When Nancy Pelosi Confronted Donald Trump

In public remarks Thursday, the House Democratic leader described her relationship with the president.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi
J. Scott Applewhite / AP

When Nancy Pelosi joined other congressional leaders to meet Donald Trump at the White House just a few days after his inauguration in January, there was a sense of anticipation about what the new president would say.

After all, the House minority leader recalled on Thursday afternoon, this was Trump’s first opportunity to address the senior officers of the legislative branch—the men and (relatively few) women who would determine whether his ambitious agenda would become law.

“Will he quote the Bible? Will he quote our Founders? Will there be some poetry?” Pelosi remembered thinking. Speaking at the Washington Ideas Forum, an annual conference hosted by the Aspen Institute and The Atlantic, she drew some knowing chuckles from the crowd, which quickly recognized that any of those things would be out of character for the president.

Instead, Trump began with a falsehood about his loss of the popular vote to Hillary Clinton that would soon become infamous.

“You know I won the popular vote?” the president said to the congressional leaders. “Because 3 to 5 million people voted illegally.”

In hindsight, Trump’s wild assertion was not particularly surprising given the many similarly specious claims he has made since. But what was unusual about that January evening was that someone in the room—Pelosi—confronted him directly.

“Mr. President, that’s not true,” she responded. In Pelosi’s telling, she actually spoke out of turn. In meetings between the president and congressional leaders, it is traditional, she said, for the lawmakers to speak in order of rank—the speaker and Senate majority leaders first, then members of the minority party.

It would not be the last time Pelosi would speak out memorably in a White House meeting. During Thursday’s interview at the conference with ABC’s Jonathan Karl, she described publicly for the first time a scene from a meeting earlier this month when she and Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer extracted from Trump a commitment to support legislation protecting undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children. As Pelosi was trying to make a point, she recalled, a “Cabinet officer” (identified elsewhere as Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross) asked, “What do we get out of the deal?” Other Republican men in the room then began speaking about taxes.

Pelosi spoke up: “Does anyone listen when a woman speaks around here?”

The room quieted. “They didn’t even listen to me. They didn’t even listen,” Pelosi said Thursday.

Pelosi and Schumer’s relationship with Trump has become a subject of understandable fascination in Washington after the Democrats struck first a fiscal deal with the president and then a tentative agreement on immigration. Karl asked Pelosi, only half-jokingly, whether her relationship with the president is better than Trump’s relationship with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has become a target of Trump and the conservative grassroots in recent months.

“I guess it’s an expectations game,” Pelosi replied after laughing. “He expects Mitch to pass bills for him. He doesn’t expect that of me.”

While Trump’s bickering with GOP leaders has gotten more attention, Pelosi and Schumer also have their own internal party politics to worry about. Many Democratic activists are leery of working too closely with a president they loathe and who has recently infuriated liberals and minorities with attacks on NFL demonstrators they see as clearly racist. Immigrant activists shouted down Pelosi at a recent press conference in her home city of San Francisco.

Asked about the likelihood of further collaboration with the president, she said Thursday she would take issues “one at a time” with Trump but seemed to reject the notion of all-out opposition. “He is the president of the United States,” Pelosi said. “We do have to find our common ground where we can and stand our ground where we can’t.”

One issue where Democrats plan to stand their ground, Pelosi said, was on taxes. Echoing other party leaders, she denounced the tax plan Trump and Republican leaders unveiled this week as deficit-busting tax cuts for the rich. “Don’t call this tax reform. It’s the same old trickle-down economics,” Pelosi said.

Democrats have leverage with the president only when he needs their votes, and as Republicans embark on a party-line approach to tax reform, it remains to be seen whether Pelosi’s opposition will be relevant. But the former House speaker seems to be enjoying her run of unexpected importance in Trump’s Washington. Pelosi joked that there was such intense interest in her meetings with the president that she was going to form a group. It will be called, she said, “the Fly-on-the-Wall Club.’”