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The Big Chill: Trump, Pelosi haven't spoken in a year as grave crises grip the nation

WASHINGTON - President Donald Trump stormed into the White House meeting with congressional leadership on Oct. 16, 2019, and launched into a diatribe loosely connected to a discussion of the Syrian civil war. 

Trump said he had not invited any of the Democrats, but several were present and he quickly belittled House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., calling her a "third-grade politician."

"I wish you were a politician," Pelosi shouted back, as she retold the story later that day at the Capitol.

After more clashes about the actual policy in Syria, Pelosi stood, pointed at Trump and told him what she thought. Then the Democrats left the White House, a moment captured and released by the official Trump photographer.

"Goodbye," the president yelled, according to the notes of a Democrat present. "We'll see you at the polls."

He meant it.

That was the last time that the president and House speaker talked to each other, more than a year since the leaders of the executive and legislative branches have had direct communication. And now, in a little more than two weeks, Trump heads to the polls hobbled by his administration's handling of the deadly coronavirus, incapable of cinching another round of economic relief that his advisers have pursued with Pelosi.

There's no constitutional requirement for the president and the House speaker to act cordial toward each other, and history is littered with fractious relationships between the two posts, particularly when members from opposing parties head the two branches of the federal government.

Yet plenty of presidents have found ways to work with opposing congressional leaders in ways that signaled to the nation that politics did not always poison the well, particularly in matters of national or international crisis.

During the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, President John F. Kennedy brought Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirksen, R-Ill., into close contact as the standoff grew more serious, elevating Dirksen's stature and helping him defeat a Democratic challenger a few weeks later. In 2001, after the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, President George W. Bush worked closely with Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., on war resolutions and other anti-terrorism legislation.

And, in fall 2008, just before that presidential election, Bush brought Pelosi into the White House to craft a massive $700 billion rescue program for financial institutions.

Those moments reassured an anxious public that such grave crises could prompt leaders to set aside politics.

To be sure, in this current crisis, without Trump and Pelosi ever speaking, Congress came together and passed about $3 trillion worth of economic relief and health security funds with near bipartisan support.

Trump essentially outsourced those talks to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin. But now, with at least 218,000 U.S. lives lost and millions out of work, talks on another relief package have run ashore.

Mnuchin's hands are tied by a vast majority of Senate Republicans who do not want to spend another $1.5 trillion or more. Trump has previously held enough clout with his supporters that he could bend enough Republicans to his will, whenever he's fully engaged on an issue.

So far, a few random tweets account for the president's own effort on the issue.

In a contentious interview Tuesday, CNN news anchor Wolf Blitzer pleaded with Pelosi to reach a deal.

"When," Blitzer asked, "was the last time you spoke to the president about this?"

"I don't speak to the president," she replied.

Instead, she said, she only speaks to "his representative," usually Mnuchin and, for a couple weeks in the summer, White House chief of staff Mark Meadows.

Presidential and congressional experts are hard pressed to find any similar historic dynamic. Ross Baker, distinguished congressional scholar at Rutgers University, settled on a particularly bleak moment in the nation's history.

"How about this one: Andrew Johnson and Speaker Schuyler Colfax over reconstruction policies in the South, after the Civil War," said Baker, who has done seven stints working for congressional leaders during academic sabbaticals over the past 45 years.

Johnson, originally a Democrat who joined Abraham Lincoln's unity ticket in 1864, fought over the Republican speaker's push for voting rights for freed enslaved people, helping lead to Johnson's impeachment.

By the time of Trump's tirade last October, Pelosi had already unleashed her committee chairs to begin the process that led to Trump's impeachment last December, over his effort to pressure Ukrainian leaders to investigate his domestic political rivals, including Joe Biden.

But the White House meeting last October was unrelated to that. Trump had declared he would pull U.S. military operatives out of northern Syria, leaving the Kurdish forces, longtime allies, exposed to attacks.

By a sweeping 354-to-60 margin, the House condemned the policy decision and, after rebuffing requests for a briefing of the entire Congress, White House officials invited top leadership from the House and Senate to the Cabinet Room.

Instead, it quickly devolved into a shouting match and the Democrats decided to leave.

"It shook him up, melted him down and he behaved accordingly," Pelosi told reporters upon returning to the Capitol that day. "Does that mean we can't have future meetings? No. Just depends on the subject, I guess."

At a rally in Dallas the next day, Trump accused Pelosi of having a "meltdown" and set in stone a relationship that would never recover.

"Crazy Nancy. That crazy Nancy, she is crazy," Trump told supporters.

They have only been in the same room twice since, the first during the State of the Union address on Feb. 4. As is custom, Trump walked to the rostrum in the House chamber and handed a copy of his speech to Vice President Mike Pence and Pelosi, who stuck her hand out for a handshake. He snubbed her.

Nearly 80 minutes later, after a hyperpartisan speech by Trump, Pelosi stood up and, on camera, tore her copy of the speech into shreds.

Two days later, after the Senate acquitted Trump in its impeachment trial, Trump used the normally somber National Prayer Breakfast as an excuse to accuse Pelosi, a practicing Catholic her entire life, of faking her prayers for the presidency, among other insults.

By early March, as the virus began its spread across the nation, Pelosi and Mnuchin became the negotiating partners, talking 20 times on a single day when the relatively modest second relief package was agreed to. Did she ever talk to Trump?

"There was no need for that," she told The Washington Post on March 13.

Now, Pelosi and Mnuchin are deadlocked, despite 11 long negotiating phone calls so far in October, according to the speaker's office. Any chance for more relief funds requires Trump's engagement, but he has blamed her for blocking a deal.

But neither Trump nor Pelosi is about to pick up the phone.



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