decision to leave the meeting was “baffling, but not surprising.”

“She had no intention of listening or contributing to an important meeting on national security issues,” Grisham said. “While Democratic leadership chose to storm out and get in front of the cameras to whine, everyone else in the meeting chose to stay in the room and work on behalf of this country.”

Schumer stayed behind a few minutes longer to press Trump and Esper on security concerns. At that point, according to Schumer and two other officials familiar with the remarks, Trump repeatedly played down the threat posed by the released Islamic State fighters, saying the United States did not need to worry about “terrorists 7,000 miles away.”

“I said, ‘We New Yorkers, Mr. President, know how bad terrorism can be — a small group of people from half a globe away can do huge damage,’ ” Schumer recalled.

Rep. Liz Cheney (Wyo.), the House Republican Conference chair, also spoke up to remind Trump that the terrorists who killed nearly 3,000 Americans in the 9/11 terrorist attacks “came from 7,000 miles away.”

“It was a meeting on one of the most serious crises affecting America in a while,” Schumer said. “And instead of having a serious discussion, the president just threw out insults.”

But it was the photo, tweeted from Trump’s account two hours later, that may be the lasting impression from the meeting — a political Rorschach test for the ages.

“We’ve got to do better than this as elected officials,” said Rep. Tom Reed (R-N.Y.), faulting “both sides” in assessing the photo. “We should be sitting in a room working out our differences and coming up with solutions, and leaving the room, I think, was a very bad move.”

Democrats, meanwhile, were simply puzzled that Trump would release the photo thinking it would leave the public with a flattering impression of him.

Assistant Speaker Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.) compared Trump’s judgment in releasing the photo to his decision to release a rough transcript of his July 25 phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in which he pressed the foreign leader to investigate a domestic political rival. Trump has claimed the transcript exonerated him.

“It’s a perfect photo, just like his ‘perfect’ conversation,” Luján said.

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