Nancy Pelosi turns the screws on Donald Trump with State of the Union threat

Democratic House speaker suggests postponing annual address because of government shutdown

Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi (D-NY) speaks with reporters outside the House Chamber on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC on January 3, 2019.   / AFP / Alex Edelman
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Nancy Pelosi has wasted no time since being re-elected Speaker of the House two weeks ago and resuming her mantle as the most powerful Democratic leader in the US. She has questioned Donald Trump’s manhood in public, called out the president on a demeaning comment during a televised Oval Office encounter and kept up the pressure to end the federal shutdown.

Now, with Mr Trump backed into a corner over his demands for more than $5 billion in funding to build a border wall and reopen government, she has upped the ante again.

“Sadly, given the security concerns and unless government reopens this week, I suggest that we work together to determine another suitable date after government has reopened for this address or for you to consider delivering your State of the Union address in writing to the Congress on January 29th,” she wrote in a letter to the president.

Ms Pelosi’s letter ratchets up pressure on Mr Trump to back down while threatening to deny him one of the grandest days in the presidential calendar. The State of the Union is his chance to set out his administration’s plans for the year ahead while the world’s eyes are upon him.

It is the sort of move Mr Trump himself might have appreciated, a bold gambit designed to keep an opponent off balance. And it is classic Pelosi, according to her friends and supporters. A mix of "satin and steel" is how Anna Eshoo, a California Democrat and longtime political ally, described her modus operandi to Politico.

Republicans moved swiftly to dismiss Ms Pelosi’s move as a political ploy.

Steve Scalise, a senior House Republican, took to Twitter to say: “What are Democrats afraid of Americans hearing? That 17,000+ criminals were caught last year at the border? 90% of heroin in the US comes across the southern border?”

Yet the letter also represents the unravelling of ceremonial norms in Mr Trump’s Washington and a lesson in civics, setting out the limits of the president’s power, according to Hank Sheinkopf, a veteran New York-based political strategist.

He said Ms Pelosi was using all her wily years of experience to deliver a scathing put-down. She had moved quickly to confrontation, he added, aware that a new generation of energetic Congressmen and women was snapping at her heels.

“It’s a big win for her and the Democratic Congress,” he said. “It finally tells Trump he doesn’t have the power he thinks he has. That he’s not king. It tells him he can’t get his way.

“It belittles him in a significant fashion and, again in this Congress, it shows the power of women to get things done.”

It also suggests Ms Pelosi knows the strength of her position. Mr Trump has gambled everything on the wall and will be a diminished figure without some sort of victory.

That leaves him carrying most of the blame for the political impasse that led to a partial government shutdown. Now approaching its fifth week – the longest in history – some 800,000 federal workers remain unpaid. Hundreds of thousands more contract workers are also struggling to pay bills as their savings dwindle.


Read more:

Trump threatens years-long government shutdown


A Washington Post poll this week found that 53 per cent of Americans hold Mr Trump responsible while only 29 per cent blame Democrats. The numbers suggest that the president will have to blink first in the high-stakes game of chicken, seeking some kind of face-saving way out.

But so far he shows no sign of backing down on his demand that any funding bill to re-open government include $5.7 billion for his wall with Mexico.

Last week, he stormed out of talks with congressional Democrats when Ms Pelosi ruled out funding a border wall.

“It’s like a manhood thing with him — as if manhood can be associated with him,” she said afterwards. “This wall thing.”

Her high-profile and high-impact strategy come with risks. She has long been a hate figure on the Right and her dismissal of the wall as an “immorality” (rather than a waste of money or the wrong priority) led to ridicule that she is morally opposed to all barriers of any kind.

And her favourability rating hovers at just under 35 per cent, according to an average maintained by Real Clear Politics, giving Mr Trump a large target for his Twitter broadsides.

For now, however, her approach has the backing of her party.

Ron Klain, who formerly served as chief counsel for the Senate Judiciary Committee, and chief of staff to vice presidents Al Gore and Joe Biden, said calling the State of the Union into question was a smart move.

It could deny Mr Trump the attention he craves, he told MSNBC. But it was also worth remembering that the Democrats got higher ratings than the president with their response to his address on immigration last week.

“So I think she’s got a ‘heads I win, tails I win’ situation here where she denies Trump this platform,” he said. “I think whatever Trump does, her response will be just as effective, if not more effective, than whatever the president says.”