It was a seemingly off-the-cuff bit of concern trolling that few in Washington could pull off other than Speaker Nancy Pelosi. On Tuesday, in her best Italian grandmotherly tone, Pelosi expressed concern at President Trump’s use of the unproven COVID-19 remedy hydroxychloroquine because of possible side effects stemming from the president’s health condition.
Specifically, his weight. “As far as the president is concerned, he’s our president and I would rather he not be taking something that has not been approved by the scientists, especially in his age group and in his, shall we say, weight group, morbidly obese, they say,” Pelosi told CNN’s Anderson Cooper. “So, I think it's not a good idea.”
The quip spun up a brief furor and outrage cycle; Trump responded that Pelosi was “sick” and had “mental problems,” comments which then spun up an outrage cycle of their own. Two days later, Pelosi defended herself, saying “I was being factual in a very sympathetic way” and called the whole dust-up “unimportant.”
But to those who’ve known and watched Pelosi for a long time, there’s a sense that there’s very little that she does or says that is not deliberate. With that in mind, some in the House Democratic caucus are looking at this week’s spat between Pelosi and the president as evidence of a greater willingness on her part to push his buttons with the kind of personal attacks that he frequently doles out himself.
“It’s her ability to say the truth in a way that really gets under his skin, I think it’s just reminding people there’s a lot more to this story than what he says,” said one former Pelosi aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “In this situation with COVID-19 and truly needing the facts and that’s a way of actually breaking through the clutter.”
The aide added, “In this environment you use everything that you have.”
That strategy may rub some Democrats the wrong way, but others are welcoming the sight of their leader taking the gloves off more often, not to be petty—though they enjoy seeing Trump get it as much as he gives it—but as a show of strength.
“There is a benefit in owning him like this from time to time,” said a House Democratic aide. “She engages in these fights and it says, I am not going to be pushed around, I am powerful and my power is not dependent on you.”
While the Speaker has always been able to get a rise out of Trump, and vice versa, her apparent strategy in dealing with him for much of the last year was to conspicuously turn the other cheek. During Trump’s impeachment, the speaker, a lifelong Catholic, said so frequently she was praying for the president that it became grist for a Saturday Night Live sketch. In January, Pelosi said she doesn’t like to “spend too much time on his crazy tweets because everything he says is a projection.”
But this year, the tension between the two leaders broke into the open in a way it hadn’t before. Before the fat crack, of course, was the infamous State of the Union snub—Trump rejecting Pelosi’s outstretched hand—which led to the infamous State of the Union slash—Pelosi ripping up Trump’s speech—which sparked a multi-day cycle of sniping and opining.
The coronavirus pandemic has hardly drawn the two any closer. Though Congress and the White House have spent weeks on painstaking negotiations over historic bills to respond to COVID-19, Pelosi and Trump didn’t directly speak during any of it. In fact, the two have not spoken on the phone or in person since Oct. 16, 2019, when Pelosi went to a White House meeting on Syria, according to the speaker’s office.
While few in the Democratic caucus are hoping for Pelosi and Trump to bury the hatchet—or think that such a thing is realistic—some lawmakers suggest that embracing Trump-style button-pushing will be counterproductive for Democrats.
“While some encourage extinguishing fire with fire, I’ve always found water works best,” said Rep. Dean Phillips (D-MN) when asked about Pelosi’s comments about Trump. “In the words of a great Republican, Teddy Roosevelt, ‘the most practical kind of politics is the politics of decency’—and that’s the spirit for which we all should be advocating.”
And amid the pandemic, many lawmakers have found it easy to ignore the Pelosi-Trump fracas, said another House Democratic aide. “I think they’d very much prefer leadership of both parties to focus on the problems at hand and visibly negotiate with each other than lob insults,” said the aide.
Like he does with all political adversaries, Trump has of course delighted in insulting Pelosi, who along with Democratic Senate leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) have been the president's most reliable foils during his presidency. The president has frequently called her “crazy” and has mocked her appearance—in December, for example, he claimed her teeth were “falling out of her mouth.” And their last direct conversation, in October, fell apart amid a personal insult: Schumer said that during that meeting in the White House, Trump called Pelosi a “third-rate” politician.
Naturally, however, Trump’s defenders in the congressional GOP have taken umbrage on behalf of the president in the wake of Pelosi’s attack. The House GOP leader, Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) tweeted that if he is speaker, he would never “rip up a president’s speech” or call them “morbidly obese.”
It all reflects, to some Democrats, Pelosi’s unique ability to get under the president’s skin—and perhaps a sign she should do it more often. “It reminds people he is small,” said a House Democratic aide. “Trump clearly fears and respects her, whereas he loathes Schumer, who is usually good cop when it’s time for wheeling and dealing.”
—Additional reporting by Jackie Kucinich