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Chasing Nancy Pelosi’s bus to nowhere

A U.S. Air Force bus parks on the Capitol Plaza after being called back following President Donald Trump’s decision to scrap Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi’s foreign travel. | J. Scott Applewhite/AP

Congress

Top House lawmakers learned of Trump’s sudden verdict to ground their military jet to Afghanistan while sitting in a tinted bus on the Capitol grounds, surrounded by a horde of journalists.

Some lawmakers had already boarded the large blue bus, emblazoned with the U.S. Air Force logo and the words “Integrity, Service, Excellence,” when President Donald Trump put a swift end to it all.

Parked outside the Rayburn House Office Building on Thursday, they were prepared to slip out of town quietly on a military jet for a secret trip to visit troops in a Middle East war zone.

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It soon became a bus to nowhere.

Day 27 of the nation’s longest government shutdown had some of the House’s most powerful leaders — their party back in control for the first time in eight years — sitting on a tinted bus surrounded by a cloud of confusion. The standoff between the nation’s two most powerful politicians had just sunk even lower with a dramatic act by a defiant president.

The congressional delegation, or CODEL as it’s known, was supposed to be led by Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who on Wednesday requested the president postpone his State of the Union address amid the ongoing partial government shutdown. A group of seven lawmakers, along with top staffers, was headed to Brussels to meet with NATO commanders and then to Afghanistan to visit U.S. military leaders and troops.

Pelosi’s office did give details about the trip publicly in order to protect her and other lawmakers’ safety. CODELs traditionally are announced shortly after the lawmakers arrive overseas.

House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) spilled some of the beans to reporters earlier in the day, criticizing the speaker for taking a trip to Brussels while the government remains partially shuttered with 800,000 federal workers either furloughed or working without pay.

For more than 24 hours, Trump had maintained unusual discipline in not responding to Pelosi’s move to reschedule or cancel his formal State of the Union address in the House chamber.

The president’s strike back landed in reporters’ inboxes just after 2 p.m., postponing the trip less than an hour before lawmakers were scheduled to leave the Capitol. “Obviously, if you would like to make your journey by flying commercial, that would certainly be your prerogative,” said the president, who visited troops in a different war zone — Iraq — just a few days after the shutdown began in December.

Pelosi’s office learned from reporters about the president’s letter to her.

At the time, the delegation’s mode of transportation to Joint Base Andrews — the Air Force bus — was parked outside the Rayburn building on the south side of Capitol.

Donald Trump

It eventually made its way to the east front of the Capitol building, where reporters chased after it and, after it parked, tried to identify the lawmakers on board through the tinted windows.

At least three dozen journalists were accompanying the bus as it made its journey around the Capitol complex, while Capitol Police officers kept them at bay and instructed anxious gawkers to stay behind the group of reporters.

Wide-eyed tourists were taking photos of the bus on their smartphones, suspecting someone important was on board. One reporter grabbed a shared electric scooter and rode toward the bus, leaving everyone else in the dust.

Soon, officers escorted bomb-sniffing dogs around the press, a common security practice on Capitol Hill when television equipment is being used.

The crowd began to dwindle as two large buses carrying Republican senators from their retreat arrived on the Senate side, spurring reporters to sprint in the opposite direction to speak with them.

Still, the CODEL’s lawmakers and their staffers were not getting off the bus.

“This is ridiculous,” one reporter said. “What are we even doing?”

The stunned officials were trying to understand whether their trip really was canceled. Phone calls and messages were flying between those on the bus and officials inside the Capitol, according to aides.

Suddenly, the bus started rolling to the Senate side of the Capitol. It left the Capitol complex and drove slowly in front of the Supreme Court.

Nancy Pelosi

Less than five minutes later, the bus was in front of the House chamber again, stunning the jacket-less reporters, photographers and camera operators who were almost sweating in 35-degree weather chasing after the bus. The lawmakers eventually got off the bus but wouldn’t comment extensively on the situation.

Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee and a perennial Trump critic, was among the lawmakers on the bus. He was joined by Democratic Reps. Eliot Engel of New York, Mark Takano of California, Elaine Luria of Virginia, Susan Davis of California and Stephen Lynch of Massachusetts.

“This is obviously an action directed at the speaker,” Schiff told reporters after exiting the bus. “And we think, as far as we can tell, this has never happened in the annals of congressional history.”

As he slipped into Pelosi’s office, the bus remained parked outside the House chamber, leaving reporters wondering: Could the trip be back on?

That prospect was soon dashed. The bus rolled away just after 5 p.m., as did any hope that a fruitful behind-the-scenes negotiation with the White House would emerge.

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