Political News

Pelosi claims win over Trump in State of the Union showdown

Posted January 24, 2019 1:01 a.m. EST

— Nancy Pelosi isn't giving an inch.

The House speaker, fortified by brutal polling for Donald Trump, refuses to provide the President an easy way out of his own political box as the government shutdown sparked by his demand for a border wall drags into a 34th day.

In his latest skirmish with Pelosi, Trump effectively admitted defeat late Wednesday and conceded that he would not be able to give his State of the Union address until after the shutdown ends. Earlier in the day, he had publicly thrown down a gauntlet and tried to force the speaker to back down over her refusal to let next Tuesday's showpiece speech take place in the House chamber.

Pelosi's victory came ahead of a pair of Senate votes due to take place on Thursday on dueling Republican and Democratic plans designed to end the shutdown. Neither is likely to break the deadlock, and may simply underline that Trump's hopes of a win remain slim.

The President is trying hard to reshape a political battlefield that is stacked against him, as sources suggest he is increasingly mystified that his tactics have not turned the tables on Democrats. Throughout his life, in business and in politics, Trump has leveraged his domineering personality, flair for showmanship and an unshakable self-belief that often defies the facts of a situation to get his way.

But he is finding in the new political context of divided Washington against an experienced adversary that his force of will and talent for engineering televised spectacles are not moving the political needle.

After Pelosi accepted his dare Wednesday and canceled his State of the Union address, Trump lashed out but failed to come up with an effective response.

"She's afraid of the truth and the super left Democrats, the radical Democrats," the President said at the White House while teasing an alternative plan for the address.

But later, the President announced on Twitter that he had shelved an idea that would have done more to showcase his diminished political standing than to damage the Democratic leadership of the House.

"I am not looking for an....alternative venue for the SOTU Address because there is no venue that can compete with the history, tradition and importance of the House Chamber. I look forward to giving a 'great' State of the Union Address in the near future!" Trump tweeted.

Trump did not specifically rule out some kind of political event next Tuesday.

CNN's Kaitlan Collins reported that White House officials were caught off guard with Pelosi's swift, decisive response. Her move left the President looking outmatched and out of answers when his bluster was returned with interest.

It's looking more and more like the President misjudged the politics of the shutdown or is perhaps so trapped in his West Wing and media bubble that he's not getting an accurate fix on his worsening political position.

Little that he does -- an Oval Office address, a trip to the border, a weekend offer that was swiftly rejected by Democrats -- seems to improve his position.

Polls show that a majority of the public still solidly blames Trump for the shutdown and are opposed to his border wall -- 71% in a new CBS poll said it's not worth the shutdown.

A failed bid to turn the tide

The spectacle of the President and the speaker squabbling over a speech meant to highlight national unity, was hardly in keeping with the dignity of either of their offices. Pelosi's claim that the shutdown meant the Capitol could not be secured is also debatable.

It could take a few days to see whether Pelosi's move would make her look "petty" as Trump's counselor Kellyanne Conway had predicted.

Trump former economic adviser Stephen Moore said on CNN that Pelosi's move was a "seventh-grade" maneuver and was motivated by a desire to prevent a repeat of what was widely reviewed as a strong State of the Union address by the President last year.

But Pelosi's hardball tactics amounted to a literal example of how she is using the constitutional mechanism of government to constrain and frustrate Trump and a reminder of the importance of the Democratic midterm election victory.

She has deprived Trump of a chance to make his best case to Americans on the shutdown in a spotlight he loves. The pageantry of the State of the Union gives a president a symbolic advantage and filter free access to tens of millions of viewers. Trump could have used a prime-time stage to weave a narrative about his presidency as a whole, to stress the strength of the economy and what he regards as the success of his nuclear diplomacy with North Korea.

The risk for Pelosi is that her strategy will turn off voters who are wary of overreach by the new Democratic majority or that she could appear as much to blame as Trump for the Washington tomfoolery.

So far though, she's on firm political ground. The CBS News poll on Tuesday suggested that Trump's position is deteriorating. In a finding that must be especially galling for the master of the art of the deal, 47% of those asked thought that the speaker was doing a better job handling shutdown talks, compared to 35% for the President.

A CNN Poll of Polls shows the President's job approval down to 37%, down from 41% in November and December, after a month in which news about the shutdown has drowned out most other political activity. But the President, true to his life's mantra, is showing no sign of giving up and believes that Americans will eventually come round to his argument that a border wall is critical to national security.

"Ultimately the American people will have their way, because they want to see no crime. They want to see what we're doing," he said.

People who were with Trump on Wednesday see no sign at all that he is willing to "cave" in the shutdown. But CNN's Pamela Brown cited a White House official who says the President keeps asking aides "why are we getting all the blame?"

The official said Trump believes he is taking all the hits but is the only one at the negotiating table making concessions.

A replacement State of the Union?

It's not easy to see how the President can turn things around quickly. At this point his best hope might be that he can simply wait out Democrats, as the pain worsens for government workers lining up at food banks, going without medicines and calling in sick because they can't afford gas.

But that scenario would likely damage him as much as his rivals.

A GOP source told CNN's Dana Bash that Trump was again considering executive actions, short of declaring a national emergency, to go around Congress and build a wall that is critical to his political base.

While the President could have used the drawing power of his office to attract attention for any replacement speech, it would, as he said, lack the impact of a formal State of the Union address. An alternative event might have also posed questions for television networks that covered Trump's Oval Office address several weeks ago and didn't get much news in exchange for the airtime.

A speech in a campaign rally setting would only have stressed the fact that, as is so often the case in his presidency, he was talking only to his own political supporters, rather than the entire nation.

And the fact that the President would have been forced to find somewhere else to give the annual address would only have underlined that the state of the union is such that he cannot even take his place in the House to give the speech.

There's nothing that says, however, that the speech has to take place in January, or even at all. The Constitution states that the President shall "from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union and recommend to their Consideration such Measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient."

Donna Hoffman, a professor of political science at the University of Northern Iowa, co-author of a book about the evolution of the State of the Union, suggested before Trump's late night tweets that the President would be better off waiting.

"If I was someone advising President Trump I might say, as a matter of fact, wait until the government has reopened because the speaker at that point won't really have a reason not to invite him," said Hoffman.

"And then he would still have the trappings, he would be the center again and then ... whatever the result of the shutdown debacle has been he could frame that however he wants to," she said.