Nancy Pelosi was upset, but holding it in. Donald Trump was in a good mood, and letting it out.
“I think we’ll get things done,” Trump told her.
It was November 9, the afternoon after the election. The House minority leader had called Trump Tower to congratulate the president-elect.
“I know what you do,” Trump told her. “You’re somebody that gets things done, better than anybody.”
“Don’t forget, I was a supporter of yours, a good one,” Trump said toward the end of the conversation, recalling his history as a reliable Democratic donor, according to a transcript provided by a person familiar with the call. “I think you’re terrific. That was in my developer life, my business life.”
Ten months later, Trump’s was a White House life, and after growing frustrated with his own party, he was back to working with Democrats, saying Pelosi was terrific. It must be weird, I said to Pelosi on the phone—for all she’s seen in her career, having grown up in politics and served 30 years in the House of Representatives— now to be dealing with Trump as president.
The line was quiet for 10 seconds. She held out for the comic timing.
“Am I supposed to comment on that?” she said.
“Remember one thing: He is the president of the United States,” she said, when I pressed her. “That may be weird, but once you get past that … ”
It was a Friday afternoon in mid-September and Pelosi was on her way to Dulles airport, off to catch a flight home to California for her wedding anniversary. She was ahead of schedule, thanks to a much easier than expected vote on a major spending bill rolling together Hurricane Harvey relief funding, a three-month extension on the debt ceiling and a deal to keep the government funded—the Trump-Pelosi-Chuck Schumer deal, it was called. Two out-of-power Democrats—Pelosi and the Senate minority leader—had walked into the Oval Office that week and gotten the president to roll over on his own party’s congressional leadership, all in a matter of hours. Pelosi had made sure she had every Democratic vote in the House to make up for the handful of Republicans—including four from Texas, where the hurricane hit—who were going to oppose the bill.
The story Pelosi tells of how the agreement was struck is that, sitting on the couches in the Oval Office, she interrupted a monologue from Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, turned to Trump and said that while Mnuchin may know business and finance, in Washington, the “currency of the realm” is votes. Republican leaders couldn’t promise they would deliver their members. Pelosi knew she could deliver hers. She wasn’t up for a debate or a negotiation over how long to set the government funding deal for.
“It was a question of when they would agree. We were in a no-lose situation,” she told me. “‘Goodbye—call us when you have the votes.’ Not that we weren’t courteous.”
Trump agreed. Pelosi and Schumer walked out with a handshake on their opening bid, to make a deal for three months instead of 18—forcing the Republicans to confront the mess again in December—and without any concessions. Republicans were aghast. Democrats were confused, unaccustomed to the idea that they could win anymore. And the groundwork was laid for another dinner the following week, when the two Democratic leaders went over to the White House for Chinese food, and again walked out claiming victory, this time to preserve protections for Dreamers, immigrants brought to the United States illegally as minors. (The White House initially denied the deal, though the president himself later backed it up.)
The media coverage in those two weeks was ecstatic, and the president, of course, was paying close attention. The morning after the debt ceiling deal, he called Pelosi to gloat about how great it looked on TV. “You and Chuck are getting raves,” Trump said. “I would say your other two friends aren’t doing as well as you,” he added, referring to the congressional leadership in Trump’s own party, House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Soon afterward, Pelosi became maybe the only person in history who can rightfully claim to have controlled Trump’s Twitter feed: On her suggestion, she said, Trump tapped out a reassurance to Dreamers that they shouldn’t fear being deported. (White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders did not respond to several emails for this story, or a request for the president to share his own thoughts about Pelosi.)
As it tends to go with Pelosi, however, the reaction in her own party was part revolt. Over the past year, the simmering resistance to the minority leader has blown up into regular calls for her to quit. For a growing faction of her caucus and beyond, she is the face of a Democratic Party that voters clearly don’t want anymore: classically liberal, stuck in Washington forever, satisfied with doing the same thing. With this deal, critics, including the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, were anxious she would end up selling the Dreamers short by dealing with a president many in her party just want to destroy.
Pelosi, for her part, was focused on the legislative win.
“This isn’t about friendship,” she told me in another conversation this fall, sitting at the conference table in her office in the Capitol. If the president comes to her with what she thinks is good policy on the debt ceiling or anything else, she’ll sign on. “He came our way,” she says. “And that was important. It wasn’t a compromise. It was, he came our way.”
As it also tends to go with Pelosi, the people who can’t stand her refused to give her credit. Right after news broke that Trump had taken the debt ceiling deal, one of the most reliable Pelosi haters in the conference sidled up to me to undercut her. It “wasn’t Nancy. It was all Chuck,” the member said.
I relayed that comment to Pelosi as she was driving to Dulles, pleased that she had delivered every Democratic vote for the bill, as promised.
“So sad,” she said. “But whoever said that voted right today, and that’s the only thing that matters.”
Nancy Pelosi is hated; she’s a hero. She’s the Democrats’ secret weapon; she’s the Republicans’ favorite target. She’s the best vote counter to walk the halls of the Capitol in modern history and a critical force in her party’s successes; she takes more credit than many in her own party think she deserves. She may be the only person on earth who could get the 194 members of her conference some actual wins with Trump in the White House and Republican control of Congress, but her colleagues are already preparing to blame her for not taking back control of the House in 2018.
Watch Pelosi work the room in a meeting of her members, they say, and you’ll get it. She knows everything about all of them, from children to legislative pressure points. She knows when to approach her colleagues like a multicylinder spring-loaded lock, and when to come at them like the drama counselor at summer camp.
“Your leader, Nancy Pelosi, was amazing,” Schumer reassured nervous Democrats in a closed meeting after the Oval Office deal, according to people in the room. “She was throwing shade at [Speaker Ryan]—‘You got the votes, you got the votes?’ And he couldn’t say anything.”
The Democratic Party is in a rolling existential crisis, with no real power in Washington, the prospect of very rough midterm elections despite the president’s unpopularity and a massive, discombobulated 2020 presidential field that’s like an Egon Schiele portrait of the left’s divisions and lack of leadership. Yet the one veteran with a proven track record of wins in Congress and in campaigns is the one they’re always talking about dumping. Junior House Democrats—who make up many of the rebels in the caucus—joke that the only downside of possibly winning the majority next year is that Pelosi, who is 77, would almost certainly stick around, and have a pretty solid case for being speaker again.
“A lot of our members say, ‘You’ve got to stay because you’re the master legislator,’” Pelosi says. “Self-promotion is a terrible thing, but clearly somebody has to do it. And I guess I haven’t done it enough.”
Polarizing as Pelosi may be, if one thing became clear in the weeks I spent talking to her and dozens of allies and detractors in Congress for this story, it’s this: She’s not going anywhere, and doesn’t really care about the complaints. She insists her priority is winning in 2018. “That is it. I’ve been speaker. I’ve been there. I’ve done that. I want the Democrats to win,” she tells me, arguing that her party is “in excellent shape,” given Trump’s approval ratings, the Democrats’ own recruitment and the historically poor performance of a president’s own party in the midterms.
To the members of her own conference who are worried about her sticking around, she smacks back: “A lot of our members say, ‘You’ve got to stay because you’re the master legislator.’ And, ‘You know the budget better than anybody.’ ‘You have a following in the country that can get us the resources to win.’ Self-promotion is a terrible thing, but clearly somebody has to do it. And I guess I haven’t done it enough.”
She stops herself. Enough talking about the gripers. She is resting comfortably, she says, on the continued support of most House Democrats—she had predicted two-thirds would support her run for another term as minority leader last November in the face of the most serious challenge she had ever faced, and ended up just about on the nose with 134 votes—68 percent. Among the American public, Pelosi is actually more popular than the Republican leaders, which is not to say she’s popular: She has a 28 percent approval rating overall and a 56 percent approval rating among Democrats, according to Economist/YouGov numbers from the end of September.
Republican operatives and consultants, meanwhile, are happy for her to stay right where she is. Leading up to the midterms, they are preparing to add tens of millions of dollars to the hundreds of millions they have already spent over the years attacking Pelosi as a caricature of a far-left coastal Democrat. The House Republicans’ campaign arm, the National Republican Congressional Committee, has polling that shows Pelosi to be the most negative name to tag a Democratic candidate to, more so than Barack Obama. In the Georgia special House election in June, Republicans spent $5 million just on the ads and mailers featuring her, and won.
“She was just speaker, and we can remind them of what happened,” Steve Stivers, the Ohio congressman and NRCC chairman, told me, sounding like there was no topic in the world he would rather discuss. The word “just,” I pointed out to him, might be a stretch; it’s been seven years. But given Republicans’ worries about their inability to repeal Obamacare and reform the tax code, Stivers says it’s better to scare voters with what could happen if they lose the House. “In most people’s minds—because they remember—she has a view of the world, and I don’t have to remind them of it,” he says.
That leaves some Democratic candidates afraid to associate too closely with her. Brad Ashford, the former Nebraska congressman who is running again for the seat he lost last year, says he has already been asked about his connection to the minority leader. “To have her come here would not be consistent with the campaign I’m running,” he says, stressing that he is trying to connect with the political mood of the moment and be seen as independent-minded. Plus, he predicted, she would face protesters.
Across competitive races, the question of whether Democratic candidates would support Pelosi for leader again comes up all the time, says one member of Congress who has been talking with battleground-state recruits: “Every single one of them has asked me, ‘What do we do with the Nancy problem?’”
The nightmare scenario a number of House Democrats sketched out to me is winning 10, 15, even 20 seats in an anti-Trump wave, but falling short in enough districts where Pelosi could justifiably be cited as the reason the House stayed in Republican hands. An even worse possibility, they say, is if Democrats win the majority and Pelosi becomes speaker—but faces so much backlash that the Republicans win back the House in 2020 and Trump gets reelected along the way. “Does she want us to win the majority so she can be speaker again for two years, or does she want to plan for the future so that we can have a sustained majority?” asks one Democratic member. Talk of her stepping down early has dissipated, replaced with a new push: She and the rest of the aging House leadership should announce that they will pass the baton next year, no matter what happens in the elections.
“We all have a peak, and then we all then go over the hill. That doesn’t mean we should discontinue, but we have to realize,” says former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican who lived through his own battles with Pelosi a decade ago. “She has reached her peak.”
Pelosi has heard it all.
“I say to my colleagues, ‘You cannot let the opponents choose your leaders,’” she tells me. “You know, they’re saying, ‘You’re from San Francisco. You’re too liberal. You’re this. LGBTQ. You passed the Affordable Care Act. And they painted you the way that they did.’ And I said, ‘And that’s a reason for me to step aside?’ Now, I’m very proud of the Affordable Care Act, and I’m very proud of my district, but even with a Midwestern Tom Daschle, the Republicans went after him as leader. They will always go after the leader.”
Under fire after the Georgia race, Pelosi was mocked for saying, “I think I’m worth the trouble.” She’s not the only one who thinks that—one senior Obama White House official told me about driving home in a daze on election night last year, worried about how much Trump was going to challenge what the previous administration had done, and suddenly thinking, “Thank God we have Nancy Pelosi.”
“You need somebody with seasoning right now who understands where we come from and where we don’t,” says Representative Debbie Dingell of Michigan.
One top Democrat put it slightly differently to me: “The boogeyman for the Republicans for years was a guy named Ted Kennedy. And thank God Ted Kennedy was sticking around.”
So, say that on the record, I said.
The offer was declined.
“I know what the Republicans would do with that,” the person said.
To describe how Pelosi works a room, her friend and former colleague George Miller used to hum the “da-dum, da-dum” music from Jaws. The evening after the Las Vegas shooting in early October, she zipped onto the House floor for a short series of minor votes, going after whomever she needed. She moved over to Nita Lowey from New York for an intense conversation, pausing for the moment of silence for the shooting victims, then to cross herself, then right back into it. Then across the room and a few rows back to Lucille Roybal-Allard, from California. Then to the other side of the room to Jim Clyburn, the assistant Democratic leader from South Carolina. Then she pinballed right out the door and across the hall through the Rayburn Room, to her office, where Harry Reid was keeping watch high on top of a cabinet.
Not Harry Reid the retired Senate leader—Harry Reid the stuffed and mounted bald eagle given to her by the retired Senate leader when he left Washington at the end of last year. Back when it was in Reid’s office, the eagle was named Sparky, because its untimely demise came from flying into some power lines. (Reid had to present paperwork certifying Sparky’s cause of death to prove he hadn’t killed an endangered animal.) Looking up at the eagle prompts Pelosi to tell a story about a man hauled before a judge for roasting a condor but let off because he was feeding his family, though not before the judge asked him what it tasted like. “Somewhere between a bald eagle and a baby seal,” she says, only then letting a smile creep in to show that this was all a joke. Make sure my humor makes it into print, she says.
Pelosi has a deep history in the halls of Congress, but she’s confronting her—and her party’s—shakiest moment without many of the people she has known and worked with best. The inner circle she came up with in Washington is, for the most part, either retired or dead—George Miller, for instance, or John Murtha, the ex-Marine from Pennsylvania who would have seemed to have nothing in common with Pelosi but helped clear her way to the top.
Elected to Congress in 1987, she became the first female minority leader, then the first female speaker of the House 10 years ago, and it doesn’t look likely that another woman will lead either chamber or either party anytime soon. By modern Washington standards, she was part of an astonishingly effective machine. Pelosi, Reid and Obama—she speaks of the former president with a den mother’s defensiveness—passed more major legislation each month that the Democrats controlled the House, Senate and White House than Republicans probably will under Ryan, McConnell and Trump.
She keeps a framed note from Obama right by the door of her personal office in her Capitol suite, dated April 29, 2009. “With all the fuss around ‘100 days,’ I wanted you to know nothing we’ve done could have happened without you,” Obama wrote. “I take great pride in our efforts together—SCHIP [State Children’s Health Insurance Program], pay equity, the Recovery Act, National Service—and know they are a lasting tribute to your leadership. Let’s do some more in the next 100!” And that was before Obamacare, or the Iran deal, or any of the funding deals they passed.
The relationship between Pelosi as speaker and Obama as president started off creaky. Obama felt she lectured him. But over the years, while he never called Pelosi his sister the way he called Reid his “brother,” Obama developed an appreciation for her ability to deliver the results she promised. He never got frustrated with her as he did with Reid for sometimes flaking after saying he had the votes, or for his vocal opposition to the president’s free-trade push.
“She’s so effective and understanding of where her caucus is that she can also be very candid about what she assesses can get done and, as importantly, what cannot get done,” says Denis McDonough, Obama’s chief of staff for most of his second term.
Pelosi and Obama have stayed in touch with regular phone calls since Trump became president. He asks for updates on the Obamacare fight and her sense of the evolving political climate; she asks him to do Democratic fundraisers. They’re not best buddies. But they’re tight enough that he was planning to stay in her house in Napa Valley on a trip in October (ultimately canceled because of the wildfires), and tight enough to rib each other at a July fundraiser for the redistricting reform group led by former Attorney General Eric Holder: When Pelosi tried to get Obama to do a repeat performance of Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together,” the former president wiggled out of it by telling the donors, “I’m sorry. You would’ve had to pay more.”
In the early Obama days, when she was still new as speaker and Democrats were riding high, there were no challenges to fend off, no easy airtime for any Democrat who wanted to complain about her on cable. Democrats have been getting less and less powerful in the House in the years since, the frustration mounting with every loss. But the deals with Trump have created a rapid renaissance of appreciation for Pelosi among beaten-down members of her party. Nearly a year after Trump’s election convinced them nothing was working, Pelosi has managed to deliver wins and save policies they care deeply about. Even previous opponents in her conference are ready to offer public support.
“I don’t know what the future will hold. What I know is she’s the leader now, and she’s kicking Trump’s butt,” says Sean Patrick Maloney, a Democrat from a swing district in New York who tried to knock out Pelosi’s pick to lead the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee as part of the failed post-election rebellion against her.
As for the people complaining that she hasn’t won enough from the White House, or made too many deals, Maloney says, “Nancy Pelosi could walk on water, and there are some people who would say, ‘Why can’t she swim?’”
Kathleen Rice, another New York Democrat who has been a top lieutenant in the coup efforts, now sounds a reluctant credit-where-it’s-due line. “Nancy Pelosi was an effective speaker, and she has been an effective minority leader,” Rice told me. “No one doubts that she knows how to play the game and make the most of her situation.”
Pelosi’s wins might be small. But she has more to show for her work in the Trump era than the Republicans, who, despite their big majority in the House, can’t manage to get their members in line, all while being constantly undercut by the president.
She doesn’t curse, in public or in private—she likes to throw in expressions like “stinkeroo,” and “shall we say,” followed by some diplomatic phrasing she makes heavy with air quotes—but one of her favorite expressions for dismissing an opponent’s incompetence is, “He couldn’t organize a two-car funeral.” When I ask her how she thinks Paul Ryan would do with funeral organizing, she replies, “I’m certain he could. I’m certain he could. I think he could do that.”
Later, though, she comes back to the topic, remembering with morbid amusement the afternoon in March when Ryan scrapped the first big Obamacare repeal vote at the last minute. She says she knew Republicans would fail when they announced the vote would take place on the anniversary of Obamacare’s passing. You don’t call a vote because of symbolism, she says, with the kind of tone an NBA player would use to explain what a jump shot is. You call a vote when you have the votes—like she did, back when she was twisting arms down to the wire the night she made sure the Democrats would pass Obamacare in the first place.
In those tense final hours before Ryan made his decision, reporters and photographers were piling up in front of his office, waiting for news, a signal, at least a new sighting of the speaker rushing out to his next meeting.
A 9-year-old boy ambled over, in slacks and a blazer.
“It’s not going to pass,” the boy announced to the crowd. “He doesn’t have the votes!”
Who was that kid? some of the reporters started asking each other.
Oh, one of them said: That was Pelosi’s grandson.
On a shelf behind her secretary’s desk, Pelosi keeps a big white binder. The cover is an all-text printout: “Votes to Repeal or Undermine the Affordable Care Act – January 2011 through July 2017.” Pelosi likes to page through it, reminding herself, keeping track. Who’s been dependable. Whom she has to watch out for. Who might be wobbly. Who might have crossed her.
She has a list of votes about herself, among her own conference, but she keeps that one in her head.
After the election, Representative Tim Ryan of Ohio tapped into the widespread Democratic panic—that they had lost moderates, and working-class white voters, and those looking for Washington to change, and anyone who felt the leadership had gotten too old and out of touch—by leading a coup attempt against Pelosi. In the days after Trump won, when Pelosi was already talking about how well the Democrats would do in 2018, many of her colleagues were talking about how she had consolidated power among a shrinking, long-ago-gray generation of leaders and, out of jealousy or self-preservation or carelessness, done little to elevate newer members.
One member of Congress who has been talking with battleground-state recruits says, “Every single one of them has asked me, ‘What do we do with the Nancy problem?’”
There were other complaints, too. Outside vote counting, Pelosi’s great fame is as a fundraiser known for gently and not so gently working donors. She says she has raised more than $600 million for Democrats since joining the leadership in 2002. But her critics look at that number and see overblown, fuzzy math calculated on a mystical abacus only she has access to.
Early this year, Maloney launched an audit of the DCCC, scrutinizing where the money was coming in from, and to whom it was being paid out. The summary report he produced in April put leadership so on edge that the document is available for viewing only by members of Congress and their chiefs of staff, by appointment, in a room at DCCC headquarters.
Pelosi is credited with nearly all the money that came in from individual donors in 2016. But, according to presentations Maloney conducted for members, individual donors are just 18 percent of the DCCC’s fundraising. Larger shares come from online fundraising (37 percent) and direct marketing by mail and phone (20 percent), which makes some members think Pelosi’s relationships don’t matter a whole lot; pretty much any Democratic leader would raise as much, they say, without having all the baggage she does. On top of that, in separate, privately circulated DCCC documents, Pelosi is listed as having raised $110 million in the 2016 cycle. But people familiar with the documents say that while she is a massive fundraiser, that number is inflated: It includes funds that are accounted for elsewhere—such as fundraisers organized by other members that Pelosi attended, or emails sent by the DCCC bearing her name.
“She’ll show up to an event that’s already happening and claim credit,” says one frustrated member. “Following the math, it’s grossly overstated.”
Pelosi is aware of these complaints too. “Do you think that you are as critical—” I start to ask before she cuts me off with, “Yes, I do.”
She claims credit for creating much of the infrastructure that makes all this fundraising possible, and argues that her leadership of the California Democratic Party before she ran for Congress has a lot to do with the big-donor money from the West Coast and beyond that keeps pouring in. Former staffers and colleagues talk about how she can twist a six- or seven-figure donation into double the original number.
“It isn’t about money. It’s about—they believe in you,” she says. “And they believe in me. Yeah, I can say that immodestly. And I’m very proud of the fact that every month, practically, we outraise the Republicans. Now, they’ll have their special-interest endless spigot of dark, undisclosed money that will come into the elections, but on the regular fundraising basis, they have the power. They have the White House. They have the Senate. They have the House. They have the speaker’s gavel. They have set the agenda, and we beat them every month.”
Pelosi’s Democratic opponents, for the moment, have retreated, seemingly more interested in how leading the charge against her has boosted their own profiles than in explaining their opposition. Tim Ryan has started visiting Iowa, flirting with talk of a 2020 White House run rooted in standing up for the lost white voters in America’s middle. But for this article, he declined to answer any questions about Pelosi. (Asked why, given how much the congressman has had to say in the past, Ryan’s spokesman declined comment.)
For months, Seth Moulton, the ambitious former Marine from Massachusetts, has been telling big donors how great he thinks Joe Kennedy III would be as the new House leader (which some see as a way to nudge his in-state rival out of the way should Moulton want to run for governor or Senate). After the Georgia loss, when Moulton convened a not-so-secret secret session with around two dozen members who had been griping about Pelosi, I tried for a week to get him to explain his position. His office told me he didn’t have time. For this article, I gave Moulton’s staff a three-week window. His press secretary said he was again too busy, citing Moulton’s wedding and a trip at the end of September to, you guessed it, Iowa. (He was not, however, too busy to reach out to several other reporters to talk up the trip, and to go in-studio for a “Morning Joe” appearance.)
The chatter about Pelosi’s future might be quieter now, but it hasn’t gone away. If the Democrats take the majority in 2018, Pelosi will almost certainly run for speaker and will almost certainly win. Rumors fly over whether anyone would challenge her. But one person who knows Pelosi well says, “The only way she doesn’t leave on her own timetable is if she leaves on a stretcher.” If the Democrats stay in the minority, as most who are looking hard at the numbers and the maps expect as of now, the assumption is that she will retire. It will be time, they figure, and she will know it—or will be forced to know it by a conference tired of losing and inclined to give the party a new face. But should Pelosi try to hold on as minority leader, the conference could crack open. “If Nancy wants to stay,” another member told me, “I think it’s World War III.”
Representative Steny Hoyer, the 78-year-old Maryland Democrat and minority whip forever waiting in the wings, has told colleagues and outside allies that he would like to run as “a bridge to the next generation,” an elder statesman doing his duty as leader—and, sure, maybe speaker, too—until a younger member was groomed and ready. (Hoyer’s office also spent weeks telling me he wouldn’t be able to make time to talk about Pelosi.) Joe Crowley, the New York representative who chairs the Democratic Caucus, is making moves of his own, and colleagues are talking him up. In October, Linda Sánchez of California, Crowley’s caucus vice chair and expected potential partner as whip should he become leader, surprised many with an offhand comment that it was time for Pelosi and the other older leaders to go. Sánchez herself and a few other Democrats—Cheri Bustos from Illinois, Hakeem Jeffries from New York—get some buzz as potential Pelosi successors as well.
“There’s a lot of young talent coming up the ranks,” is all Crowley would say when I asked him about running for leader down the line. “That’s going to be a decision for the caucus to make at that time.” People close to him rule out the chance that he would challenge Pelosi if she were to stay. Crowley himself talks up her “uncanny way of moral persuasion,” and says, “With Chuck, she’s done a masterful job in figuring out what pushes Trump’s buttons and taking advantage of that. … People were reminded of how skillful she can be.”
That’s admiration and respect for her, but as is the case for many of his colleagues, not much love. “Do I think of her as my sister or my mom? No,” Crowley says. Leaning into some Queens sarcasm, though, he knows she wouldn’t care: “She’d be the first to cry about it—I don’t think so.”
Pelosi has always been careful about revenge—maybe she’ll need someone later for another vote, she figures. But she doesn’t forget and never forgives, and she already squashed Rice’s request to get on the prestigious Foreign Affairs committee. If she becomes speaker again, with more road now behind her than ahead, well—Moulton, Ryan, Rice, enjoy your new seats on the Small Business Committee, one senior aide joked.
Grace Meng, a Democratic National Committee vice chair and third-term member, says that since the leadership challenge last year, Pelosi has adjusted to some of the complaints against her. “She has tried very hard to be more inclusive,” Meng says. “She has also recognized the need to include newer and younger members.
Joe Kennedy, one such up-and-comer wrote in an email, “Elevating fresh and diverse voices is something both political parties could stand to do more of.” But he also noted, “Leader Pelosi isn’t booking you on ‘Meet the Press’ or organizing your agenda or controlling whether your message resonates with voters. That’s on you.”
At Pelosi’s Oval Office meeting in September with Trump and other congressional leaders, Ivanka Trump popped in and asked about Pelosi’s daughter Alexandra, a New York-based documentary filmmaker who was Ivanka’s friend from pre-2016 days, and her latest project, an HBO film featuring political leaders reading the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, directly to camera. “I’m in it!” Schumer said. Ryan, McConnell and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy excitedly piped in about their parts, as did Vice President Mike Pence and Trump, who chose to read the article establishing the presidency, clearly pleased about the Electoral College bit. Everyone in the room except Mnuchin had a part. Pelosi read the section establishing the speaker of the House, though she says that was her daughter’s choice.
The first time Pelosi was in the Oval Office, in 1961, she was the daughter visiting as a guest. Two days after her 21st birthday, she took a break from classes at Trinity Washington University to watch President John F. Kennedy preside over the swearing-in of her father, the former Baltimore mayor and congressman, as a member of an obscure panel that reviewed defense contracts. Sometimes when Pelosi tells this story, she notes that Kennedy, already thinking about reelection in 1964, quizzed her father about what the votes in Baltimore might look like.
Around the conference table in her office in the Capitol, I asked her a question many people in Washington whisper: Is she at the same speed at 77 that she was at 67, or 57?
“Yeah. More,” she says. “My purpose is intensified.”
“This is about the person who is the president of the United States. If we can find common ground, then we will. Everything is its own discussion. It doesn’t anoint anybody in any way. It just says, ‘We were able to come to terms with something.’”
Pelosi has said she is sticking around to protect Obamacare and to ensure that a woman is represented at the table. Sexism, she says, is all over government, and she still tells female recruits, “Nothing is more wholesome to our political system of government than the increased participation and leadership of women.”
More than that, she insists she’s fine taking all the attacks if it means any wins in a war she thinks many of her colleagues, for all their anti-Trump energy, still don’t know how to wage. She is doing it in conversations on the floor and in private caucus meetings, but also behind the scenes, working governors, pushing them to lean on Republican senators she can’t get to directly.
Nor is she concerned how it will look to be dealing with Trump, given that Republicans continue to attack Democratic candidates for working with her. Stivers, the NRCC campaign chair, doesn’t think the Trump deals make her any less of a potent target, and he insists there won’t be more Trump-Pelosi-Schumer deals to have to navigate around. I asked him if that’s because he has relayed to the White House that dealing with Pelosi might not be helpful to the Republican cause in 2018. “I haven’t had to,” he said. “They’ve figured it out themselves.”
In her office, Pelosi has pictures of what she calls “my three presidents.” There’s the one of her with JFK in the Oval, and another when she met him at a dinner a few years earlier in Baltimore. There’s one with George H.W. Bush and his family at a charity event a few years ago, and then one of her looking off into the distance with Obama at a bicentennial event for Abraham Lincoln.
I ask Pelosi if a photo with Trump would make the wall. She answers immediately: “Heh. No.”
But she’s also not looking to toss him out before the next election. Democrats who are hoping to take back the House and right away impeach Trump, she says, are getting it wrong. “I’m about unifying the country. If the president breaks the law, that’s another story,” she says. “In terms of the president’s behavior and his adherence to the law, that’s what we’ll have to see as he proceeds as president.” She points out that Democrats never moved to impeach George W. Bush when they had the majority during the Iraq War. As for whether she sees a case to be made against Trump, she says, “I’m not going to that place.”
What about what she has seen from Trump since she started making deals with him—the attacks on the NFL, the ranting about Puerto Rico, taunting Kim Jong Un like they were in a reality TV feud—does it make her regret working with him?
“Whatever he’s said since then is no worse than what he said before, during the campaign and the rest—about immigrants, about women,” she says. “This is about the person who is the president of the United States. If we can find common ground, then we will. Everything is its own discussion. It doesn’t anoint anybody in any way. It just says, ‘We were able to come to terms with something.’”
Pelosi is expecting a lot of somethings by the end of the year, including Trump doing what she wants—and what she thinks the situation will force him to do—on the debt ceiling, the budget and the Dreamers. Even as she slammed the president in October for pulling the federal government’s Obamacare subsidies, among other things, she is confident she can get him where she wants.
“That’s the plan,” she says. “He won the election, but we won every fight. They may have the votes, but we’ve won every fight.”
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