It was Chuck Schumer’s smirk that said it all.
The Senate minority leader had just lobbed an honest-to-goodness zinger at President Donald Trump. Inside the Oval Office. With the television cameras running.
“When the president brags that he won North Dakota and Indiana, he’s in real trouble,” Schumer cracked to the press in the middle of a White House meeting on government funding between the president and Democratic congressional leaders that had quickly devolved into a verbal brawl in full view of reporters. His quip pulled off, the New York Democrat then peered around the room with a look of supreme self-satisfaction and a smile that would stay on his face until the end of the extraordinary, if wholly unproductive, summit.
The substance of the retort—a silly diversion about the details of last month’s elections—was less important than its context: Here was Schumer, along with House Democratic leader and Speaker-Designate Nancy Pelosi, confronting Trump to his face in a fight for all to see. The president was pressing Democrats to fund his prized southern-border wall, threatening to shut down the government if a year-end spending bill did not contain the $5 billion down payment he was demanding. Pelosi and Schumer had arrived at the White House believing they were going to have a private meeting with Trump, according to a Democratic aide familiar with their thinking. When they got there, however, the president invited the press in.
Pelosi and Schumer could have stuck to the diplomatic pleasantries typical for these pre-negotiation photo ops, issuing vague promises of collegiality through tight-lipped grimaces. But they took it to Trump instead.
The public bickering that ensued was reminiscent of another bipartisan meeting at the White House nearly a year ago, when Trump convened a remarkable and unplanned negotiation with members of Congress over immigration policy. But this confrontation between the president, Pelosi, and Schumer carried more weight, offering a preview of the next two years, when Democrats will have the House majority and a dominant seat at the negotiating table.
It also illustrated the differences in style between the two veteran Democrats, who have forged a close and productive relationship as they’ve worked to keep their party unified in Trump’s Washington. Pelosi engaged Trump first, baiting the president with a reference to “the Trump shutdown” that could result from a stalemate over wall funding. “A what?” the president replied, as if he couldn’t hear her. “Did you say Trump?”
Pelosi has led House Democrats for 16 years. Her strength, however, is not in public messaging but in backroom negotiating. From George W. Bush, to Barack Obama, and now to Trump, Pelosi has confronted presidents of both parties in the Oval Office over every issue imaginable, and some of those meetings are now the stuff of legend. But those historic moments are talked about, recalled, leaked—never actually seen.
Sparring with Trump in public, Pelosi more than held her own. She told him directly, “You will not win,” and repeatedly shot down his cocksure pronouncements that a bill with wall funding could pass the House. Yet after a few minutes going back and forth with the president, she tried to shift the talks back to her comfort zone, where she thought they’d be all along: in private. “I don’t think we should have a debate in front of the press on this,” Pelosi told Trump. “Let us have our conversation, and we can meet with the press again.”
Schumer, on the other hand, is a different animal entirely; he’s a man about whom it is famously said, “The most dangerous place in Washington is between Chuck Schumer and a TV camera.” And the opportunity to go toe-to-toe with a Republican president at the White House is one he seized with gusto.
As Pelosi and Trump went at it, Schumer waited impatiently for his chance to speak. When his turn came, he promptly reminded the president that The Washington Post had given him “a whole lot of Pinocchios” for constantly misstating that construction of the border wall had already begun. “We do not want to shut down the government,” Schumer told Trump. “You have called 20 times to shut down the government.”
Both Pelosi and Schumer left the White House without an agreement, but with their political standing improved. For Pelosi, the confrontation and her unwillingness to bend on the wall should help her solidify support among Democrats for a return to the speakership next month. She told reporters that she had held her tongue in the meeting, and then word slipped out later in the afternoon, to Politico, that she belittled Trump’s “manhood” when she met with fellow Democrats upon returning to the Capitol.
Schumer got his chance to prove his mettle to progressives who see him as too hungry to strike a deal and too willing to shield the more centrist members of his caucus from a political fight.
And if Pelosi baited Trump into starting the fight, it was Schumer who baited the president into uttering the words Democrats most wanted to hear him say. “You wanna know something?” Trump said toward the end of the meeting. “I’ll take it. You know what I will say? Yes. If we don’t get what we want one way or the other, whether it’s through you or through military or anyone you want to call, I will shut down the government.”
“Okay. Fair enough,” Schumer replied. “We disagree.”
Trump went on: “I’ll tell you what. I am proud to shut down the government for border security, Chuck. The people of this country don’t want criminals and people that have lots of problems and drugs pouring into our country. I will take the mantle. I will be the one to shut it down. I’m not going to blame you.”
As the president bestowed Democrats with a political gift, Schumer sat with his hands clasped and his head nodding. The cameras were running, and the smile never left his face.