Written by Michael Tackett
In another time, the Washington photo opportunity was a steady ritual. Leaders smiled, usually sitting in well-stuffed chairs, at least feigning smiles for the cameras. Pleasantries were spoken. The main objective was to get the picture and say as little as possible.
How quaint. President Donald Trump has turned many of these sessions into either monologues or opportunities for his supporters to tell him what a great job he is doing. This time, when he had a testy confrontation with the Democratic House leader, Nancy Pelosi of California, and Sen. Chuck Schumer, the Democratic leader from New York, Trump rewrote the playbook again.
Here are some takeaways of the meeting.
Trump knows tension makes good television.
Trump easily could have allowed the television cameras and pool reporters in to briefly record the pro forma portion of the meeting. Instead, he let them linger. And it was not long before the fireworks started. Trump pressed for funding the border wall, offering numerous false assertions about the construction process.
Pelosi, hewing to the language of decorum, said, “That is not the point, Mr. President, the point is that there are equities to be weighed, and we are here to have a conversation. So I don’t think we should have a debate in front of the press on this.”
Trump seemed to think debating in front of the press was precisely the point, and the extraordinary scene unfolded, with shouts, hand waving and zero apparent progress. This is what divided government looks like.
Trump could bend Republicans to his will during his first two years in office when they controlled the House and the Senate. But when Democrats won a House majority in the midterm elections in November, the power dynamic shifted markedly.
Pelosi, who hopes to be speaker when the new session begins in January, made that plain as she stood up to Trump. Pelosi is among the most seasoned political players in Washington and has been part of dozens of consequential negotiations. Pelosi can keep her fellow Democrats in line. She will not fold easily.
Schumer knows how to goad Trump. The two New Yorkers early on feigned a great mutual understanding and sent signals that they could do business. They had earlier held a “cheeseburger summit,” and they dined on Chinese spiced beef, but with little to show for it.
On Tuesday, Schumer adopted a more confrontational posture. When the president asked Schumer if he wanted to speak, the senator replied, “We have a lot of disagreements here. The Washington Post today gave you a whole lot of Pinocchios because they say you constantly misstate how much of the wall is — how much of the wall is built.” That prompted an angry retort from Trump, saying the last time the government shut down, “you got killed.”
After the meeting and in front of reporters, Schumer chided Trump for his “temper tantrum.” ‘Mansplain’ to Pelosi at your peril.
Trump became piqued after Pelosi noted a loss of Republican power in Congress, saying, “And excuse me, Nancy, did we win the Senate? We did.”
Trump then said that “Nancy is in a situation where it is not easy for her to talk right now,” concluding a response to a reporter with a demand for border security.
Pelosi’s riposte? “Mr. President, please don’t characterize the strength that I bring to this meeting as the leader of the House Democrats who just won a big victory.”
She then adopted the pose of fact checker, challenging index cards that Trump had waved around: “What the president is representing in terms of his cards over there are not factual. We have to have an evidence-based conversation about what does work and what money has been spent and how effective it is.”
After she returned to Capitol Hill, Pelosi said that for Trump, the wall was “like a manhood thing for him.
“As if manhood could ever be associated with him,” she said.
Trump would own a shutdown. “The bottom line is simple,” Schumer told reporters after the meeting. “The president made clear that he wants a shutdown.” He then repeated Pelosi’s notion that it would be a “Trump shutdown.”
Being the first to frame a debate is a studied art in Washington. Trump accepted the responsibility. “I will take the mantle,” Trump told Schumer. “I will be the one to shut it down. I’m not going to blame you for it.”