The pres­i­dent and Pelosi haven’t spo­ken in a year as crises grip the na­tion

The Washington Post Sunday - - POLITICS & THE NATION - Paul.kane@wash­

Pres­i­dent Trump stormed into the White House meet­ing with con­gres­sional lead­er­ship on Oct. 16, 2019, and launched into a di­a­tribe loosely con­nected to a dis­cus­sion of the Syr­ian civil war.

Trump said he had not in­vited any of the Democrats, but sev­eral were present and he quickly be­lit­tled House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D- Calif.), call­ing her a “third-grade politi­cian.”

“I wish you were a politi­cian,” Pelosi shouted back, as she re­told the story later that day at the Capi­tol.

Af­ter more clashes about the ac­tual pol­icy in Syria, Pelosi stood, pointed at Trump and told him what she thought. Then the Democrats left the White House, a mo­ment cap­tured and re­leased by the of­fi­cial Trump pho­tog­ra­pher.

“Good­bye,” the pres­i­dent yelled, ac­cord­ing to the notes of a Demo­crat present. “We’ll see you at the polls.” He meant it. That was the last time that the pres­i­dent and House speaker talked to each other, more than a year since the lead­ers of the ex­ec­u­tive and leg­isla­tive branches have had di­rect com­mu­ni­ca­tion. And now, in a lit­tle more than two weeks, Trump heads to the polls hob­bled by his ad­min­is­tra­tion’s han­dling of the deadly coro­n­avirus, in­ca­pable of cinch­ing another round of eco­nomic re­lief that his ad­vis­ers have pur­sued with Pelosi.

There’s no con­sti­tu­tional re­quire­ment for the pres­i­dent and the House speaker to act cor­dial to­ward each other, and his­tory is lit­tered with frac­tious re­la­tion­ships between the two posts, par­tic­u­larly when mem­bers from op­pos­ing par­ties head the two branches of the fed­eral gov­ern­ment.

Yet plenty of pres­i­dents have found ways to work with op­pos­ing con­gres­sional lead­ers in ways that sig­naled to the na­tion that pol­i­tics did not al­ways poi­son the well, par­tic­u­larly in mat­ters of na­tional or in­ter­na­tional cri­sis.

Dur­ing the 1962 Cuban mis­sile cri­sis, Pres­i­dent John F. Kennedy brought Se­nate Mi­nor­ity Leader Everett Dirk­sen (R-Ill.) into close con­tact as the stand­off grew more se­ri­ous, el­e­vat­ing Dirk­sen’s stature and help­ing him de­feat a Demo­cratic chal­lenger a few weeks later. In 2001, af­ter the ter­ror­ist at­tacks in New York and Wash­ing­ton, Pres­i­dent Ge­orge W. Bush worked closely with Se­nate Ma­jor­ity Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) on war res­o­lu­tions and other an­titer­ror­ism leg­is­la­tion.

And, in fall 2008, just be­fore that pres­i­den­tial elec­tion, Bush brought Pelosi into the White House to craft a mas­sive $700 bil­lion res­cue pro­gram for fi­nan­cial in­sti­tu­tions.

Those mo­ments re­as­sured an anx­ious pub­lic that such grave crises could prompt lead­ers to set aside pol­i­tics.

To be sure, in this cur­rent cri­sis, with­out Trump and Pelosi ever speak­ing, Congress came to­gether and passed about $3 tril­lion worth of eco­nomic re­lief and health se­cu­rity funds with near bi­par­ti­san sup­port.

Trump es­sen­tially out­sourced those talks to Trea­sury Sec­re­tary

Steven Mnuchin. But now, with at least 218,000 U.S. lives lost and mil­lions out of work, talks on another re­lief pack­age have run ashore.

Mnuchin’s hands are tied by a vast ma­jor­ity of Se­nate Repub­li­cans who do not want to spend another $1.5 tril­lion or more. Trump has pre­vi­ously held enough clout with his sup­port­ers that he could bend enough Repub­li­cans to his will, when­ever he’s fully en­gaged on an is­sue.

So far, a few ran­dom tweets ac­count for the pres­i­dent’s own ef­fort on the is­sue.

In a con­tentious in­ter­view Tues­day, CNN news an­chor Wolf Bl­itzer pleaded with Pelosi to reach a deal.

“When,” Bl­itzer asked, “was the last time you spoke to the pres­i­dent about this?”

“I don’t speak to the pres­i­dent,” she replied.

In­stead, she said, she only speaks to “his rep­re­sen­ta­tive,” usu­ally Mnuchin and, for a cou­ple weeks in the sum­mer, White House Chief of Staff Mark Mead­ows.

Pres­i­den­tial and con­gres­sional ex­perts are hard pressed to find any sim­i­lar his­toric dy­namic. Ross Baker, dis­tin­guished con­gres­sional scholar at Rut­gers Uni­ver­sity, set­tled on a par­tic­u­larly bleak mo­ment in the na­tion’s his­tory.

“How about this one: An­drew John­son and Speaker Schuyler Col­fax over re­con­struc­tion poli­cies in the South, af­ter the Civil War,” said Baker, who has done seven stints work­ing for con­gres­sional lead­ers dur­ing aca­demic sab­bat­i­cals over the past 45 years.

John­son, orig­i­nally a Demo­crat who joined Abra­ham Lin­coln’s unity ticket in 1864, fought over the Repub­li­can speaker’s push for vot­ing rights for freed en­slaved peo­ple, help­ing lead to John­son’s im­peach­ment.

By the time of Trump’s tirade last Oc­to­ber, Pelosi had al­ready un­leashed her com­mit­tee chairs to be­gin the process that led to Trump’s im­peach­ment last De­cem­ber, over his ef­fort to pres­sure Ukrainian lead­ers to in­ves­ti­gate his do­mes­tic po­lit­i­cal ri­vals, in­clud­ing Joe Bi­den.

But the White House meet­ing last Oc­to­ber was un­re­lated to that. Trump had de­clared he would pull U.S. mil­i­tary op­er­a­tives out of north­ern Syria, leav­ing the Kur­dish forces, long­time al­lies, ex­posed to at­tacks.

By a sweep­ing 354-to-60 mar­gin, the House con­demned the pol­icy de­ci­sion and, af­ter re­buff­ing re­quests for a brief­ing of the en­tire Congress, White House of­fi­cials in­vited top lead­er­ship from the House and Se­nate to the Cabi­net Room.

In­stead, it quickly de­volved into a shout­ing match and the Democrats de­cided to leave.

“It shook him up, melted him down and he be­haved ac­cord­ingly,” Pelosi told re­porters upon re­turn­ing to the Capi­tol that day. “Does that mean we can’t have fu­ture meet­ings? No. Just de­pends on the sub­ject, I guess.”

At a rally in Dal­las the next day, Trump ac­cused Pelosi of hav­ing a “melt­down” and set in stone a re­la­tion­ship that would never re­cover.

“Crazy Nancy. That crazy Nancy, she is crazy,” Trump told sup­port­ers.

They have only been in the same room twice since, the first dur­ing the State of the Union ad­dress on Feb. 4. As is cus­tom, Trump walked to the ros­trum in the House cham­ber and handed a copy of his speech to Vice Pres­i­dent Pence and Pelosi, who stuck her hand out for a hand­shake. He snubbed her.

Nearly 80 min­utes later, af­ter a hy­per­par­ti­san speech by Trump, Pelosi stood up and, on cam­era, tore her copy of the speech into shreds.

Two days later, af­ter the Se­nate ac­quit­ted Trump in its im­peach­ment trial, Trump used the nor­mally somber Na­tional Prayer Break­fast as an ex­cuse to ac­cuse Pelosi, a prac­tic­ing Catholic her en­tire life, of fak­ing her prayers for the pres­i­dency, among other in­sults.

By early March, as the virus be­gan its spread across the na­tion, Pelosi and Mnuchin be­came the ne­go­ti­at­ing part­ners, talk­ing 20 times on a sin­gle day when the rel­a­tively mod­est sec­ond re­lief pack­age was agreed to. Did she ever talk to Trump?

“There was no need for that,” she told The Wash­ing­ton Post on March 13. The day be­fore, Trump re­fused to at­tend the St. Pa­trick’s Day lun­cheon with the Ir­ish prime min­is­ter, be­cause Pelosi was the host — the first pres­i­dent to skip the an­nual event since Bush in 2003, just as the Iraq War was start­ing.

Now, Pelosi and Mnuchin are dead­locked, de­spite 11 long ne­go­ti­at­ing phone calls so far in Oc­to­ber, ac­cord­ing to the speaker’s of­fice. Any chance for more re­lief funds re­quires Trump’s en­gage­ment, but he has blamed her for block­ing a deal.

But nei­ther Trump nor Pelosi is about to pick up the phone.


House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) reaches to shake Pres­i­dent Trump’s hand be­fore his State of the Union ad­dress on Feb. 4.

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