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Witcover: Trump underestimated Nancy Pelosi

President Trump meets with Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) and Vice President Mike Pence in the Oval Office on Dec. 11.

President Donald Trump, who has declared the American press "the enemy of the people," invited some of them into the Oval Office last week to witness his meeting with Rep. Nancy Pelosi and Sen. Chuck Schumer, the Democratic congressional leaders. He soon had reason to regret the invitation.

The reporters dutifully wrote and said what transpired: a firm if polite rebuke by Ms. Pelosi and Mr. Schumer of Mr. Trump's demands for $5 billion for his border wall, and the president's flat acceptance of responsibility if the result is another government shutdown near year's end.

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Before that happened, prospective House Speaker Pelosi offered to save the impulsive president from himself, urging that their meeting exclude the reporters in the interest of candid discussion. "I don't think we should have a debate in front of the press on this," she said.

Ms. Pelosi and Mr. Schumer both urged Mr. Trump to avoid the shutdown. "I think the American people recognize that we must keep government open," Ms. Pelosi said, "that a shutdown is not worth anything, and that you should not have a Trump shutdown," seeming to warn him he would own it in the public's mind.

But Mr. Trump wouldn't have it. In full bravado, he openly declared his ownership for the press to report. "I am proud to shut down the government for border security," he boasted. "I will take the mantle for it. I will be the one to shut it down. Because the people of this country don't want criminals and people that have lots of problems — and drugs — pouring into this country." He even told Mr. Schumer directly, "I won't blame you for it."

Mr. Trump's bold proprietorship flies in the face of the history of such actions, going back to the 1995 year-end government shutdown by President Bill Clinton. Then, Mr. Clinton refused to accept severe budget cuts forced by then Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich. The abrupt closing of national parks and other public facilities for three weeks caused a citizen uproar, and Gingrich had to retreat.

Ms. Pelosi said after the Oval Office meeting that one reason she had preferred that the session not include the reporters was she had not wanted to have a confrontation with Mr. Trump before them “when he was putting forth figures (on immigration) that had no reality to them, no basis in fact. I didn't want to, in front of those people, say, ‘You don't know what you're talking about.’” Her reference appeared to be his erroneous claim that "tremendous amounts of (border) wall have already been built."

That did not stop Mr. Trump, however, from inferring that Ms. Pelosi's efforts to assure her second speakership amid resistance from some young House Democrats were causing her embarrassment. At one point he said he knew that "Nancy's in a situation where it's not easy for her to talk right now."

To which she shot back: "Mr. President, please don't characterize the strength that I bring to this meeting as the leader of the House Democrats, who just won a big victory" in the midterm elections, in which her party picked up a whopping 40 House seats.

All this underscored the political and strategic miscalculation of Mr. Trump's decision to throw open to the press what Ms. Pelosi and Mr. Schumer had expected would be a serious negotiation on issues dividing them, which therefore never occurred. If Mr. Trump's intent was to demonstrate to his loyal followers that he remained a stand-up guy on his prime promise to build that wall, while still insisting Mexico would pay for it somehow, it woefully backfired.

If anything, the open-to-the-press meeting probably threw more cold water on the fading House Democratic mini-revolt against the intrepid Nancy Pelosi. A prominent ally, Rep. Eric Stallwell of California, told the Washington Post of her Oval Office performance: "I think it seals the speakership; it has to. You saw in real time what the future looks like for the next two years" with the Democrats in control of the House.

For Donald Trump and the rest of the country, it's not a hopeful prospect for a return to normal governance here as long as he remains in the Oval Office.

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power" (Smithsonian Books). His email is juleswitcover@comcast.net.

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