Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has assumed many roles for Democrats in the Trump era, from top campaign strategist and party spokeswoman, to impeachment chief and emblem of women’s power.
To that list, add another: leading agitator of the commander in chief.
Pelosi last week assailed President Trump with a series of biting take downs, characterizing her White House rival as a thin-skinned political neophyte with an obesity problem. Trump responded in kind, suggesting Pelosi suffers from an unspecified mental illness.
The attacks were notably personal, even by the standards of the ongoing feud between a president and Speaker who haven’t spoken to each other in months. And Democrats on Capitol Hill are cheering the exchange as evidence that party leaders are ready to go toe-to-toe with the pugnacious president, both to advance their policy agenda amid the devastating coronavirus crisis and to invigorate their base heading into November’s high-stakes elections.
“People generally speaking know that Nancy Pelosi knows how to fight. And she knows how to win those fights,” Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Mich.) said Friday by phone. “And I think the message clearly is: she’s going to use the tools she has to take this guy on, even if it means hitting him back, giving him a taste of his own medicine.”
Few figures seem capable of getting under Trump’s skin in quite the way that Pelosi, the first female Speaker in the nation’s history, has done over his years in the Oval Office. That facility was on clear display last Monday during an interview with CNN, where she cautioned that Trump could be at a higher risk of the adverse effects of hydroxychloroquine, an anti-malarial that has not been approved for COVID-19, because of his age and “weight group.”
“Morbidly obese, they say,” Pelosi told Anderson Cooper.
The taunt did not go unnoticed in the White House, and Trump fired back the next day during a visit to the Capitol, telling reporters that Pelosi is “a sick woman.”
“She’s got a lot of problems, a lot of mental problems,” Trump said.
That prompted yet another volley from Pelosi, who for months has been blanketing the cable news shows to tout the Democrats’ legislative response to the coronavirus. In an interview with MSNBC on Tuesday, she said Trump is simply a political tenderfoot — able to dish out the insults, but not take them in return.
“I didn’t know that he would be so sensitive,” she said. “He’s always talking about other people’s … weight, their pounds.”
The Speaker lamented that the flare-up had become a “distraction,” but in doing so couldn’t resist dropping another reference to heaviness.
“So much of the time has been spent on what he said, rather than that I think he should recognize that his words weigh a ton,” she said.
While Democrats are admiring Pelosi’s tactics — “I don’t know if it’s intentional, but it sure is effective,” said Kildee — others are warning the strategy could also have drawbacks.
Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, said there’s no doubt that the Democrats’ liberal base is animated when Pelosi confronts Trump head on. And that’s especially true, she explained, given Trump’s long history of personal attacks on women who have crossed his path — a long list that includes Hillary Clinton (“crooked Hillary”), Omarosa Manigault Newman (“that dog”), Rosie O’Donnell (“a fat, ugly face”), Gail Collins (“the face of a pig”), and Stormy Daniels (“horseface”).
“He has a pattern of having a problem with women who are strong and powerful. … They seem to be an easy target for him,” Walsh said. “When she stands up to him, the base gets energized, women get energized.”
Yet there’s also a risk, Walsh warned, that provoking Trump will make it more difficult for Democrats to pass another round of emergency coronavirus relief — legislation Republicans were resisting even before last week’s Pelosi-Trump clash.
“In a moment when you are trying … to get something passed that gives some kind of relief to the states,” Walsh said, “getting under his skin and antagonizing Republicans in general has its downsides.”
Indeed, Rep. Steve Scalise (La.), the Republican whip, said Pelosi’s latest remarks are evidence that the Speaker houses a “personal vendetta” against Trump — one that led Democrats to impeach the president in December and is now driving their strategy heading into the elections.
“When we’re in the middle of a pandemic — in normal times you should rise above that — but especially during a crisis like this where we need to be pulling together, you need to put personal differences aside,” Scalise told The Hill on Friday.
Pelosi’s office quickly pushed back, noting that House Democrats have passed a new emergency aid bill, and are now waiting for reluctant Republicans to counter with a proposal of their own.
“The Speaker prays for the President every day,” said spokesman Drew Hammill. “Speaker Pelosi will continue to lead the Congressional response to the coronavirus pandemic regardless of how much he and the Minority Whip wish her to sit down and shut up.”
Largely overshadowed amid the Trump-Pelosi clash has been former Vice President Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, who has been fighting for visibility while riding out the health crisis at his home in Delaware.
Trump has launched plenty of attacks — and attached plenty of unflattering nicknames — on the former vice president. And Democrats are eager for the health scare to subside, allowing Biden to jump on a larger stage to retaliate.
But for now, Pelosi has the more prominent public platform, and her troops have been encouraged at her willingness to use it to battle the president directly.
“The vice president’s going to have to take the president on directly, ultimately,” said Kildee. “But what the Democratic Party is saying is that Trump doesn’t get to decide for himself what the terms of engagement are going to be — he doesn’t get to be the bully and pick on who he wants without having anybody capable of responding.
“If he wants to take on Nancy Pelosi,” he added, “he’d better fasten his seat belt and get ready for her to hit back.”
Juliegrace Brufke contributed.