“I have cleared my remarks with the parliamentarian before I read them,” Pelosi rejoined before walking away from the lectern in the well of the House. Collins was not satisfied, protesting that the speaker’s words were “unparliamentary” and should be “taken down,” or stricken from the congressional record, in accordance with long-standing House protocols that ban personal invective in floor debate. Among the authorities that govern House procedure in this regard is Thomas Jefferson’s Manual of Parliamentary Practice, published in 1801 and used by the House since the 1830s. It forbids language “which is personally offensive to the president” (and was, of course, written by that greatest of American conundrums: the man who wrote that “all men are created equal,” yet owned slaves).
There is hardly moral equivalence between Trump’s norm-shattering comments about the congresswomen and Pelosi’s protocol-pushing insistence that the president’s words were racist. But there was just enough uncomfortable overlap to prove, once again, Trump’s singular genius: his ability, through his own relentless uncouth behavior, to goad others into actions that leave them subject to criticism as well. The day’s events showed, yet again, how singularly unable establishment Washington is, with all its rules and decorum, to cope with a presidency like Trump’s.
In the hour-long state of confusion and fevered consultation that followed Collins’s objection, the presiding officer, Democratic Representative Emanuel Cleaver of Missouri, at last lost his patience and stalked off the rostrum. “We don’t ever, ever want to pass up, it seems, an opportunity to escalate, and that’s what this is. We want to just fight. I abandon the chair,” he said, an abdication apparently without precedent in the modern annals of the House.
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Soon enough, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland—as it happens, a long-standing rival and frenemy of Pelosi’s—took the chair and was compelled to declare that “characterizing an action as ‘racist’ is not in order” under House rules. But Hoyer also called for a vote on whether Pelosi’s remarks should be excised from the record, and by a strict party-line vote, the majority decided they should not. In another, the Democrats restored Pelosi’s ability to speak on the House floor again before day’s end—a privilege she would have lost if the objection to her words had stood.
Near the end of the debate, Democratic Representative John Lewis of Georgia, one of the last living icons of the civil-rights movement—whose skull was fractured by state troopers on Bloody Sunday in Selma, Alabama—was unblinking in summing up the stakes of the argument over Trump. “I know racism when I see it,” he told his colleagues. “I know racism when I feel it. And at the highest level of government, there’s no room for racism. The world is watching. They are shocked and dismayed because it seems we have lost our way as a nation.”