WASHINGTON - House Democrats on Wednesday were making plans to undermine President Donald Trump at his Jan. 29 "State of the Union" address. Just past 8:30 a.m., the leadership's communications arm sent an email to lawmakers urging them to bring furloughed federal workers or other "message-related" guests to the nationally televised event.
Unknown to most of her caucus, however, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., had decided on a more confrontational approach.
Addressing a closed-door meeting of House Democrats, the speaker read a letter she had just sent to Trump asking him to either postpone the speech until the federal government reopens or deliver the text in writing, citing security concerns.
Surprised Democratic lawmakers cheered their leader's rationale: If the government stays shut down, Pelosi would deprive Trump of the spotlight he craves. To a president especially sensitive to acts of disrespect - and one with a hearty appetite for pomp and circumstance - the so-called unvitation was not merely a power play. It was a calculated personal slight.
In the two weeks since she reclaimed the speaker's gavel, Pelosi has moved aggressively to leverage her decades of congressional experience to needle, belittle and undercut Trump with swipes at his competence and even his masculinity.
The two leaders are locked in a standoff over a partial government shutdown instigated by Trump's demand that U.S. taxpayers fund a portion of his promised border wall. Both Trump and Pelosi are gambling that the other will bear the brunt of the blame as the economic impact worsens, with the shutdown now dragging on for nearly a month.
But Pelosi's challenge to Trump also comes with a degree of risk, for her and for Democrats. The more she becomes the face of Trump's opposition, the more Republicans will probably use her unpopularity nationally to label vulnerable House Democrats as Pelosi clones - a potentially potent line of attack against sitting lawmakers who cast votes in lock-step with party leaders.
Still, with a self-declared mandate to provide a check on the president's power, Pelosi is helping to keep Democrats largely united while energizing liberals who have yearned for a leader to challenge Trump directly.
Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., called her letter to Trump to delay the State of the Union speech her "Gene Hackman moment," comparing it to an inspirational speech the actor gives a basketball team in the movie "Hoosiers."
"It's smart for two reasons," Cohen said. "Number one, Pelosi would be right behind him, and she'd have to sit there as he put the onus on her for the shutdown. Number two, it gives him a reason to end the shutdown, because he loves the TV audience and the attention."
Josh Holmes, an adviser to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., called Pelosi "a total fighter."
"She understands political leverage. She wields the knife," Holmes said. But he argued that her call to delay Trump's speech was "a major screw up" and predicted it would backfire.
In her letter to Trump, Pelosi said the U.S. Secret Service and the Department of Homeland Security have been "hamstrung" by furloughs and therefore should not bear the burden of securing the president's address in the House chamber. The White House had no immediate response, but Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said her department and the Secret Service were "fully prepared to support and secure the State of the Union."
Trump was largely indifferent to Pelosi's letter Wednesday, according to two people familiar with his remarks about the issue who requested anonymity to speak about internal discussions. Trump and the White House decided not to respond because it was unclear whether Pelosi was actually canceling the event or just making a political statement, both of these people said.
Marc Short, the Trump White House's former legislative affairs director, said if security truly were Pelosi's concern, she would not have extended a formal invitation to Trump to deliver the address, which she did earlier this month after the shutdown began.
"If we really can't secure the president of the United States in the Capitol, then we have a much bigger problem," Short said. "It's a bogus claim to say there are security concerns. Everybody can look at that and say she doesn't want to give the president a platform to speak to the nation about border security."
House Minority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., said, "It's just that Nancy Pelosi is afraid of hearing what the president has to say."
One danger for Pelosi is that Democrats could eventually appear intransigent to voters. Having said she considers the president's long-promised wall immoral - and joking that she would only agree to allocate a single dollar to it - Pelosi could find herself in a bind should Republicans offer a compromise deal that would partially meet Trump's demand for $5.7 billion in wall funding.
Pelosi's strategy for dealing with Trump was born of exasperation, advisers said. She has been deliberately trying to get under his skin and "to talk to him in a way he understands," according to one person familiar with her views.
After Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer's Dec. 11 Oval Office meeting with Trump, their first since the midterm elections, the speaker-designate told House Democrats their session was like "a tinkle contest with a skunk" and that she felt his wall demand was "like a manhood thing for him," according to an aide in the room.
Pelosi kept her digs coming. After Trump backed off his demand that the wall be built of cement, she suggested he wanted "a beaded curtain or something." She has implied he cannot relate to furloughed workers and "thinks maybe they could just ask their father for more money," a reference to the president's inherited wealth. And she has described his behavior as unstable and childish.
"It's a temper tantrum," Pelosi said after Trump stalked out of a negotiating session last week. "I'm the mother of five, grandmother of nine. I know a temper tantrum when I see one."
Pelosi is setting the tone for how her party plans to confront the president over the next two years - in the political and legal fights consuming Washington as well as the presidential campaign taking shape across the country.
"She's had so much experience and has been attacked so much that she's secure," said Jennifer Palmieri, a longtime Democratic strategist. "She is a woman of power who knows how to use it and is not at all cowed by what [Trump's] reaction is to her. It's not a concern. That frees her to take actions that others might be afraid to do."
Navigating among powerful men is old hat for Pelosi, the youngest of six children from a political family in Baltimore, growing up with five older brothers, one of whom followed their father's footsteps into the mayor's office. She rose as a political force in her own right, first as a California fundraiser and local party activist and then in Congress, at a time when men vastly outnumbered women in the profession.
Trump is a proud counterpuncher, but when it comes to Pelosi, he has pulled back on his jabs. That is deliberate, aides and advisers said, because the president believes she would help protect him from impeachment and because he considers her more reasonable than other Democrats.
Privately, one adviser said, Trump has complained about the quotes he reads from Pelosi about him in newspapers but has said he is impressed by her political savvy.
"He says Cryin' Chuck and Nancy, not Cryin' Chuck and Nasty Nancy or whatever," said this adviser, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the president's views, referring to Trump's Twitter mentions of Pelosi and Schumer, D-N.Y.
Democrats won 40 House seats in November's midterm elections - their largest gain since the Watergate-era class of 1974 - after Republican anti-Pelosi ads failed.
Pelosi's approval rating has improved since the election, but she remains unpopular. A Quinnipiac poll released this week found 35 percent of voters had a favorable opinion of her, up from 27 percent in mid-2017. The survey found 48 percent held an unfavorable image of Pelosi, largely unchanged from her unfavorable rating over the past five years.
On the campaign trail last fall, Trump's aides encouraged him to attack Pelosi by name at his rallies. They argued with him that she was more unpopular with his supporters than his favorite foe, Hillary Clinton, according to one senior administration official.
But as soon as Pelosi secured the House majority, Trump decided to call and congratulate her, even though aides had told reporters he was not planning to do so.
White House aides said Trump respects Pelosi, and he has suggested they strike a deal on infrastructure. He often brings up Pelosi's Catholic religion. Before one meeting last year, he asked her to pray, and at a meeting earlier this year, he said that the Vatican had a wall and that she was a "good Catholic," according to someone familiar with the exchange.
Sam Nunberg, a former Trump campaign adviser, said the president probably figured he could manage Pelosi just as he dealt with foes in real estate.
"I think that, as usual, he thought he would be able to charm her and that at the end of the day, they would have this great bipartisan type of dealmaking," he said. "I think it's completely naive."
Trump has sought to drive a wedge through Pelosi's caucus, which includes centrists elected in districts he carried in 2016 as well as liberals already pushing for the president's impeachment.
But for now, at least, Pelosi has kept her members united, in part with stealth moves like Wednesday's State of the Union letter. She kept her plans a secret from most of her own leadership team, though she gave a heads up to Schumer. The two have been working in sync, talking five to six times a day during the shutdown. Pelosi asked Schumer to trek across the Capitol Wednesday morning to attend the House caucus meeting and show his support for the plan, which he did.
Pelosi's unexpected announcement did cause some confusion. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., went on CNN, without having carefully read the letter she sent to Trump, and incorrectly declared that the State of the Union was "off", even though Pelosi made clear that if the government was fully funded before Jan. 29 the event could go forward.
Still, the move served to rally Democrats.
Rep. Max Rose, a centrist Democrat elected last fall in Trump-friendly Staten Island in New York, was one of seven Democrats in the "Problem Solvers Caucus" who went to the White House on Wednesday to meet with Trump. But he said he was solidly in Pelosi's corner, even though he did not support her as speaker.
"She's bailing the president out, man," Rose said. "Do you think the president of the United States is going to deliver a 'State of the Union' during a government shutdown and say it's good?"
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The Washington Post's Mike DeBonis and David Weigel contributed to this report.
WASHINGTON - Last April, telecom giant T-Mobile announced a megadeal: a $26 billion merger with rival Sprint, which would more than double T-Mobile's value and give it a huge new chunk of the cellphone market.
But for T-Mobile, one hurdle remained: Its deal needed approval from the Trump administration.
The next day, in Washington, staffers at the Trump International Hotel were handed a list of incoming "VIP Arrivals." That day's list included nine of T-Mobile's top executives - including its chief operating officer, chief technology officer, chief strategy officer, chief financial officer and its outspoken celebrity chief executive, John Legere.
The executives had scheduled stays of up to three days. But it was not their last visit.
Instead, T-Mobile executives have returned to President Donald Trump's hotel repeatedly since then, according to eyewitnesses and hotel documents obtained by The Washington Post.
By mid-June, seven weeks after the announcement of the merger, hotel records indicated that one T-Mobile executive was making his 10th visit to the hotel. Legere appears to have made at least four visits to the Trump hotel, walking the lobby in his T-Mobile gear.
These visits highlight a stark reality in Washington, unprecedented in modern American history. Trump the president works at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Trump the businessman owns a hotel at 1100 Pennsylvania.
Countries, interest groups and companies like T-Mobile - whose future will be shaped by the administration's choices - are free to stop at both, and to pay the president's company while also meeting with officials in his government. Such visits raise questions about whether patronizing Trump's private business is viewed as a way to influence public policy, critics said.
Last week, a Post reporter spotted Legere in the Trump hotel's lobby. In an impromptu interview, the T-Mobile chief executive said he was not seeking special treatment. He chose the Trump hotel, he said, for its fine service and good security.
"It's become a place I feel very comfortable," Legere said. He also praised the hotel's location, next to one of the departments that must approve the company's merger.
"At the moment I am in town for some meetings at the Department of Justice," Legere said. "And it's very convenient for that."
After The Post published a version of this article online Wednesday, a Democratic member of the Federal Communications Commission - which would have to approve the merger - tweeted about her concern. "This does not look good," Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel wrote, making note of the report.
Later in the day, Legere used Twitter to respond: "Wow - A lot of attention on where I choose to stay in DC," he wrote, continuing, "I trust regulators will make their decision based on the benefits it will bring to the US, not based on hotel choices."
The potential conflict of interest posed by Trump's dual roles in Washington was underscored in a separate development Wednesday, when the General Services Administration's internal watchdog issued a scathing report of the agency's decision-making that allowed the president to keep his lease for the hotel, which is in a federally owned building. It said the agency should have assessed whether the lease violates the Constitution's emoluments clauses, which bar presidents from taking payments from foreign governments and U.S. states. But it "improperly ignored" those concerns, the report said.
The VIP Arrivals lists obtained by The Post - in which Trump hotel executives alerted their staff to foreign officials, corporate executives, long-term guests, Trump family friends and big spenders - provide an inside look at some of the hotel's customers. The Post obtained lists for about a dozen days in 2018.
Those lists showed 38 nights of hotel stays by the T-Mobile executives; because The Post's data is incomplete, the number could be higher.
Rooms at the luxury hotel routinely cost more than $300 per night.
The Post shared details about those stays - gleaned from the VIP Arrivals lists and eyewitness accounts - with both T-Mobile and the Trump Organization. Neither challenged the findings. After Legere's brief interview at the Trump hotel, T-Mobile declined to comment further for this report.
Trump's hotel also has hosted parties put on by the Kuwaiti and Philippine embassies, rented hundreds of rooms to lobbyists paid by Saudi Arabia, and hosted a large meeting of the oil industry's lobbying group.
But the T-Mobile case stands out because the company's executives were expected at the hotel so soon after announcing they needed a win in Washington.
"It's currying favor with the president," said Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics. "It's disturbing, because it's another secret avenue for currying favor with the government."
She said that even if they weren't directly ordered by Trump, the president's appointees might feel pressured to help Trump's customers. That might undermine public confidence in the decisions that result, Krumholz said.
The White House did not respond to requests for comment.
Eric Trump - who is running the family business with his brother, Donald Trump Jr., while his father serves in the White House - said in an email that the hotel has "absolutely no role in politics." Asked about the stays by Legere, Eric Trump said that his hotel offers extraordinary service: "It should come as no surprise that a CEO of a major corporation would want to stay with us."
Before last year, Washington had been a place of disappointment for T-Mobile, which is the third-biggest of the United States' four big cellphone providers, which has long sought a merger to grow bigger.
In 2011 and in 2014, the Bellevue, Washington-based company planned to combine with rivals: first AT&T, then Sprint. But both times, the Obama administration rejected the mergers on antitrust grounds, saying they would decrease competition and hurt consumers.
On April 29, 2018, T-Mobile announced it would try again with Sprint.
The deal would require approval from agencies including the Justice Department, which handles antitrust enforcement, and the Federal Communications Commission, which regulates the airwaves that cellphones use. Those two agencies declined to comment.
Sprint, the market's fourth-place player, is largely owned by SoftBank, a Japanese company whose founder, Masayoshi Son, has built his own relationship with Donald Trump. After Trump's election, Son was praised by the incoming president for a promise to invest $50 billion and create 50,000 jobs in the United States. Sprint declined to comment for this report.
Legere, the T-Mobile chief executive, also had a history with the president.
But it wasn't a good one.
"I will obviously leave your hotel right away," Legere wrote on Twitter in April 2015, during a public spat that began with complaints about Legere's stay at a Trump hotel in New York, and escalated when Trump called T-Mobile's service "terrible."
Later, Legere mocked Trump's hotels after checking out. "I am so happy to wake up in a hotel where every single item isn't labeled 'Trump,' " he wrote, according to news coverage. Those tweets appear to have been deleted.
Three years later, on the day after the Sprint merger was announced, Legere was scheduled to arrive at the Trump hotel in Washington.
That day's VIP Arrivals list had 39 names. There were executives at a Defense Department contractor called AxleTech; a spokesman said they chose the hotel because they had a meeting at a corporate office across the street. Two other VIPs were connected with the pro-Trump super PAC America First Action, which was hosting a dinner with the president at the hotel that night. A spokeswoman said one room was for the event photographer, the other for staff preparations.
And there were the nine T-Mobile executives. Of them, only Legere was listed with an "R" next to his name - signaling to Trump hotel employees that he was a repeat Trump customer.
Inside the hotel's busy, soaring lobby, Legere was noticed quickly.
"Everybody knew. You couldn't miss it," said Jake Loft, who was in the lobby for a regularly scheduled networking event. He spotted Legere by his outfit, which was - as usual - a walking billboard for T-Mobile. Legere wore a black-and-magenta hoodie with a T-Mobile logo over a bright-magenta T-shirt with another T-Mobile logo. "He wasn't dressed appropriately," Loft said.
Tim Briseno, who was there with Loft, said that "it was essentially like a track suit." Briseno remembered Legere giving out business cards, with an offer of a discount. "He was like, 'If you guys switch, you'll get 40 percent off for the rest of your life.' " T-Mobile did not respond to a query asking whether that offer was legitimate.
They asked Legere for a photo.
"I didn't look at the photo until after I left," Loft said. Legere had given them both bunny ears. "I was like, 'That was good.' "
Legere wound up in several photos on Instagram, giving bunny ears in every one.
On that first visit, some of the T-Mobile executives were expected to stay between one and three days apiece, according to the VIP Arrivals list.
In late May, the Trump hotel expected T-Mobile's general counsel, David Miller, for a return visit, staying two days. Then, on June 17, the VIP Arrivals list showed that Legere, Miller and T-Mobile Executive Vice President David Carey would be returning for five-day stays.
By that time - just six weeks after the merger was announced - the list shows that the T-Mobile executives were already experienced Trump customers. Legere and Carey were members of the "Trump Card" program. Carey's entry also contained the notation "R(10)."
That - according to Trump hotel staffers, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they aren't permitted to speak to the media - was an indication that Carey was making his 10th visit to the hotel. The listings also contained the words "Long Term" because of the length of their stays. Carey and Miller did not respond to requests for comment.
After that, Legere came a few days later. On June 27, the same day that Legere testified to Congress about the merger, he was spotted at the hotel by independent journalist Zach Everson, according to an account Everson posted on Twitter. Everson said he saw Legere in the hotel lobby, talking to former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, who has advised T-Mobile during the merger talks.
Lewandowski is a frequent patron of the Trump hotel: He has held two book parties there and often appears in social-media photos mingling in the lobby. Lewandowski did not return requests for comment this week.
The visits by T-Mobile executives cumulatively are probably worth tens of thousands of dollars to the Trump Organization, the president's company, which he still owns despite criticism from government ethics experts.
Since Trump was elected, his hotel has been patronized by other groups with lobbying interests in Washington: foreign embassies, industry associations, religious groups. Lobbyists working for the Saudi government - a close U.S. ally that has grown closer under Trump - paid for 500 hotel rooms in the first four months after Trump was elected.
Opponents of the T-Mobile merger say they believe the executives' repeated stays are an effort to influence policy.
"I can't believe this is a coincidence. In mergers, companies look for any potential advantage they can find," said Gene Kimmelman, who was chief counsel at the Justice Department's antitrust division under President Barack Obama. He now leads the government-watchdog group Public Knowledge.
Kimmelman said he doubted that the career Justice Department officials would be moved by it but said it could "sway others in government" appointed by Trump.
Daniel Schuman, of the liberal group Demand Progress, is part of a coalition opposing the merger, arguing that it would reduce choice for consumers. The coalition, called the 4Competition Coalition also includes labor unions and some smaller cellphone providers.
"This isn't justice with a blindfold on, right?" he said. "It creates a fundamental corruption in the way that the work of the American people is done."
Analysts say Legere's own T-Mobile shares are valued at $16.5 million, a fortune that would probably grow if the merger is approved.
In the interview at the Trump hotel last week, Legere said that although the hotel was clearly a place to be seen, he did not believe the president knew about his staying there.
Did he expect that his staying there might earn his company any special treatment?
"Certainly not. I don't know why it would," he said.
Sometime after that interview, Legere apparently checked out of the Trump hotel. By the next evening, Legere was tweeting about the great bar at "my current DC hotel" - the Four Seasons in Georgetown.
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Brian Fung contributed to this report.