House

Pelosi uses Trump to her advantage

President Trump's escalated attacks on Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) are proving to be just the gift she needed to unify her caucus.

Pelosi, in recent weeks, has faced a growing clamor from rank-and-file liberals urging Democratic leaders to launch impeachment proceedings against the president - a tactic Pelosi regards as premature. 

But Trump's broadsides against the Speaker late last week - and her own sharp denunciations of the president's conduct and demeanor - have rallied Pelosi's troops behind her at a crucial moment in the oversight debate, helping fortify the dam against impeachment before it broke open.

"Nancy Pelosi is the only politician in this country who has gone toe-to-toe with Donald Trump and won," Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), a Pelosi ally, told CNN on Thursday. "She says, 'Look, this is just silly. It's sad what he's doing. It's sad for the country.' And Trump really doesn't know how to handle her. And that's why I think he's lashing out."

To be sure, Trump's base likes the president in full warrior mode, especially when the target is Democrats on Capitol Hill. And Republicans over the years have found no foil more attractive than Pelosi, the country's first female Speaker, whom GOP campaign operatives have long bashed for her liberal "San Francisco values." 

But Pelosi, a product of the street-wise politics of Baltimore, also relishes a good fight, and she's pulling no punches in her approach to the president. While she's accused Trump of "goading" Democrats into impeachment - if only for the opportunity to be exonerated by the Republican-controlled Senate - Pelosi has recently done some needling of her own, hammering the president with increasingly personal barbs that have both accused him of committing crimes and questioned his mental fitness to hold the office.

If the intended effect was to spark an outburst from the mercurial president, mission accomplished. 

Trump on Wednesday, responding to Pelosi's charge that he's "engaged in a cover-up," abruptly shut down a high-stakes meeting between the president and Democratic leaders designed to pave the way for a bipartisan agreement on infrastructure. Refusing to negotiate, Trump said he won't work with the Democrats - on anything - until their investigations into his administration cease.

"Let them play their games. We're going to go down one track at a time," he said just after the meeting broke. 

That led Pelosi to go on another tear the following day, when she slammed Trump for staging "another temper tantrum," waging "an assault" on Congress's constitutional right to pursue investigations into the White House and obstructing justice in ways that "could be impeachable."

"I wish that his family or his administration or his staff would have an intervention for the good of the country," she prodded Thursday during her weekly press conference in the Capitol.

Not to be outdone, Trump fired back a few hours later with a new nickname for Pelosi: "Crazy Nancy."

"She's lost it," he said.

Pelosi's aggressive rhetoric has sent a signal to her caucus that, while she might be opposed to impeachment at the moment, she has no intention of letting Trump off the hook for the myriad allegations of wrongdoing he's facing, including questions of whether he obstructed the Justice Department's probe into Russian meddling in the 2016 elections. 

That delicate balancing act - tough on investigations, no on impeachment - has so far quelled the appetite within a feisty caucus that, earlier in the week, had been inching toward impeachment against her wishes. And even those supportive of launching an immediate impeachment inquiry are now stressing the caucus's shared belief that Congress must act as an aggressive check on the president, whatever form it takes. 

"We are all on similar paths, which is to act as a check and balance on a rogue administration," Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon (D-Pa.), who backs an impeachment inquiry, said Friday in an interview with CNN. "We may, you know, be coming to consensus on what exactly that path should be, but I think we're very unified that this is an out-of-control administration and it's our job to uphold the Constitution."

Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.), the highest-ranking member of Pelosi's leadership team seeking an impeachment inquiry, is also downplaying any caucus divisions on the subject. All Democrats, he said, agree the administration "must be held accountable."

"The caucus is unified in that belief, and we're going to continue to do that in the committees of relevant jurisdiction," he said.

It's hardly the first time Trump and Pelosi have taunted each other openly as they seek a power advantage in a deeply divided Washington. In December, before Pelosi took the gavel, the pair jousted in a televised White House meeting over a budget impasse that would eventually lead to a prolonged government shutdown. Pelosi was widely seen to win that debate, challenging Trump - a president not accustomed to being challenged - over his promised border wall and daring him to find a way to keep the government open without Democratic support. 

"Please don't characterize the strength that I bring to this meeting," she warned.

Weeks later, during Trump's State of the Union address, the president called on lawmakers to "reject the politics of revenge ... and embrace the boundless potential of cooperation."

Pelosi, seated behind Trump, rose and clapped, her hands outstretched, her eyes meeting those of the president. She seemed to be smirking. The image went viral on social media and cable news.

The recent feud has been more bitter and personal, with each side questioning the other's mental health. But Pelosi has vowed to work with Trump on future legislation - the very thing Trump has ruled out - and some Republicans are wary that the president's firm stand could brand the GOP as the "do nothing" party heading into the 2020 elections. It's another reason Pelosi's decision to go after the president seems to be uniting her caucus.

"We still would be happy to work with the president," said Khanna. "It's he who is saying that he doesn't want to do anything."

  

How long Pelosi is able to keep a lid on the impeachment drive, however, remains to be seen. A number of Democrats now supporting her cautious strategy say they're approaching the end of their rope. And Pelosi's sharp comments accusing Trump of a "cover-up" have also created a bit of a dilemma for Democratic leaders pursuing aggressive investigations in lieu of impeachment: If the president has committed the crime of obstructing justice, why not launch impeachment hearings now? 

Cicilline predicted that if Trump continues his refusal to honor the Democrats' subpoenas, "more and more Democrats will believe the time has come to open a formal [impeachment] inquiry." And a number of other Democrats are also moving closer to endorsing a more aggressive approach to investigating the president.

"I understand that patience is wearing thin," Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.), who has not endorsed the impeachment route, told CNN on Thursday. "It certainly is for me." 

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