On Friday afternoon, President Donald Trump walked into the Rose Garden to announce, effectively, that he was throwing in the towel. After shutting down the government as part of a 35-day executive tantrum to secure funding for his proposed border wall with Mexico, Trump announced a plan to reopen the government for the next three weeks while House and Senate negotiators look at border-security funding measures. The government will reopen, and no wall is in sight.
It was the coda to what has been a national misery and a rolling disaster for the self-designated deal maker: By Friday afternoon, Trump’s disapproval rating had shot up five points since the start of the federal freeze, and one in five Americans polled said that the shutdown had personally inconvenienced them. This sure didn’t seem like big-shot master strategy.
The Rose Garden capitulation, besides providing the capstone to Trump’s public disgrace, was an undeniable victory for Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, and a lesson about the new Washington power dynamic: The Donald has met his match.
From her very first shutdown scrap with Trump in the Oval Office in mid-December, shortly before the federal drama officially began, the speaker was clearly not going to be politely deferential to the whims and wisecracks of the president. Within moments of being offered the chance to speak with the press during a televised gaggle, Pelosi had edged Trump off his footing:
“We should not have a Trump shutdown …” Pelosi said.
“A what? Did you say ‘Trump’?” he replied.
Indeed, she had said “Trump shutdown,” and by the conclusion of their unfortunately televised conclave, Trump had been fully lured into the bear trap: “I’ll tell you what, I am proud to shut down the government for border security … I will take the mantle. I will be the one to shut it down. I’m not going to blame you for it. The last time you shut it down, it didn’t work. I will take the mantle of shutting down, and I’m going to shut it down for border security.”
Trump, and his advisers, have known ever since that it would be impossible to blame Democrats for the shutdown, and the American public has not forgotten, either. (A majority blame Trump and Republicans.) Trump would never really recover from it.
As things got progressively worse, as more unpaid federal workers lined up for canned food and more security agencies made public the ways in which the shutdown was compromising their basic capability to operate, Trump’s inability to land a punch—to even swing!—became embarrassingly apparent.
After a series of letters litigating whether (or not) the president would be allowed to deliver a State of the Union address next week, Pelosi this Wednesday informed Trump that no, the House was closed.
In response, the president … caved.
Late that night, he tweeted:
As the Shutdown was going on, Nancy Pelosi asked me to give the State of the Union Address. I agreed. She then changed her mind because of the Shutdown, suggesting a later date. This is her prerogative--I will do the Address when the Shutdown is over…
“Nancy’s Prerogative” might be the name of an Irish bar, but in this case it signaled the waving of the presidential white flag, a fairly shocking thing to see on any war front. Trump’s pugilistic impulses, after all, have been virtually unchecked—especially these days, when he is without administration minders. But Pelosi has rendered Trump unable to employ his traditional weaponry. He couldn’t even muster the juju necessary to formulate that most Trumpian of Trump battle strategies, a demeaning nickname. “Nancy Pelosi, or Nancy, as I call her,” Trump said on Wednesday, “doesn’t want to hear the truth.”
Nancy—also known as “Nancy.” This was not just the basement of creative nomenclature; it signaled something else: defeat. Some sort of mystical Pelosian shield rendered the disrespecter in chief unable to skewer her. In reality, that shield is probably power. Here is what the former Trump Organization executive Barbara Res told The New York Times about Pelosi:
[She represents] a new challenge to Mr. Trump’s lifelong tactics. One blind spot [Res] observed was that Mr. Trump “believes he’s better than anyone who ever lived” and saw even the most capable of women as easy to run over. “But there was never a woman with power that he ran up against, until Pelosi,” she said. “And he doesn’t know what to do with it. He’s totally in a corner.”
Trump has intersected with powerful women before—Hillary Clinton, most notably—and showed little hesitation to diminish and demean. But Pelosi, who once joked to me she eats nails for breakfast, is a ready warrior. She is happy to meet the demands of war, whereas Clinton was reluctant, semi-disgusted, and annoyed to be dragged to the depths that running against Trump demanded. The speaker of the House is, technically, a coastal elite from San Francisco, but she was trained in the hurly-burly of machine politics of Baltimore by her father, Mayor Thomas D’Alesandro Jr. It is not a coincidence that Pelosi has managed, over and over, to vanquish her rivals in the challenges for Democratic leadership: she flocks to the fight, not just because she usually wins, but apparently because she likes it.
To be powerful and to also need nothing is to be in the catbird seat, and Pelosi, in this moment, had both: her House majority is on offense, and the shutdown was—and now forevermore will be—Trump’s humiliation. If we can give credit to the president in this moment of failure, perhaps it is in the fact that he likely recognized, before even the first federal worker was furloughed, that Pelosi had already won.