Washington • House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is driving President Trump nuts — a very short drive indeed — by doing something he simply cannot abide: She’s stealing the spotlight.
She is also seizing the initiative in the trench warfare over Trump’s government shutdown and his imaginary border wall, audaciously telling the president that the State of the Union address should be postponed, or perhaps forgone altogether, for reasons of security. It would be both unfair and unwise to ask Secret Service agents and other officers to protect the VIP-packed event, she contends, while they are not being paid their salaries. Trump retaliated Thursday by denying Pelosi military aircraft for her planned trip to Afghanistan, Belgium and Egypt.
Pelosi’s play was a stiletto-sharp reminder of how much power she wields — and an illustration of how deftly she is wielding it. Democrats who demanded new leadership in the House should be thankful that they didn’t get their wish. It is hard to imagine anyone better matched to the moment and the task.
Pelosi will go down in history as the first woman to hold the office that ranks behind only president and vice president. But this second tour of duty as speaker may prove even more consequential than the first, given the vandalism Trump is committing against our government institutions. Voters gave Democrats the power to constrain a corrupt, egomaniacal, incompetent, erratic and potentially compromised president. Pelosi has to figure out how.
So far, it is hard to fault a step she's taken. Her shutdown position is eminently simple and reasonable: Reopen the government, and then we can debate how best to protect the border.
After all, Congress already decided last month to give the Trump administration every penny it had initially asked for — $1.6 billion — for border security. But right-wing carnival barkers Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter goaded Trump into demanding more than $5 billion for a concrete wall or steel slats (or perhaps, as Pelosi has joked, "a beaded curtain or something") — any tangible barrier he can point to as fulfillment of the ridiculous promise he made to his base.
So Trump waded into this fight having no idea how to win it. There's a reason why no previous president has deliberately forced a shutdown: The Constitution gives Congress the power of the purse. Trump can't tell Pelosi what to do; and, given strong public opposition to the wall, he has no real leverage to pressure her. But he doesn't want to accept reality, so he keeps playing to his base — and watching his approval numbers as they slide from low to abysmal.
Meanwhile, his own shutdown has put Trump on the defensive. He has had to stretch precedent, rules and probably laws to designate increasing numbers of furloughed workers as "essential" and force them to work without pay. The latest pressed into uncompensated service are thousands of Internal Revenue Service employees who are needed to process income-tax refunds, which many families depend on to pay bills racked up during the Christmas season.
Trump's attempt at using his bully pulpit — last week's Oval Office address — was desultory and ineffective. He could be expected to have another go during the State of the Union, with its setting of pomp and majesty. But only if Pelosi invites him.
"I'm not denying him a platform at all," she said Thursday at her weekly news conference, in a tone of voice suggesting she was shocked that anyone would think such a thing. "I'm saying let's get a date when government is open."
And she was reminding Trump that the Capitol is her house, not his.
Pelosi is still not a natural at performing for the television cameras. But we're seeing a bit more these days of Nancy D'Alesandro — legendary Baltimore Mayor Tommy D'Alesandro's daughter, who grew up learning old-school politics at the feet of a master. She's a great storyteller, a precise tabulator of yeas and nays, and a leader who doesn't believe in giving any of her members a free pass on important votes.
She will need all her skills in the coming weeks and months. Trump's efforts to weaken the unity of Pelosi's caucus have thus far been pathetic, but he will surely keep trying. Ending the shutdown will require Trump to face reality, so it is impossible to know when that might happen. Meanwhile, Pelosi's committee chairmen are beginning to do their duty of holding the president accountable, and Trump will undoubtedly fight like a cornered banshee.
A rookie speaker would make rookie mistakes. Trump is being knocked around by Pelosi and, even more hurtful, the attention for now is on her.
Eugene Robinson writes a twice-a-week column on politics and culture and hosts a weekly online chat with readers. In a three-decade career at The Washington Post, Robinson has been city hall reporter, city editor, foreign correspondent in Buenos Aires and London, foreign editor, and assistant managing editor in charge of the paper’s Style section.