Analysis

Will Pelosi Be the First to Out-Bully Trump?

Their clash over the wall represents two irreconcilable views of America—portending no end to the shutdown.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi holds her weekly on-camera press conference in the Capitol on Jan. 7, 2016. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi holds her weekly on-camera press conference in the Capitol on Jan. 7, 2016. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Unstoppable force, meet immovable object.

That was the drama that played out on Friday when U.S. President Donald Trump hosted House Speaker Nancy Pelosi at the White House over the two-week-long government shutdown. But perhaps to Trump’s surprise, this was not the accommodating, ready-to-compromise Pelosi the president had once anticipated—the Pelosi he once pledged to get “as many votes as she wants” to become speaker.

Pelosi made that clear Thursday night—only hours after becoming the first person to regain the speakership since the legendary Sam Rayburn in 1955—when she combined a savvy legislative gambit with a bold declaration of American values intended to expose Trump’s proposed wall with Mexico as the overhyped pretense that even some in his own party believe it is.

“We’re not doing a wall. Does anyone have any doubt that we’re not doing a wall?” Pelosi said. “A wall is an immorality between countries. It’s not who we are as a nation.”

Her comment was a rhetorical arrow aimed at the heart of Trump’s populist appeal to his (largely) white base and at a presidency that from the earliest days of Trump’s campaign was built on stoking fears of brown-skinned immigrants. It also showed that Pelosi wants to signal clearly to the president that she won’t be bullied like nearly every other politician Trump has encountered, including his Republican rivals.

In addition, her statement indicated that the shutdown—which began over Democratic refusals to give Trump the funds he wants for a wall—will drag on indefinitely unless the legislative part of Pelosi’s ploy works. That is intended to wean reasonable Republicans away from an unwinnable fight over a wall that almost certainly will never exist, at least in the form Trump promoted it during the 2016 campaign.

At the time, Trump won many of his loudest cheers at rallies when he pledged to build a “beautiful” wall that Mexico would pay for “100 percent.” Since then the Mexican government has said it would not pay for any of it, and Trump has shifted to suggesting that the revised United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement would pay for it, although Congress has yet to approve the trade pact and the prospective deal has nothing to do with funding for a wall.

The president repeated that erroneous claim at his own news conference in the Rose Garden after the Friday meeting. “We will be taking in billions and billions’ dollars more money for the United States,” he said. “I view that as absolutely Mexico paying for the wall.”

Trump also said he told Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer that the shutdown could continue for months, or even years, if he doesn’t get his way. The president has been cavalier about the hundreds of thousands of federal workers on furlough, suggesting that most of them are Democrats anyway.

According to one Democratic House staffer privy to discussions in the caucus, Pelosi’s strategy was carefully planned and “certainly represents the general thinking of the majority of the caucus.”

“In framing Trump’s demand for a wall as immoral/un-American in nature, she’s able to place Trump and his agenda in the camp of immoral/un-American,” the staffer said. “You should see this theme echoed and amplified by members of the caucus going forward.”

Neera Tanden, the president of the Center for American Progress, called Pelosi’s tough if politically risky stand “an important moment” for Democrats. “What has really built up over the last two years of Republican acquiescence to Trump has been a primal desire for someone to attach reality to the president,” she told Foreign Policy. Along with other Democrats, Tanden believes the momentum is on Pelosi’s side.

“The threat for him is that his political capital is eroding. No Democrats are shifting to him. There are only Republicans shifting away.”

According to a Quinnipiac University National Poll from December, 54 percent of American voters overall oppose a border wall, but some 86 percent of Republicans support it.

On Thursday, under Pelosi’s direction, the House passed two government funding bills to temporarily open some closed federal agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security (which is responsible for border patrols) while negotiations over the wall continue. Five House Republicans voted with the Democrats, and on the Senate side two Republicans, Susan Collins of Maine and Cory Gardner of Colorado, indicated that they supported such measures.

But Trump and his administration stuck to the immovable stand the president has adopted since right-wing commentators such as Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter warned him late last month that he risks his political base with any departure from the $5.6 billion he’s asked for the wall.

“We won’t be opening until [the wall] is solved,” Trump told reporters Friday. Or as Vice President Mike Pence told Fox News late Thursday, “Bottom line, if there’s no wall, there’s no deal.”

Trump appeared desperate to win back the public, hosting border officials at a no-questions White House briefing Thursday and sending a letter to members of Congress that said: “Walls work. That’s why rich, powerful, and successful people build them around their homes.”

After the Friday meeting, which Pelosi called “contentious,” Trump held his own briefing in the Rose Garden in which he again said the wall—which he now described as “steel” whereas previously he emphasized “concrete”—was absolutely necessary to America’s security. He said the two sides would meet again over the weekend.

Perhaps the president’s biggest problem is that even his just departed chief of staff, John Kelly, has said that the wall is not what he has promoted to his base.

“To be honest, it’s not a wall,” Kelly told the Los Angeles Times in late December. “The president still says ‘wall’ — oftentimes frankly he’ll say ‘barrier’ or ‘fencing,’ now he’s tended toward steel slats. But we left a solid concrete wall early on in the administration, when we asked people what they needed and where they needed it.” And Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a sometime Trump supporter, said, “The wall has become a metaphor for border security.”

Even so, Graham later said, “If he gives in now, that’s the end of 2019, in terms of him being an effective president.” Graham added: “That’s probably the end of his presidency,” suggesting that Trump risks losing his base.

In truth, just about one-third of the 2,000-mile border between the United States and Mexico is now covered by various types of fencing, and despite Trump’s claims that “we’ve already started building” a wall, the omnibus spending bill for fiscal 2018 provided funding only for additions such as “secondary fending” and “primary pedestrian levee fencing.”

Angered by such temporizing, Trump recently tweeted: “An all concrete Wall was NEVER ABANDONED, as has been reported by the media. Some areas will be all concrete but the experts at Border Patrol prefer a Wall that is see through (thereby making it possible to see what is happening on both sides). Makes sense to me!”

By staking out such uncompromising positions, both Pelosi and the president are now taking serious political risks in being blamed for an unpopular and costly shutdown. Trump has shown that he will do nothing to alienate his anti-immigrant, majority-white supporters, but Pelosi can hardly back off either in the first major act of her speakership.

Michael Hirsh is a senior correspondent at Foreign Policy@michaelphirsh

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