January 16, 2019 | Reading Time: 4 minutes

Pelosi Holds Trump’s Deepest Desire to Ransom

By cancelling the State of the Union, she forces the president back to the table.

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The big news this morning comes from Nancy Pelosi. The House Speaker sent a letter to the White House explaining why the government’s shutdown is undermining efforts to provide necessary security during the Jan. 29 State of the Union address.

The U.S. Secret Service was designated as the lead federal agency responsible for coordinating, planning, exercising, and implementing security … However, both the U.S. Secret Service and the Department of Homeland Security have not been funded for 26 days now—with critical departments hamstrung by furloughs.

If the shutdown continues, she said, Donald Trump should submit his address in writing, as was common practice for most of US history, or work with her to determine an appropriate time after the standoff is settled and the government reopened.

The headlines around this news items aren’t necessarily wrong. The speaker is indeed “asking” the president to submit a written address or postpone delivering it to a joint session of the US Congress. But look closely. You’ll see she’s not just asking.

She’s telling the president to choose.

Keep the government closed, and miss out on being the center of the country’s attention. Or reopen the government, and bask in the glory. The choice is yours, Mr. President. Which do you want more: a border wall or an adoring audience?

It’s hard to overstate how courageous and cunning this is.

More than anything, more than his political interests, perhaps more than even his ill-gotten fortune, this president desires unlimited, unsophisticated and uncritical attention. By hoarding our attention, Trump gets to feel like he’s dominating us, forcing his audience to submit and obey. The State of the Union, among other trappings of the presidency, is a chance to slake that thirst.

And here’s Pelosi holding that desire to ransom.

Her letter is more than a threat. It’s useful.

When negotiations stall, and parties fail to see incentive for returning to the bargaining table, one side (or an intermediary) must find ways of breaking the deadlock if progress is to be made. This problem is compounded when one party (Trump) is just terrible at negotiating and when one party (ibid.) preemptively backs himself into a corner so the only way out is the other side conceding. Pelosi, in threatening to take away his TV time, is giving the president a reason to return.

This isn’t her only card. The longer this shutdown grinds on, the more we are going to feel its effect on the national economy. That’s something this president appears to believe is important to his base. The Times reported this morning that, “The White House doubled its estimate of the shutdown’s drag on growth, and other economists warned that a long stalemate could push the economy into a contraction.”

Aside from virtually every poll showing blame for the shutdown going to Trump, Pelosi can boast total unity among the Democrats. Trump tried to entice moderates, people like Connecticut’s Jim Himes, to a luncheon yesterday. His goal was revealing dissent on the other side. It failed. Not one Democrat joined the president. Not even West Virginia’s Joe Manchin, who can otherwise be trusted to take the bait.

Meanwhile, vulnerable Republicans are starting to freak. 2018 was a bad year for Senate Democrats, but 2020 promises to be much worse for their counterparts while Trump is president. Cory Gardner of Colorado was early to calling for the president to cave. Now comes Georgia’s Johnny Isakson. Expect this pattern to repeat itself among Republican incumbents in states where Democrats are gaining ground.

If Trump were less a TV president, and more of a powerful executive of the world’s largest employer, it’s hard to imagine any House Speaker behaving as brazenly as Pelosi is. If there is any doubt about how weak this president is, consider Steny Hoyer. Pelosi’s first lieutenant went on CNN this morning. He was asked:

CNN: “The letter sounds like she’s asking, but isn’t she just telling him?”

Hoyer: “The speaker is the one who invites the president…”

CNN: “So, the State of the Union is off?”

Hoyer: “The State of the Union is off.”

Let that sink in for a minute.

To be sure, any president can deliver any address any time he wants to. Pelosi can’t stop Trump from going on TV. (His de facto advisers are Fox News hosts.) But she can deprive him of being the center of a marquee moment in American political culture, and in the process do what Donald Trump most desires: To humiliate the enemy.

—John Stoehr

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John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.

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