President Donald Trump said Thursday he was denying House Speaker Nancy Pelosi a military plane for a trip to Afghanistan that was set to begin in the afternoon, a tit-for-tat retaliation that deepened the divide between the leaders and brought the government no closer to reopening.
The move, apparently in response to Pelosi’s letter a day earlier suggesting the President reschedule his State of the Union address, made for high drama but little substance in the ongoing standoff over border security.
As the partial government shutdown stretches nearly a month, the back-and-forth reflects a West Wing angling for the upper hand in a stalemate with newly powerful Democrats.
Pelosi had been scheduled to leave within the hour that Trump’s letter was made public, making for the awkward site of a large blue Air Force bus idling outside the Capitol as the implications of the President’s missive came into focus.
The administration “worked with the Air Force and (the Defense Department) and basically took away the rights to the plane from the speaker,” one White House official said.
The White House released Trump’s letter to Pelosi a day after she suggested the President postpone his planned State of the Union address, scheduled for later this month, until the government shutdown is resolved.
“Due to the Shutdown, I am sorry to inform you that your trip to Brussels, Egypt, and Afghanistan has been postponed,” Trump wrote Pelosi on Thursday. “We will reschedule this seven-day excursion when the Shutdown is over.”
Later, Pelosi’s spokesman said the stop in Brussels was mainly to allow the pilot to rest and that Egypt was not on her itinerary.
Even though Afghanistan – an active US combat zone – was one of the countries on her planned itinerary, Trump suggested she fly commercial.
“Obviously, if you would like to make your journey by flying commercial, that would certainly be your prerogative,” Trump wrote.
The President has the authority to direct the Defense Department to not use military assets to support a congressional delegation to military theaters. That includes air transport and additional security procedures.
White House officials, including acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, began discussing canceling Pelosi’s trip early Thursday morning, according to two people with knowledge of how the day unfolded. Aides felt caught off guard when Pelosi publicly released her letter calling on Trump to postpone his State of the Union address, or deliver it in writing, and felt canceling the military air travel would be an ideal response.
Trump’s penned retort amounted to his first public response to Pelosi’s Wednesday letter, in which she suggested “we work together to determine another suitable date after the government has re-opened” for the State of the Union address.
Trump and his aides – loathe to abandon a key evening of presidential messaging yet intrigued by a new opening to break tradition – have yet to strike on a path forward for the State of the Union speech. Trump’s letter to Pelosi did not address the scheduling of his address to Congress. And it did not offer any new incentives to return to negotiations on reopening closed-down agencies.
A Pelosi spokesman responded to Trump’s letter pointing out the President’s own shutdown trip to Iraq as well as one by Republican lawmakers.
“The purpose of the trip was to express appreciation & thanks to our men & women in uniform for their service & dedication, & to obtain critical national security & intelligence briefings from those on the front lines,” Pelosi spokesman Drew Hammill tweeted. He said the stop in Brussels was also to have included meetings with NATO leadership.
Democrats responded angrily to the move.
“All too often in the last two years, the President has acted like he’s in the fifth grade. And to have someone who has that kind of character running the country is an enormous problem at every level,” said Rep. Adam Schiff, the House Intelligence Committee chairman who had been due to travel with the speaker.
As the drama unfolded, even some Republicans lamented a broken state of affairs.
“One sophomoric response does not deserve another,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, a top GOP ally of the President’s, wrote in a statement.
Sen. John Cornyn, a member of Republican leadership, bemoaned “too much childishness” in the shutdown fight between Trump and Pelosi.
Just as Pelosi pointed to security officials working without pay as a reason to delay his State of the Union address, Trump said he was postponing Pelosi’s trip “in light of the 800,000 great American workers not receiving pay.”
Trump also used the letter to jab at some of the time Pelosi has spent outside of Washington during the shutdown, saying that “it would be better if you were in Washington negotiating with me and joining the Strong Border Security movement to end the Shutdown.”
Trump has expressed confusion at why his attempts to pressure Democrats for border wall funding have yielded no progress. Meanwhile, some of his advisers worry the mounting consequences for unpaid federal workers could further erode support for Trump’s cause.
The State of the Union address, initially scheduled for January 29, was viewed as a potential turning point. One White House official said the administration had begun putting together a list of potential invited guests in the first lady’s box, including some “angel families”