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Why Trump has spared Pelosi from his personal vitriol — so far

For now, sources familiar with the thinking of President Donald Trump and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi say there’s a willingness on both their parts to try to get something done. | Evan Vucci/AP Photo

Government Shutdown

The president genuinely respects the incoming speaker, and needs her if he’s going to get anything done in the next two years. But the government shutdown is about to test his restraint.

When President Donald Trump took to Twitter last weekend to blame Democrats for the government shutdown, he notably bypassed his party’s favorite foil: Nancy Pelosi.

And when Fox News teed up a chance for the president to unload on Pelosi in a New Year’s Eve interview, noting that the Democratic leader was vacationing in Hawaii during the shutdown while Trump stayed in Washington, he didn’t take the bait.

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His decision so far not to go after Pelosi personally, even as his top aides have blamed her for the shutdown, hasn’t gone unnoticed in the Capitol. Pelosi’s allies have viewed Trump’s restraint toward the incoming speaker as a sign that he’s looking beyond the shutdown in the hopes of notching some bipartisan wins this year — on infrastructure, perhaps, or prescription drug pricing.

Of course, Trump’s tone toward Pelosi could change on a dime given his penchant for pummeling adversaries and the likelihood Pelosi will refuse his demand for billions in border wall funding. But the relative peace between the chief lightning rods of their respective parties, at least to this point, is pretty remarkable.

Trump’s allies told POLITICO his tack represents not some grand negotiating strategy but a sign of genuine regard for her.

“I think the president respects Nancy Pelosi and understands that she represents voters that would never vote for him but also that if she’s serious about getting things done, he’s willing to really negotiate in good faith with her,” said Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), a Trump confidant on Capitol Hill. The president, he added, views her as a “worthy adversary.”

Added Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.), “His base is not enough to get him reelected. The American people want to see him get something done. And he needs Nancy Pelosi to get things done.”

Bipartisan victories could boost both leaders. Pelosi could show the nation that Democrats are about more than opposing the White House. Trump could check off unfulfilled campaign promises as he pivots toward reelection.

But to maintain any kind of working relationship, Trump and Pelosi will have to defy the entire political gravity of their parties when the new Congress gets underway this week. The government funding crisis might be their easiest challenge — special counsel Robert Mueller is bearing down on the president, and the Democratic base is salivating at the prospect of impeachment. Trump’s hard-line defenders in Congress are itching to return fire, and to pull the president further to the right. Add the 2020 election into the mix, and it’s not exactly a recipe for bipartisan kinship.

For now, though, sources familiar with Trump and Pelosi’s thinking say there’s a willingness on both their parts to try to get something done.

Trump set the tone of the relationship during a phone call after his election in 2016, when he praised Pelosi for her “terrific” leadership skills. Up to that point, the two had had few dealings, with the exception of Pelosi trekking to Trump Tower in the early 2000s in search of campaign money for Democrats. (Trump, a Democrat at the time, obliged.)

“You’re somebody that gets things done, better than anybody,” Trump told her in the post-election call, according to a transcript. “I think we’ll get things done,” he added, reminding her, “I was a supporter of yours,” referring to his past campaign donations.

Since then, Trump has refrained from tagging Pelosi with one of his derogatory nicknames, as he has with “Cryin’” Chuck Schumer, “low IQ” Maxine Waters, and “Pocahontas” Elizabeth Warren. Even as House Republicans ran hundreds of campaign ads during the 2018 election cycle decrying Pelosi for her “San Francisco values,” Trump didn’t join the pile-on.

Trump’s bipartisan overture to Pelosi never bore fruit during his first two years in office. Republicans got him to walk away from a tentative immigration deal he struck with Pelosi and Schumer during a now-infamous September 2017 White House meeting over Chinese food. And despite Democratic attempts to engage him on health care and infrastructure, Trump fell in line with his party’s more partisan legislative agenda.

Donald Trump

The one time Trump did side with Pelosi in 2017 — blessing a Democratic request to extend government funding and the debt ceiling temporarily over GOP objections — he complimented the minority leader on her negotiating skills.

Despite the dearth of bipartisan accomplishments the past two years, Trump and Pelosi have maintained a cordial relationship, according to both sides. During the September 2017 meeting, when Pelosi complained about the male attendees frequently interrupting her — the only woman in the room — Trump said, “You go ahead,” silencing the room to let her speak, one attendee recounted.

Trump also phoned Pelosi to congratulate her on her party’s election night victory last November. He’d watched her speak at a victory party, where she expressed a willingness to work with the president. Trump said he agreed, according to people familiar with their conversation, and insisted they start working on infrastructure.

Sources close to Trump say the president has been impressed by Pelosi’s ability to corral her caucus. Her recent success snuffing out a rebellion within her ranks caught his attention.

“I think the president admires people he views as strong, and he does view her as strong,” said Marc Short, Trump’s former legislative affairs director. “She’s not only the first woman speaker but she hung around and fought to get back to that place. She’s a historic figure, you can’t deny that.”

Though she, too, has avoided public name-calling, it’s clear Pelosi doesn’t feel the same admiration for Trump. After a recent meeting at the White House, Pelosi returned to the Hill and questioned his manhood before a room full of House Democrats. She likened negotiating with him to getting sprayed by a skunk, and expressed exasperation that he is even president.

Pelosi’s allies say she doesn’t trust him, pointing to a tentative immigration compromise they reached in 2017 that she believes Trump backed out of. She’s noticed how he’s blamed Republican congressional leaders when his base decries spending bills, and upended their legislative plans with surprise tweets.

“Speaker Pelosi has a history of bipartisan accomplishments. … But the test for this president is figuring where he stands on issues from one day to the next,” said Nadeam Elshami, Pelosi’s former chief of staff.

Donald Trump

Pelosi is also uncomfortable with Trump’s handling of facts — a big obstacle, in her mind, to cutting deals with him — and has occasionally called him out. During their first meeting after his inauguration, when Trump opened the gathering by bragging that he’d won more votes than Hillary Clinton, Pelosi was the only person in the room to correct him, noting that his statement was false and he’d lost the popular vote.

Since then, Pelosi has tried to correct Trump privately, her allies say. She doesn’t like fighting in public, they added, and it was one of the main reasons she tried, in vain, to end the sparring match over border wall funding that unfolded on TV live from the West Wing last month.

Sources close to Pelosi say she’s willing to work with Trump despite her party’s total rejection of him. Her confidants note that when Pelosi first became speaker in 2007, some Democrats were calling for the impeachment of President George W. Bush over the invasion in Iraq. Pelosi ignored them and went on to strike major deals with Bush, including a bank bailout and stimulus package in response to the 2008 financial meltdown.

“They became friends,” said Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), a Pelosi confidant. For the incoming speaker, “It’s always about: Can you get things done? There are always going to be different points of view. How do we overcome them to get to a conclusion?”

Pelosi allies say as long as Trump is willing to compromise on Democratic priorities, she’ll work with him, too. But with the shutdown dragging into Pelosi’s takeover on Jan. 3, there’s a serious question about whether the two can make any headway.

On New Year’s Day, Trump and Pelosi exchanged words on Twitter over the shutdown — relatively mild ones, especially by Trump’s standards — in a sign of the tense days and weeks ahead.

“I think the president respects her and wants to work with her … Their personalities would lend themselves to strike deals,” Short said. “But I don’t know if Democrats will allow it. … She’s going to have so many members who will object to any transaction or communication with the president, that it puts her in a tight spot.”

It’s just as unclear whether Trump is willing to risk the wrath of his base by compromising with Pelosi. Just as he did on immigration, promising a “bill of love” to protect Dreamers from deportation, Trump privately told Pelosi after their contentious televised negotiation session that he wants to make a deal with her. Even after news that she’d questioned his masculinity went viral, he called her that afternoon to reiterate: We can work together to avert a shutdown.

But that was more than three weeks ago. The two haven’t spoken since.

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