Pelosi pulls State of the Union surprise on Trump

Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiLawmakers outline proposals for virtual voting Mattis defends Pentagon IG removed by Trump Overnight Health Care: Trump calls report on hospital shortages 'another fake dossier' | Trump weighs freezing funding to WHO | NY sees another 731 deaths | States battle for supplies | McConnell, Schumer headed for clash MORE (D-Calif.) dramatically raised the stakes in the drag-out shutdown fight on Wednesday, asking President TrumpDonald John TrumpCDC updates website to remove dosage guidance on drug touted by Trump Trump says he'd like economy to reopen 'with a big bang' but acknowledges it may be limited Graham backs Trump, vows no money for WHO in next funding bill MORE to postpone his Jan. 29 State of the Union address unless the government is reopened by week’s end.

The surprise step, made in a letter to Trump coated in legislative speak, represented a significant power move by Pelosi, who has just begun her second stint as Speaker.

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Pelosi warned that staging the speech amid the partial shutdown — which has affected both the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and Secret Service — creates security risks for the host of national policymakers and powerbrokers expected to be in attendance.

“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 Jan. 29,” Pelosi wrote.

Pelosi did not threaten to rescind Trump’s invitation, but she alone controls the lower chamber, and the short timeline she established for ending the shutdown suggests she could take that step by the weekend.

White House communications chief Bill Shine said administration officials feel “no rush” to respond formally to Pelosi's letter, but will do so at an appropriate time. He did not signal when that might be.

The Department of Homeland Security pushed back on Pelosi’s warnings, asserting that the shutdown would do nothing to undermine security if the State of the Union address goes on as planned. Secret Service agents and Homeland Security personnel deemed essential are working without pay as the shutdown heads toward the conclusion of a fourth week.

“The Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. Secret Service are fully prepared to support and secure the State of the Union,” Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen NielsenKirstjen Michele NielsenHillicon Valley: Twitter falling short on pledge to verify primary candidates | Barr vows to make surveillance reforms after watchdog report | DHS cyber chief focused on 2020 Sen. Kennedy slams acting DHS secretary for lack of coronavirus answers The 'accidental director' on the front line of the fight for election security MORE said on Twitter. Her comments suggest the White House will press forward with the initial plan to deliver the speech in the Capitol as scheduled.

A Pelosi spokesman said a furloughed DHS official contacted the Speaker’s office to air “serious concerns” that the agency is insufficiently staffed to ensure the State of the Union’s security needs are met.

And while a former Secret Service official said Pelosi may be raising the issue “for a political reason,” she is “probably right in her assessment that there is probably a security risk,” the official added.

More than 80 percent of the Secret Service workforce is considered exempted or excepted and is expected to work during the shutdown, according to a DHS planning document published last month. But other agencies and departments hit harder by furloughs could be limited in their ability to participate in security planning.

“If you’re not going to execute on the State of the Union, why would you put that at risk? It makes no sense,” said the former Secret Service official, who requested anonymity to discuss the agency’s operations.

Democrats quickly lined up behind Pelosi’s push to postpone the speech.

“She has no option,” said Rep. John GaramendiJohn Raymond GaramendiOvernight Defense: Aircraft carrier captain removed from duty after pleading for help with outbreak | Trump to expand use of defense law to build ventilators | Hospital ships receiving few patients Aircraft carrier captain removed from duty after pleading for help with coronavirus outbreak Biden rise calms Democratic jitters MORE (D-Calif.). “The entire leadership of the American government will be in there — the Joint Chiefs of Staff, every secretary, all the Supreme Court justices, all of the senators, all of the House — save one member of the House and one Cabinet member.”

“You've got to get to 26th in line for the presidency” before you find someone not in that room, he added.

Republicans accused Pelosi and the Democrats of using unmerited scare tactics to score political points during the shutdown — and deny Trump a national platform to advance the case for his signature border wall.

House Minority Whip Steve ScaliseStephen (Steve) Joseph ScaliseHouse GOP leaders back effort to boost small-business loans Top GOP lawmakers push back on need for special oversight committee for coronavirus aid Pelosi forms House committee to oversee coronavirus response MORE (R-La.) encouraged the president to keep his plans to visit the Capitol on Jan. 29, even if Pelosi rescinds the invitation to open the House floor.  

“We'll find a place for him to speak,” Scalise said. “I think it's important that the country hear what he has to say.”

The fight over the State of the Union was the dominant storyline on a day where once again, no progress was seemingly made in ending the shutdown.

A bipartisan group of lawmakers representing the Problem Solvers Caucus huddled with Trump and Vice President Pence at the White House in an effort to break the impasse. But in a sign that the impasse could last awhile longer, the Democrats who participated emphasized that their message to the president is the same as Pelosi’s.

“There’s a way forward, but it starts with reopening the government,” said Rep. Josh GottheimerJoshua (Josh) GottheimerLawmakers outline proposals for virtual voting Infrastructure bill gains new steam as coronavirus worsens Pelosi floats undoing SALT deduction cap in next coronavirus bill MORE (D-N.J.), a co-chairman of the Problem Solvers group.

Some Trump supporters floated the idea of defying Pelosi by staging the State of the Union address away from the Capitol.

Marc Lotter, a former spokesman for Pence, tweeted that Trump “should take his message to the heartland or southern border & mail Congress a copy when he is done.”

Lotter said later he had not raised the suggestion directly with Trump’s team and similar ideas did not appear to be gaining traction at the White House.

White House spokesman Hogan Gidley said there have been “no real discussions” about alternative venues for the address and the focus is still on delivering it before Congress.

There is no requirement that a president deliver the State of the Union address to a House audience packed with lawmakers, Supreme Court justices and members of the Cabinet. President Woodrow Wilson only reestablished the practice in 1913, to surprise in Washington at the time.

Yet in the ensuing decades, the pageantry of the State of the Union has become an important part of the presidency, with the addresses allowing office-holders to dominate the news cycle and set out their agendas.

The State of the Union is typically designated as a National Special Security Event, meaning that agencies across the federal government, and not just the Secret Service, are involved in planning for the possibility of a terrorist attack or other threats to the event.

Pelosi highlighted this in her letter to Trump.

“In September 2018, Secretary Nielsen designated State of the Union Addresses as National Special Security Events (NSSEs), recognizing the need for ‘the full resources of the Federal Government to be brought to bear’ to ensure the security of these events,” the letter states. “The extraordinary demands presented by NSSEs require weeks of detailed planning with dozens of agencies working together to prepare for the safety of all participants.”

Pelosi wrote that the Secret Service was designated as the lead federal agency responsible for coordinating, planning, exercising and implementing such events.

“However, both the U.S. Secret Service and the Department of Homeland Security have not been funded for 26 days now – with critical departments hamstrung by furloughs,” she wrote.

Scott Wong contributed.