Nancy Pelosi’s State of the Union power play presents a unique dilemma to the president
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) knew that withdrawing an invitation to address the nation from Capitol Hill would crawl under President Donald Trump’s skin and irritate him in ways that nothing else might. So she did it.
Earlier this week, citing security concerns raised by the ongoing shutdown of the federal government, Pelosi sent a letter to the White House suggesting that the president reschedule his 2019 State of the Union address until the government reopens. She floated as a compromise, Trump could send his speech over to Congress in written form, as if Trump were a truant schoolboy turning in a delinquent homework assignment.
“Sadly, given the security concerns and unless government re-opens this week, I suggest that we work together to determine another suitable date after government has re-opened for this address or for you to consider delivering your State of the Union address in writing to the Congress on January 29th,” Pelosi wrote in her letter delivered Wednesday to the White House.
Ouch! That had to sting.
For Trump, who enjoys nothing about being the president as much as the opportunity to bask in the undeserved pomp and grandeur of the office, the annual State Of The Union address stood as a critical showpiece for the former reality-show mogul — another opportunity to posture in the flattering glow of a national spotlight. The annual speech is delivered on the dais of the U.S. House of Representatives, before an assembled audience of congressional leaders, Supreme Court justices, cabinet officials, military leaders, and a prime-time television audience gathered on all network and most cable news channels. While the speech itself rarely has meaningful import on national debates or policy formulation, it represents one of the few moments that a president has total command of public attention and an unfettered opportunity to tout the administration’s accomplishments.
By withdrawing her invitation to address Congress, Pelosi is threatening take all that away from Trump, embarrassing this attention-needy president by demonstrating she has the authority to deny him the one thing he craves most — public attention. In doing so, she is humbling his outsized — yet infantile — ego as she might an unruly toddler.
It’s a disciplining act that Pelosi, who frequently reminds the world that she’s the mother of five and grandmother of nine children, knows how to execute with aplomb.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi on protracted government shutdown: "It's a temper tantrum by the president. I'm the mother of five, grandmother of nine. I know a temper tantrum when I see one." https://t.co/5HK6dtw3WJ pic.twitter.com/Qh2lP5IfJH
— ABC News Politics (@ABCPolitics) January 11, 2019
The long-term consequence of this kerfuffle over whether Trump gets to deliver his speech in the House chamber isn’t clear, clouded by a constellation of factors that are unique to this president and his remarkable and historic disruption of presidential norms. As the nation approaches a month-long shutdown — already the longest in history — with no apparent end in sight, the underlying basis of Pelosi’s claim — that security for the State of the Union is too compromised — has a veneer of credibility.
“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 in her letter to Trump.
The highly ceremonial presidential address is an appointment-viewing event on television for Washington insiders and political junkies, but there’s nothing required about the arrangement. In fact, until President Woodrow Wilson opted to give his Constitutionally-mandated, periodic report on the state of the country, U.S. presidents routinely did the very thing Pelosi is suggesting Trump do because of the government shutdown, send a written document to Congress to satisfy the obligation.
Furthermore, it’s not particularly novel for Congress to contemplate withholding the invitation to address the nation — even for nakedly partisan reasons. In 2014, a rogue group of Republican congressmen pressed then-Speaker John Boehner to take back an invite to President Barack Obama‘s State of the Union address in retaliation to Obama’s issuing an executive order which opposed the deportation of a particular class of undocumented immigrant known as DREAMers.
While it’s certainly possible that Pelosi’s move might escalate the stakes of a parliamentary tit-for-tat over the State of the Union address, it’s equally likely to be a one-off event, yet another curiosity of the Trump era, because the peculiarities of this political moment. The crazy nature of the primary personality involved in this dispute may never be repeated. For example, it’s difficult to envision another president so possessed of a desperate need for the limelight as to be as woundable as Trump, who unquestionably craves public attention.
To be clear, whether Trump gives his State of the Union in the House or not, it’s unlikely to bring about a change in the government shutdown. The State of the Union address is a meaningless skirmish in a far larger and more important power struggle pitting presidential will against Congressional budgetary oversight. And the persuasive powers of presidential speeches are generally overrated — a fact of political life that Trump may be, belatedly, learning.
For more than 24 hours after the letter arrived at the White House, the administration was curiously mute about Pelosi’s State of the Union letter. The absence of an official statement suggested the White House was, for a time, caught off guard by Pelosi’s move and was somewhat flummoxed as to how to respond.
What’s more, the notoriously thin-skinned Trump, whose stock in trade is to use his itchy Twitter finger to swiftly respond to slights, is generally halting and somewhat muted in his responses to Pelosi. As Politico reported, after 24 hours of radio silence, Trump’s first response to the speaker herself was a letter that simply informed her that a planned trip to Belgium, Egypt, and Afghanistan would be rescheduled “when the Shutdown is over.”
Without a doubt, Trump’s response dialed up the pettiness, and may expose the president to criticism for recklessly endangering a ranking Congressional leader. As CBS News’ Steven Portnoy explained, the “details of Pelosi’s planned travel…had not been previously announced” and her aides had “asked news organizations not to report that the trip would take place, citing national security.” Typically, Trump makes his animus clear for anyone to comprehend and doesn’t require a reporter to explain it.
Beyond that, however, Trump has not — as of this writing — made any direct acknowledgment of Pelosi’s State of the Union snub, nor has he indulged in his typical social media antics, in which he defames public officials with insulting nicknames and personal attacks when he doesn’t get his way.
In fact, in recent months he seems to have opted to dial back such behavior where Pelosi is concerned — perhaps because he understands it to be a losing battle to bully someone who, seemingly more so than anyone else in official Washington, has the leeway and the deftness to push back with skillful impunity.
As the newly elected House speaker, Pelosi can exercise real political power and oversight of the president’s actions. And her decision to take away the president’s highly anticipated media moment is, without a doubt, a power play. It informs Trump that the House is under refreshed leadership and that he will be held to a level of scrutiny and discipline he didn’t have during the first two years of his administration.
Just as importantly, Pelosi is sending a critical signal to voters that even if Democrats can’t singlehandedly override the president’s veto or force Trump’s hand on policies, she has the willingness and the ability to exert maximal pain on an unruly president where it hurts him the most.