A Vengeful Start to the Trump-Pelosi Rivalry

The speaker threatened to scrap his speech. The president grounded her plane.

Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

She disinvited him from delivering the State of the Union during a government shutdown. He grounded her plane, abruptly canceling her taxpayer-funded trip to a foreign war zone.

Two weeks in, the relationship between the new House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, and President Donald Trump is off to a smashing start.

Forget a swift resolution to the record-breaking shutdown: As hundreds of thousands of federal employees continue to work without pay, the two most powerful elected leaders in the country are locked in a duel of personal vengeance, making the possibility of good-faith negotiations to end the impasse even more unlikely.

On Wednesday, Pelosi suggested that Trump delay his annual speech to Congress, essentially threatening to use her power as speaker to block him from the Capitol. (The State of the Union is delivered by formal invitation from lawmakers.) In response, the president was initially, and uncharacteristically, silent. No name-calling tweets, no blustery sound bites. But on Thursday afternoon, just as Pelosi was about to board a plane bound for Europe, Trump exacted his revenge.

The president fired off an icy-toned letter to Pelosi informing her that he’s postponing her week-long visit to Brussels, Egypt, and Afghanistan—Pelosi’s first congressional-delegation trip during her second stint as speaker. “We will reschedule this seven-day excursion when the Shutdown is over,” the president wrote dismissively. “In light of the 800,000 great American workers not receiving pay, I am sure you would agree that postponing this public relations event is totally appropriate.”

Overseas travel to U.S. military bases, whether by the president or by members of Congress, is usually a closely guarded secret because of security concerns until the participants have landed safely at their destination. For that reason, Pelosi’s planned trip abroad—known colloquially inside the Capitol as a “co-del”—had not been publicly announced until White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders sent Trump’s letter to reporters.

Congressional operations are unaffected by the partial government shutdown because the appropriations bill funding the legislative branch was one of the few that had already been enacted for 2019. But because the military operates the trips that send members of Congress abroad, Trump has the authority to cancel them. “We approve all these congressional trips that use government or military planes,” a White House official told Roll Call.

The president’s decision, however, upended the lawmakers’ plans at the last possible moment. The House adjourned for the week on Thursday afternoon, and an Air Force bus carrying the members to the airport had already left the Capitol. Reporters spotted the bus, with the lawmakers still aboard, returning shortly after Trump’s letter went out.

Sanders told reporters that all congressional-delegation trips would be postponed during the shutdown—a decision that affects Republican lawmakers as well as Democrats, since most overseas travel is bipartisan. The Pelosi spokesman Drew Hammill said the speaker’s primary destination was Afghanistan, with a stop for pilot rest in Brussels, where she planned to “affirm the United States’ ironclad commitment to the NATO alliance.” The itinerary did not include a stop in Egypt, as Trump’s letter claimed.

“The purpose of the trip was to express appreciation and thanks to our men and women in uniform for their service and dedication, and to obtain critical national security and intelligence briefings from those on the front lines,” Hammill said in a statement.

The presidential retaliation drew a quick and surprising rebuke from a Trump ally who makes frequent official trips abroad, Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. “One sophomoric response does not deserve another,” he tweeted. “Speaker Pelosi’s threat to cancel the State of the Union is very irresponsible and blatantly political. President Trump denying Speaker Pelosi military travel to visit our troops in Afghanistan, our allies in Egypt and NATO is also inappropriate.”

As I wrote on Wednesday, the language in Pelosi’s letter was formal and polite, giving it the veneer of typical government communications. In his own letter, Trump never referenced the State of the Union address, but his sarcastic tone made little effort to hide his contempt. Trump belittled Pelosi’s planned trip as an “excursion” and “a public relations event,” and he suggested the optics of an overseas visit would be negative in the middle of a shutdown. The president, however, took his own taxpayer-funded trip to visit troops in Iraq over Christmas, after the shutdown had already begun. And senior administration officials, including Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, were scheduled to attend the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, next week until the White House late Thursday announced they would not go.

Trump suggested Pelosi’s time would be better spent negotiating with him in Washington, but so far their talks have been unproductive: The president continues to demand billions in funding for his border wall, and the speaker refuses to discuss funding while the government remains closed. If their tit for tat over the past two days is any indication, the president and the speaker remain worlds apart, and the 27-day government shutdown remains far from over.