During a combative White House meeting with Democratic leaders on Dec. 11, President Trump declared that House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi was constrained in her ability to negotiate for a border wall because of a leadership fight in the House.
Pelosi, who won that fight, was in no mood for mansplaining.
“Mr. President, please don't characterize the strength that I bring to this meeting as the leader of the House Democrats, who just won a big victory," Pelosi shot back. Later, aides put out word that she had mocked Trump’s border wall as “a manhood thing” for him.
Trump’s battle with Congress over his demands for $5 billion as a down payment for a border wall was at an impasse Friday. Democrats have refused to budge past $1.3 billion, and one-fourth of the federal government has been unfunded and shut down since last Saturday due to the dispute.
Negotiations have sputtered to a halt and no votes are likely before Thursday, when the new Congress opens and Pelosi, who has represented a San Francisco district in Congress since 1987, is all but certain to be elected House speaker.
That sets the stage for a possible shutdown showdown between Trump and Pelosi. Republicans, who have controlled both chambers of Congress for the last two years, appeared happy to shift some of the responsibility — or blame — to her.
It could be a risky strategy. In Pelosi’s 36 years in Washington, male politicians have repeatedly underestimated her. From her first opponent who called her a debutante before she crushed him, to Republican leaders who tried to bully her when she entered House leadership, it has yet to work.
“She just keeps going. It’s like a nuclear sub and then when it’s time to strike? Bam,” Rep. Anna G. Eshoo (D-Menlo Park) said. “I don’t think anyone is a match for her."
Trump already has sought to throw a depth charge. On Friday, he threatened in three separate tweets to shut U.S. ports of entry along the entire 2,000-mile southwestern border unless Democrats back down. “Either we build (finish) the Wall or we close the Border,” he warned.
Several hundred thousand people and about $1.6 billion in trade cross the U.S.-Mexico border every day, so shutting the gates would create instant havoc in San Diego and other communities in the four states directly affected and send shock waves through the economy.
By most accounts, Trump lost face when he squared off with Pelosi in that Oval Office meeting.
Video of Pelosi walking out of the West Wing with dark sunglasses and a smile ricocheted across social media. The manufacturer of the orange coat she wore received so much demand it began making the coat again.
Her defiance all but ended a small but vocal resistance to her leadership bid. She is expect to become just the sixth person in history, and the first woman, to fill the speaker’s chair twice.
Some Republicans see an up side in positioning Pelosi as their foil, hoping to force her to focus on a fight over funding the border wall rather than on ethics reform, voting rights legislation, investigations of Trump finances and other concerns she has promised will be the Democrats’ priorities.
Pelosi spokesman Drew Hammill said on Twitter that those saying Democrats can’t battle Trump and move on other agenda items underestimate the incoming speaker’s political skills.
“Pelosi can walk and chew gum,” Hammill tweeted.
Ellen Tauscher, a California Democrat who represented Walnut Creek in Congress from 1997 to 2009 and then joined the Obama administration, said the White House is “used to sycophants and they are used to bullying people and neither apply to Nancy Pelosi.”
"Anybody who mistakes Nancy’s charm and smile for anything other than the kind of the steel that holds airplanes together is in trouble,” she added. “ I think the president has finally met somebody who will stand up to him.”
White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders argued Friday that Pelosi won’t negotiate because she "doesn't want to do anything that might jeopardize her speaker vote,” something the president and other White House officials echoed.
Hammill said the White House had not contacted Pelosi since the Dec. 11 meeting.
Trump has cast the shutdown — which forced him to stay in Washington over the holidays, other than a one-day trip to visit U.S. troops in Iraq, instead of taking a planned 16-day vacation in Florida — as a fight between his version of border security, meaning a wall, and open borders, which he says Democrats want.
“He has a very simplistic policy solution that is a emotional touchstone in the culture wars. If the debate becomes about open borders versus the wall, Democrats are on very thin ice,” said Mike Madrid, a Republican political strategist. “It behooves the president to wait until the Democrats take over."
Trump alluded to that strategy Thursday, tweeting that Democrats may be able to block his plans to build a wall “but we have the issue, Border Security. 2020!”
From all accounts, substantive negotiations to reopen government offices stalled the day the shutdown began on Dec. 22, when Vice President Mike Pence made an offer to Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.).
Schumer's spokesman, Justin Goodman, said he rejected the offer of $2.1 billion for the wall and $400,000 for other border security measures immediately, telling the vice president that he could not get Democratic votes to pass the 60-vote threshold needed in the Republican-controlled Senate.
“For the White House to try and blame anyone but the president for this shutdown doesn’t pass the laugh test,” Goodman said.
The White House effort to shift blame to Pelosi, especially when her party is not yet in power and she can’t bring legislation up for a vote, left strategists and pundits scratching their heads.
“Out of the gate she's not some type of villain that somehow acquits the president of the hole he’s dug himself,” Republican strategist Rob Stutzman said. Democrats "are poised to win the showdown on the shutdown. They just are."
House Democrats plan to vote Thursday on a spending package to reopen the government. They have floated several options, but none that includes more than $1.3 billion for border security, potentially including a wall.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has said the Senate won’t vote on legislation to fund the government unless the president will sign it, and Trump has said he will not accept less than $5 billion for a wall. Stutzman said it will fall to McConnell to persuade Trump to compromise.
How Trump and Pelosi resolve the impasse could be telling for the next two years.
Trump has dominated Washington as few presidents before him, but after next week he’ll be forced to work with a divided Congress for the first time.
“He’s going to be playing defense, which he’s not good at,” Madrid said. “He’s going to have to create a boogeyman. That’s how he wins. He has to create an enemy, whether it is Mexicans or Muslims or Pelosi.”
For her part, Pelosi is known as a master legislator and negotiator, someone unlikely to fold under Trump’s insults and jibes.
“She knows when to charm him and I think she knows when to give him rope and let him hang himself,” Stutzman said. “She understands him rather well.”