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.