Political Masterpiece: How Nancy Pelosi Choreographed Trump's Abject Surrender
On Friday, the longest government shutdown in the history of the United States ended, and it ended in a decisive victory for Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the Democrats. Trump, who held the government hostage in pursuit for his wall, capitulated and signed the legislation opening the government for three weeks.
Some of us are old enough to remember all the way back in December of 2018, when the government almost didn’t shut down. The Senate approved legislation then to keep the government open until February 8, and the the then-Republican House was ready to pass it, too. But then, Donald Trump and the man who is quite possibly the worst Speaker of the House in history, Paul Ryan, pulled the rug from under the government and shut it down.
Before December there were hardly any indication that Trump would insist on shutting down the government over his pipe dream of a border wall. That changed for the egomaniacal occupant of the Oval Office, however, soon after the then Speaker-designate Nancy Pelosi humiliated Trump in Trump’s White House, in front of cameras Trump insisted tape their “negotiation.” Pelosi told Trump repeatedly he would not get his wall even through the House, and dared him to try.
The national news media correctly recorded that day as victorious for Pelosi, Schumer and the new incoming House Democratic majority, but it noted it as somewhat of a defeat for Pelosi when the then-Republican House, under pressure from Trump, did pass the wall money, even though they had to get it through with a less-than-full-majority vote. A narrative developed that Nancy Pelosi dared Trump and for the time being, lost the dare.
It is clear now that Pelosi was playing the long game that only started with the White House visit and the dare. Pelosi has observed Trump for longer than he’s observed himself, and she figured out Trump’s soft underbelly: his ego and his need for adulation of crowds as if it were oxygen. When Pelosi challenged Trump’s ego - both by annihilating his arguments live on camera and by daring him to try to get his wall money in the then-GOP controlled House - she had to have known that he would act out and try to prove her wrong.
She could not have left with just torching Trump on camera, however. She name-checked “Trump Shutdown” in front of Trump and what looked like a Mike Pence attempting to disappear into his chair. She and Schumer repeatedly made references to Trump’s previous boasts about shutting down the government. They did it so much that Trump stepped in it and did what naturally came to him: own the shutdown on live camera for no reason other than that he wanted to look like he was the one in charge. In hindsight, it is tough not to see Chuck and Nancy’s goading Trump to that point as anything other than premeditated tactical trap, which Trump was only too happy to step into.
Having gotten Trump to own a possible shutdown on national television and having challenged Trump’s influence over his own party, Pelosi waited for the dominoes to fall into place.
And so they did:
Domino 1: Trump backed out of his original intention to sign the old Senate bill
Domino 2: Republicans, the outgoing majority in the House, are forced to pass wall funding.
Domino 3: With the House and Senate not agreeing on a bill to keep the government open, the government shuts down on December 22.
At this point, the Republican reign on the House ends, and the new House Democratic majority is sworn in shortly after the new year. There was never going to be any wall funding, and any reasonable observer could see that. There just was not enough time left for Republicans to figure this out before Nancy Pelosi became Speaker. The fact that the government was shut down when Democrats took control thanks to Republican circle-jerking gave Democrats a major opportunity - if they could stay united.
Speaker Pelosi knew they would. For one, she, as Speaker would focus like a laser on passing bills through the House at a break-neck pace to reopen the government. Democrats passed something like 11 bills - all of which were approved by the Republican Senate in the previous Congress - to reopen the government, which then the Senate GOP, who still control that chamber, refused to take up.
Pelosi knew that would happen. How did she know? Because Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has no backbone. Pelosi knew McConnell would act as a loyal servant to Trump, and she prepared for that. Not only did she create enormous pressure on Republicans in the Senate by passing their bills in the House, she tied them to Trump’s destructive shutdown. With Trump on tape saying this is his shutdown and given the Democratic House’s actions, Pelosi understood Republicans would never be able to shift blame away.
In the midst of the shutdown, in order to drive home the gravity of the situation, the Speaker pulled another move that left Trump and his allies completely flatfooted. She cancelled the televised State of the Union address, and when Trump acted like a petulant child threatening to show up anyway, without missing a beat, Pelosi slapped him down. “He’d have to speak outside, the Speaker non-chalantly said, when asked by reporters what would happen if Trump made good on his threat to just show up in defiance of her rules. Pelosi knew that when it came to the SOTU being delivered in her House, she held all the cards.
This move not only embarrassed Trump but sucked out the very oxygen Trump needs to survive: big, rally style speeches buoyed by cheering cultists.
There’s something else Pelosi knew. As the shutdown dragged on and paychecks were missed, government services that people rely on everyday without even realizing they rely on those services would suffer. The FBI was losing informants, air traffic control was bleeding personnel, and tax returns were threatened. Given how critical those services are, it would be impossible for Trump to hold the government hostage without a battering in the polls and without GOP senators cracking.
That’s what happened. When the Senate held a vote on a Trump proposal to fund the wall and a Pelosi proposal to fund the government without the wall, although both votes failed to meet a 60-vote threshold, Pelosi’s bill actually garnered more votes in the Republican senate than Trump’s.
And that is when Trump knew it was all over. He quickly capitulated and agreed to open the government without any funding for his vanity project, and while Pelosi signed the bill to reopen the government in front of cameras with fanfare, Trump signed it … in a cave.
But Nancy Pelosi did not choreograph this series of events simply by knowing the depths of her own power and that of the majority she leads. She also knows, better than probably anyone in the administration, the limits of Trump’s power. In their zeal to put up appearances of Trump as the all-powerful king, Trump’s team forgot that this is still a constitutional republic. Speaker Pelosi knew what she could do, and she knew what he could not. That’s why she won.
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