By lunchtime Thursday, Pelosi turned her hand of friendship into a balled-up fist of fury. A few hours earlier, standing a few feet from Pelosi at the National Prayer Breakfast, the president questioned Pelosi’s statements of prayer for him, something he doubled down on later when he questioned the entire extent of her faith.
“I don’t know if the president understands about prayer or people who do pray,” Pelosi told reporters. “But we do pray for the United States of America. I pray for him, President Bush still, President Obama. Because it’s a heavy responsibility. And I pray hard for him because he’s so off the track of our Constitution.”
That is a bridge that, when crossed, prompts the practicing Catholic to reach a more passionate level.
Religion has always been a central part of life for Pelosi, the youngest of seven children from Baltimore, who attended Catholic schools from elementary through Trinity Washington College in the District.
While some conservative Catholics have criticized her for supporting abortion rights, Pelosi has always embraced the church.
In January 2007, she kicked off the week she made history as the first female House speaker with a Mass at Trinity. Leading a congressional delegation to Italy in 2009, the speaker met with Pope Benedict XVI.
She has acknowledged fierce debates with family members over abortion rights. And in early December, when a reporter asked if she hated the president, Pelosi returned to the podium to explain why she never uses that word, citing her Catholic rearing.
“I don’t hate anyone. I was raised in a way that is full — a heart full of love — and always pray for the president. And I still pray for the president,” she said.
Trump clearly had that moment in mind Thursday when he lashed out at Pelosi and Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), who cited his own Mormon faith in leading him to be the lone Republican to vote to convict Trump in the Senate impeachment trial.
“I don’t like people who use their faith as justification for doing what they know is wrong,” the president said. “Nor do I like people who say, ‘I pray for you,’ when they know that that’s not so.”
Later, in front of dozens of members of Congress at his acquittal celebration at the White House, Trump singled out Pelosi and Romney by name, going further by accusing her of neither praying for him, nor praying at all. “She doesn’t pray. She may pray, but she prays for the opposite. But I doubt she prays at all,” the president said.
Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) said later that he did not know Trump questioned Pelosi’s faith.
“I think that there was some question whether she actually prays for the president and then acts the way that she does. But, listen, I’m not going to judge anybody’s faith; I gotta worry about my own,” Meadows said at the Capitol after returning from the White House.
Longtime confidants say Pelosi’s and Romney’s respective faiths are a common denominator.
“Neither one of them ever apologizes for or hides the importance of faith in their lives,” said the Rev. Patrick J. Conroy, the House chaplain. “So, to make any kind of judgment, it’s like: Who can go there? They’re both very public, she’s a public Catholic, he’s a public Mormon. I mean, I don’t know who does that.”
At her news conference, Pelosi called the attack on Romney’s faith “particularly without class.”
“He’s talking about things that he knows little about: faith and prayer,” she said.
She had already delivered more than eight minutes of opening remarks that focused on picking apart Trump’s Tuesday State of the Union address, explaining why she ripped it apart in a public display at the end of the speech. She had already cried foul about his statements on guaranteeing health insurance coverage for those with preexisting conditions and lowering prescription drug costs, among other issues, when in fact he is trying to gut the Affordable Care Act, which includes those insurance protections.
But she still said she was “very proud of the work, in a bipartisan way,” on the budget and trade deals in December, hoping they could serve as road maps for working together on some high-priority items this year.
The question about prayer sent her to a different place, questioning Trump’s own faith and morals while critiquing his policy positions. “He really needs our prayers,” she said.
When asked if she would invite him back to deliver the joint address if he wins reelection in November, Pelosi questioned whether Trump was on medication.
“He looked to me like he was a little sedated. He looked that way last year, too. But he didn’t want to shake hands. That was that,” she said.
A third of the way through the speech, she said, the plot began to emerge to rip up the copy of the speech that is delivered to the House speaker at the outset of every presidential joint address to Congress. She said Trump was “shredding the truth” in the speech and that his behavior leading to his impeachment was “shredding” the Constitution.
But she had to sit through another hour of the speech, listening to him praise his guests, including his presentation of the Presidential Medal of Freedom to conservative talk radio host Rush Limbaugh.
“We don’t come in your office and do congressional business,” she said. “Why are you doing that here?”
During the speech, some Democrats thought Trump was extending an olive branch when he started discussing someone just diagnosed with cancer, believing he was talking about Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), who is undergoing treatment for pancreatic cancer.
Instead, it was Limbaugh, who recently announced he had been diagnosed with late-stage lung cancer.
Pressed on her decision to rip up the speech, Pelosi said, “I feel very liberated. I feel very liberated. I feel that I have extended every possible courtesy,” Pelosi said.
Even some prayers.