What Part of ‘No’ Won’t He Understand?

Nancy Patricia D’Alesandro Pelosi, age 78, married to the same man for more than 50 years, mother of five (five) children and grandmother of eight, may be the most strategically brilliant political leader since Elizabeth I (Tudor) of England.

Both women went into the family business, although Thomas “Tommy” J. D’Alesandro, Jr., a Maryland congressman and then mayor of Baltimore, was not lethal to his (one) wife, unlike Henry VIII. Pelosi herself was the last of six children and the first daughter—who had to negotiate herself out of expectations that she would honor the family by becoming a nun. An activist behind the scenes in local Democratic politics while raising her own kids, she then ran for and was elected to Congress from California in 1987 and has served ever since, posting landslide electoral victories and dropping beneath 80 percent of the vote only twice. She made history being elected the first female Speaker of the United States House of Representatives in 2007 (accepting the gavel while surrounded by invited children), serving in that post until 2011, when she became House Minority Leader. In 2018 she made history again, raising more funds for Democratic candidates to retake the House than anyone else and this January was reelected to the Speakership, the first woman ever to do that and the first former Speaker to return to the post since Sam Rayburn in 1955 (she again accepted the gavel surrounded by children). She is a self-acknowledged feminist, a serious Roman Catholic, and a pro-choice activist for women’s reproductive rights. She routinely wears four-inch-high-heeled shoes, because she likes the way they look and because she knows height adds authority to her diminutive stature. She can stand on these painful stilts for hours, smiling with a wide-eyed expression of innocence while she tactically eviscerates her adversaries.

This confuses some people.

It has now confused Donald J. Trump.

A lot.

Pelosi, to date the most powerful elected woman in U.S. history, appears to be the first person, female or male, ever to paralyze Trump with a clear, flat-out, unmistakable “No” to his face. Others, mostly women, have valiantly tried, and some have succeeded in squirming away from his sexual assaults while many could not. He never tried that with Nancy Pelosi, since he has some self-preservative reflexes; besides, he likes his victims to be in their 20s or younger. Pelosi’s “No’s” are, however, more dispiriting to Trump than any about sex. No, you may not have billions for your border wall. No, you must learn that holding the American people hostage in your fits of pique will not be successful, or you’ll do it again. No, we will stay here until you understand that we can negotiate border security only after you lift your government shutdown so Americans can get back to their lives again. No, you may not characterize me or my leadership strengths. No, you may not have a third basket of KFC chicken.

Just kidding about the KFC, although she apparently has actually expressed maternal concern about his constant inhaling of junk food.

But the rest of the above “No’s” are real. And I’ve heard that every time she emerges from a meeting at the White House, she holds forth in her office and regales staff and colleagues about what and how he said and acted. Meanwhile, like a windup toy that has hit a bump in the carpet, he keeps trying, thinking that if he just bullheadedly batters away at the real-life wall that is Nancy Pelosi, he can bash through and conquer. He has tried threats, chicanery, offers of candy, his version of manufactured charm, storming out of meetings, and proudly shutting down the United States. He gets back only chilly but well-mannered dignity—and “No.” He reportedly stalks the White House halls, collaring hapless aides and yelling, “Why can’t I get a deal?” He tried to woo freshman Democrats with a White House invitation, but eager to visit the White House as they all may have been, under “friendly advice” from their own Democratic leader, her heels clicking on the marble floors of Congress as she strode to meet them, they answered Trump with a united No. He threatens to call a national state of emergency and would eagerly do so except for advisors warning him that she would haul him into court. He’s like Bluebeard, strangling with rage in his own facial hair. With impeccable discipline, she remains soft voiced and pleasant, even when she’s been up for so many hours holding her caucus together that she looks glassy eyed.

There’s no more ante for him to up.

And then she strikes. It’s a move so deviously simple that even Republicans who denounce her as a “Latte liberal” gasped to reporters in admiration of her parliamentary skills.

This woman knows her Constitution. She knows her Roberts Rules of Order. She knows history. She knows that the Speaker of the House, second in line to the Presidency directly after the Vice President, has considerable powers. Unlike Trump, she doesn’t fabricate additional powers but deftly wields those legally available to her. She knows that, although a Presidential State of the Union Address is traditionally delivered in person in the House (a larger space than the Senate), originally the Address was sent to Congress on paper. She also knows that a State of the Union speech is the sole occasion where all three coequal branches of government are assembled in one room: the Legislative, with both Houses present; the Judiciary, with all nine Justices of the Supreme Court in attendance; and the Executive, with the President, Vice President, and Cabinet—plus the Joint Chiefs of Staff, all foreign ambassadors to the United States, honored guests, and a massive global audience on television and online.

She knows that Members of the House are permitted lifelong entry to both the House and Senate floors, and that Representatives are likewise permitted lifelong entry to both. She also knows, more importantly, that the President of the United States is not permitted to visit either chamber unless specifically invited by the leadership of that chamber.

So she disinvited Trump to her House. Politely.

She wrote him a courteous letter “suggesting” he not deliver the address in person so long as his own government shutdown was in effect. She suggested that he could lift his shutdown and then come speak or, failing that, he could deliver the speech from the Oval Office or . . . wherever. Or he could always just send it to Congress in writing. To ensure that no one could mistake this checkmate move as a mere partisan gambit, she gave her reason for this disinvitation—and it has the virtue of being a sensible, simple, real reason: the audience for this event is the single most difficult and delicate security matter of any year. Imagine protecting so many dignitaries moving through the city to a single destination, remaining there for two to four hours, then leaving in a crush to disperse across the city and indeed the world. That’s a nightmarish challenge for Capitol security, the Secret Service, the FBI, the Washington DC police force, the military, and all other attendant law enforcement—many of whom, being government employees, are on forced furlough or layoff because of Trump’s government shutdown. This problem had never occurred to Trump or his ironically named braintrusts. Touché.

Now is the moment to sit back and dwell on the sheer beauty of Pelosi’s strategy. Examine it from every angle, and appreciate how inescapable it is. Admire its judo-master elegance. Revel in its wit. Notice its evocation of nonviolence, yet recognize its quiet menace. Acknowledge its power. I’m tempted to say that this is a quintessentially female tactic of non-confrontational confrontation, but must concede that it would not be impossible for a very wise male leader to employ it.

At first, there was only silence—not a peep, not a tweet—from the White House in response to Pelosi’s letter. But we knew that if Trump had been upset before, there must now be stains from yellow hair dye and hairspray on the elaborate White House ceilings. He feeds on audience approval, and in the Capitol there would be enough Republicans to dutifully provide at least some of that; in the Oval Office there would be a couple of his aides and the camera crew. No applause. No standing in homage to him. No glad-handing and sycophantic praise on his way in or out of the chamber. Only that bucket of KFC upstairs in the private quarters waiting for him—his sole pathetic reward.

So he hit back, but with an unwittingly hilarious parry and a thrust that fell limp. He wrote to Pelosi that due to the shutdown’s personnel shortages, he would deny military transport “for the eight-day excursion” she had planned to make to Egypt, Afghanistan, and Brussels; that she must postpone her “photo op” until the shutdown was over; and that if she still wanted to go she should take commercial aircraft.

The problem with his snide proposal is its breathtaking ignorance that 1) anybody would go to Afghanistan for vacation fun or a photo op, 2) Brussels is where NATO headquarters are, 3) Pelosi would not have been traveling alone but would have been leading a bipartisan congressional delegation, 4) the delegation would have been meeting quietly with troops and commanders to assess the Afghanistan situation on the ground, and trying to repair the grave damage Trump has done to the US ‘s relationship with NATO in Brussels, 5) the delegation had never planned to go to Egypt in the first place, 6) far from being a photo op, the trip was to have been kept under wraps, and 7) publicly announcing in advance the journey of any government official to an active war zone like Afghanistan is a major violation of security.

Pelosi sent Trump a brief reply, informing him of the above facts while using a tone that oozed the calm disapproval of a nursery-school teacher chiding a tot that he must now take a “Time out” for going pee-pee in the potted ficus.

Meanwhile, Politico reported that Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Representative Mo Brooks (R-Ala.) both urged that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell invite Trump to deliver the speech in the Senate, but McConnell was suddenly in hiding and nowhere to be found, and a letter Brooks circulated has so far garnered the support of only 10 co-sponsors, all hard-core hard-right.

Trump, now wildly frustrated and befuddled, considered (what he thought were) his options. Bust into the House of Representatives anyway? Hold his own sit-in at the door? Settle for delivering the speech from the Oval? Deliver it at a hastily assembled rally somewhere safe in “Trump country” (which is shrinking by the hour)? He settled on making what was announced as “a major speech” a day or so later. It recirculated ideas he had already killed in previous versions, and added back in the “Dreamers” and DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) to his hostage list. Even Republicans expressed disappointment.

Nancy Pelosi sighed and said No. She reminded us all that his pattern—now re-proposing a watered-down version of the bipartisan agreement he had months ago vowed (live on TV!) to sign but then rejected once the Democrats fell for it—did not foster trust. Nevertheless, she added that she would consider it, but after he ended the shutdown.

So No, never try the same trick twice on Nancy Pelosi. No, it seems the shutdown wasn’t such a bright idea after all, nor has it distracted the public from the Special Counsel’s investigation and Michael Cohen’s testimony. No, sending Melania to Florida for the weekend on the same military plane he denied Congress for a combat-troop visit probably wasn’t so smart either. Nothing seems to get him his wall!. He only looks increasingly foolish, and it’s a woman making him look foolish. He’s made additional enemies among Republicans in Congress in the process, and he now is said to yell, “We’re getting crushed!” at the portraits on the White House walls.

No, Donald, no no no. You’d best surrender to a superior intelligence, end the shutdown your sadistic pride gleefully inflicted on the nation, and sign the bipartisan agreement you once swore to support but immediately betrayed. The handwriting’s on your wall, Donald, and it reads NO. Why not bury your sorrows in a bucket of KFC?