Trump Hits Back at Pelosi, Threatening Her Trip to See Troops
WASHINGTON — A bus emblazoned with the United States Air Force logo was idling outside the Capitol on Thursday, members of Congress on board, ready to depart for Joint Base Andrews and a waiting military aircraft. Inside, Speaker Nancy Pelosi was in her office making final preparations to lead the congressional delegation on a secret visit to American troops in Afghanistan with a stop in Brussels.
Then came word from the White House: President Trump was grounding their plane and killing the trip.
Mr. Trump’s decision to upend Ms. Pelosi’s travel plans was a remarkable bit of one-upmanship in an increasingly bitter government shutdown drama in which Mr. Trump and Ms. Pelosi, the newly elected Democratic speaker, are the main antagonists.
The day before, Ms. Pelosi had suggested that the president cancel or delay his State of the Union address this month, citing security concerns amid a prolonged partial shutdown that has forced thousands of federal employees to work without pay. Mr. Trump at first said nothing, but 24 hours later, without mentioning her request, the president released a sarcasm-tinged letter in which he told her the trip was off.
“In light of the 800,000 great American workers not receiving pay, I am sure you would agree that postponing this public relations event is totally appropriate,” Mr. Trump wrote. “I also feel that, during this period, it would be better if you were in Washington negotiating with me and joining the strong border security movement to end the shutdown.”
“Obviously,” Mr. Trump added, she still had the option of flying commercial.
The letter amounted to the latest reminder, if any was needed, that the stalemate over Mr. Trump’s demand that Democrats support his request for $5.7 billion to build a border wall has reached such a poisonous pitch that even the most tradition-bound rituals of government — the president’s annual address to a joint session of Congress, lawmakers’ periodic trips overseas to gather facts and perform oversight — have been consumed in a storm of ill will and competing agendas.
It came on the 27th day of the shutdown, a day on which there were once again no negotiations between the two sides. But there was some indication that House Democrats, increasingly concerned that they have not sufficiently countered Mr. Trump’s demands for a wall with ideas of their own, were privately weighing offering their own plan for more effectively securing the border.
The move would be something of a shift in strategy for the Democrats, who have steadfastly refused to engage in a debate with Mr. Trump about border security as long as the government remains shuttered.
“There have been concerns by some members saying we need to tell our constituents what we’re for and what it would look like in terms of border security,” said Representative Lucille Roybal-Allard, Democrat of California and the chairwoman of the appropriations subcommittee that handles homeland security. “That is probably a way to respond to that, and a way that does not violate what we are saying: open up the government and then we will talk about border security.”
Representative Peter A. DeFazio, Democrat of Oregon and the chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, who told a group of committee chairmen at a closed-door meeting on Wednesday that it was time for their party to go public with its own border security ideas, reiterated the idea in an interview.
The president, he said, “is making this about border security, but what he is proposing would not provide real border security — it’s a stupid, static wall which is a symbol, and it’s not a great symbol, and it would be ineffective.”
Among the investments that Mr. DeFazio said should be made instead are more money for Coast Guard equipment and personnel to intercept maritime drug shipments, better technology to scan vehicles legally crossing the border to detect illegal drugs, resources for costly reconfiguration of border crossings to make them more secure, and funds for additional personnel to police them.
“It’s a horrible waste of money when we have real needs,” Mr. DeFazio said of Mr. Trump’s wall, “so I just want to highlight the real needs to counter his fake proposal.”
Ms. Pelosi hinted at such a proposal in a morning news conference on Thursday, where she also said that Mr. Trump had yet to respond to her request about delaying his speech. “Very silent more than 24 hours,” the speaker told reporters.
But the lull did not last long.
Mr. Trump’s decision to revoke Ms. Pelosi’s military transport drew howls of outrage from Democrats and some Republicans, and threw into disarray a long-planned trip by the speaker and senior lawmakers — including the chairmen of the House Intelligence and Foreign Affairs Committees — to visit American allies and troops stationed overseas.
Democrats, newly in control of the House and eager to use their power to challenge Mr. Trump, vowed that they would not be bullied into scrapping the trip altogether.
“We’re not going to allow the president of the United States to tell the Congress it can’t fulfill its oversight responsibilities, it can’t ensure that our troops have what they need whether our government is open or closed,” said Representative Adam B. Schiff of California, the chairman of the intelligence panel.
“We are a coequal branch of government,” Mr. Schiff said, suggesting that the president apparently did not understand the new reality in Washington. “It may not have been that way with the past two years when he had a Republican Congress willing to roll over anytime he asked, but that is no longer the case.”
Mr. Schiff was on the bus outside the Rayburn House Office Building near the Capitol when Mr. Trump fired off his letter, along with Representative Eliot L. Engel, Democrat of New York and the chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, and several other lawmakers in what made for an unusual tableau.
Instead of heading for Joint Base Andrews and boarding a military plane, the lawmakers sat stunned on their bus, unsure of what to do next, until it eventually drove slowly to the Capitol driveway — some journalists jogging or riding electric scooters to keep up — to disgorge its perplexed passengers. At one point, the House sergeant-at-arms, the chamber’s chief law enforcement officer, turned up to puzzle over the security arrangements for the lawmakers, whose secret travel plans were now public. And the speaker, holed up in her office with aides as reporters mixed near the Rotunda with tourists oblivious to the drama, calmly plotted her next steps.
In the hallway one floor below, Representative Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, the majority leader, sputtered with anger.
“It’s petty, it’s small, it’s vindictive,” Mr. Hoyer said. “It is unbecoming of a president of the United States, but it is unfortunately a daily occurrence.”
White House officials — including Mick Mulvaney, the acting chief of staff — had been irked by Ms. Pelosi’s invocation of security concerns as her premise for urging Mr. Trump to move his speech, and sought to put her in her place after she had emphasized that she represented a coequal branch in governing, according to aides who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe internal discussions.
Depriving Ms. Pelosi of an aircraft was the easiest way to remind her, they said. So Mr. Trump made a play for dominance and one-upmanship reminiscent of his personal lawyer, Rudolph W. Giuliani, when he was mayor of New York. White House aides were tickled by the move, even as some acknowledged that Republican House members might fear for their own trips going forward.
Some of Mr. Trump’s usual allies were less amused.
“One sophomoric response does not deserve another,” Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, said in a statement.
“Speaker Pelosi’s threat to cancel the State of the Union is very irresponsible and blatantly political,” he added. “President Trump denying Speaker Pelosi military travel is also inappropriate.”
Later in the day, the Trump administration had some good news for State Department employees, announcing that despite the stalemate it was asking furloughed workers to return to work on Tuesday, citing the department’s vital national security mission.
It was the latest instance of the administration determining that an agency or department has a critical mission and its employees should return to work. But unlike in other parts of the government, the State Department employees will be paid, at least for work performed in the next pay period.
Military planes are traditionally provided to congressional delegations for foreign trips, which are typically kept secret because of security concerns, particularly when lawmakers are heading to war zones and the delegation includes high-ranking congressional leaders. The White House has known about the trip since early last week, when it was brought to its attention by the Defense Department, according to White House officials.
A spokesman for Ms. Pelosi, Drew Hammill, noted that Mr. Trump had traveled to Iraq to visit with American forces there during what he referred to as the “Trump Shutdown.” He added that the trip by the congressional delegation had a similar purpose.
“The purpose of the trip was to express appreciation and thanks to our men and women in uniform for their service and dedication, and to obtain critical national security and intelligence briefings from those on the front lines,” Mr. Hammill said.
A White House spokesman said that all coming official visits by lawmakers, known as congressional delegations or “codels,” would be canceled until the shutdown is over, and by day’s end on Thursday, officials announced that Mr. Trump had also canceled plans to send Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross to the World Economic Forum in Switzerland.
But Melania Trump, the first lady, kept her plans to fly on a military jet to West Palm Beach, Fla., to go to the family’s Mar-a-Lago compound.
As of late Thursday, multiple congressional officials could not say, citing security concerns, whether Ms. Pelosi’s trip to Afghanistan was still on.