Newly sworn-in Speaker Nancy Pelosi may have found a way to tame the savage beast that is Donald Trump. The mother of five knows not to negotiate with an unreasonable child.
“I am in the White House waiting for the Democrats to come on over and make a deal on Border Security,” Trump tweeted like the reality show host he was not long ago. Pelosi, on vacation with family in Hawaii, hung out a Do Not Disturb sign while the president was forced by the optics of the shutdown he named after himself to forego as much as a "working" round of golf with his sometime bro Sen. Lindsey Graham. They were reduced to lunch.
Two weeks is a long time to stew. The ball had hardly fallen in Times Square before Trump summoned the newly sworn in Speaker and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer to the White House for a “briefing” which differs from a meeting in that the format is a lecture not a dialogue. Having lost the last encounter with cameras rolling, Trump presided over this one in the electronics-free situation room so we may never know who said what to whom. In the driveway right after, Pelosi, speaking first, said the House would pass a bill that the Senate previously approved that would reopen the government and allow for a 30-day cooling-off period to negotiate border security. For its part, the White House reiterated its position that Pelosi’s offer is a “non-starter.”
Whatever. As Pelosi warned in the Oval Office weeks ago, she has the votes to pass her bill, and intends to do so. The upper chamber’s Republican leadership quickly did Trump’s bidding and announced they won’t take up the House bill. But individual members — Republican Senators Cory Gardner and Susan Collins have already broken with Trump — know enough to want the shutdown over. It’s a new day there after Trump’s acolytes dropped like flies in the midterms. Trump may not have absorbed the shellacking he took but Sen. Mitch McConnell has. That sound you hear is a back channel being dug between his office and Pelosi’s.
For the moment, there are more cracks in the Republican wall, figuratively and literally, than in Pelosi’s. The White House is busy defining Trump’s wall down: it’s slatted, it’s virtual, it’s drones, it’s already provided by Mother Nature’s impassable terrain. Mick Mulvaney, his acting chief of staff, budget director and pastry chef should the current one suddenly resign, once called shutdowns “childish.” Sen. Lamar Alexander, who usually sides with Trump, said "government shutdowns should be as off-limits to budget negotiations as chemical weapons are to warfare.” Vice President Mike Pence and Sen. Graham have floated modified proposals. Smart people want it to end.
Even Trump, who has no exit strategy, is starting to crack under the strain. Sometimes he says the wall’s unbuilt and other times mostly built; it’s made of concrete but border guards will be able to see through it. He’ll build it round or flat, steel or rebar, just give him the money.
Although Trump said Pelosi had to do what he wanted to be elected speaker, he never had any such leverage. True, Pelosi has new members walking on the left shoulder of the road to satisfy, there’s a desire to make Trump pay for his egregious behavior, and there are large gaps in Trump and Pelosi’s respective views of the world, witness the wall. It’s also hard to cut deals with someone who lies as he breathes. She still feels the sting from their famous negotiations over Chinese food when he promised protection for Dreamers in a “bill of love” in exchange for money for his wall. He reneged before they had time to get hungry again.
Yet, Pelosi believes deeply that it’s better to work with Republican presidents, as she’s done before, than against them. She respects the office, if not the man, and you are unlikely to hear any more careless cracks about Trump’s manhood. She’s more protective of the office than he is, suggesting that he ask the press to leave their Oval Office meeting before he took credit, on camera, for any shutdown.
Trump hasn’t taken after Pelosi the way he pummels everyone else, calling her Nancy, not Cryin’ Chuck Schumer or low IQ whomever. Amazingly he didn’t start a war after she corrected his false claim at their first White House meeting that he’d won the popular vote. Even after he heard she’d questioned his manliness just before the holidays, he said that the two of them could “work together to avert a shutdown.”
The strain on Trump was obvious in a wild stream of consciousness performance before his sit-down in the sit room. He dispelled any doubt that he had a lot of pent-up frustration as he described how isolated he felt rattling around over Christmas in such a big house looking out the window only to see guards with machine guns who wouldn’t wave back at him. He proceeded to settle scores: he couldn’t believe that new Senator Mitt Romney, whom he endorsed, had criticized him in a Washington Post op-ed. He took shots at the late Sen. John McCain and Gen. Jim Mattis, who did a lousy job. He loves “his” other generals and would make a great one himself. He clarified that the worst December for the stock market since the Great Depression is a “glitch.” Syria, lost long ago by Obama, is but “sand and death,” he repeatedly said. If he wanted, he could win election in Europe where they love him. How bad can a wall be if the Vatican has one? And $5 billion is a pittance.
Pelosi actually knows the art of the deal, and knows more than Trump from shutdowns past that eventually everyone gets blamed for the dysfunction in Washington no matter who started it. With the holiday over, people are noticing the parts of government they like not working. Yosemite had to shut down due to “human waste issues”. The panda cam’s gone dark. The union representing workers deemed essential, like air traffic controllers who are showing up to land 747s safely but not being paid for it, has filed suit against the government. Fifteen agencies are closed. No one’s complaining, but calls to the IRS aren’t being answered.
As Trump looks down from the Truman Balcony at overflowing trash cans on the Mall where the Smithsonian will soon close down, how long can he insist he will keep the government closed “as long as it takes” to get his wall?
Perhaps as long as it takes to ensure his manhood. At the briefing when asked why he wouldn’t just reopen government, he said because it would make him “look foolish.” Pelosi has 30 years of experience getting people to do the right thing without making them eat crow, longer if you count her years with five toddlers. At about the same time Trump paused in his rant about his wonderfulness to listen to acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker read from a printed document about his wonderfulness, filmmaker and daughter-of Alexandra Pelosi said on CNN that her mother can “cut your head off and you won’t even know you’re bleeding.”
The president never made the long expected pivot from representing his base to representing his country. Pelosi is in the twilight of her career. It’s heartstopping to look around the chamber and see all those women who wouldn’t have had a bathroom near the floor, a decent committee assignment, or to be heard when Pelosi first walked those marble hallways.
At 78, she comes not to bury Trump but to elevate the country. There’s hardly been an odder couple but, just maybe, Pelosi’s outstretched hand can save the president from himself. She’s the best chance he has not to look foolish.
Margaret Carlson is a columnist for the Daily Beast. She was formerly the first woman columnist at Time magazine, a columnist at Bloomberg View, a weekly panelist on CNN’s "Capital Gang" and managing editor at the New Republic. To read more of her reports — Click Here Now.