Who Blinked

At the denouement of the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, President John F. Kennedy and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev confronted each other “eyeball to eyeball,” as Secretary of State Dean Rusk whispered during a crucial meeting. When, facing Kennedy’s unwavering determination to maintain a blockade of Cuban, the bellicose Russian “blinked,” in Rusk’s analysis, and the great powers backed away from the most perilous confrontation of the Cold War.

Unlike the Kennedy-Khrushchev clash, the stand-off between the pugnacious President and the new Speaker of the House does not involve the threat of using nuclear weapons, but its historical significance may similarly define the relationship between two powerful political leaders. 

Political observers have closely watched the confrontation between Donald Trump and Nancy Pelosi since she regained the Speaker’s gavel on January 3rd. It is likely that never before in his life, professional or personal, has Trump encountered anyone (let alone any woman) like Pelosi. The Speaker not only possesses equal Constitutional authority as the leader of the legislative branch of government, but a determined will to demonstrate to the occupant of the White House – any White House – that neither she nor the institution that she leads will countenance submission to an imperial presidency.

Trump got his first taste of Pelosi’s resolute style last December 11thwhen he attempted to undermine her demands that she submit to his only real policy goal: $5.7 billion to build what some are calling a 4thcentury solution to a 21stcentury problem. Pelosi, he asserted, was unable to make concessions because she was negotiating the votes to win the speakership. But Pelosi was having none of that false consolation. “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,” she publically reprimanded the President.

The Trump-Pelosi second “eyeball-to-eyeball” confrontation seems likely to end with a similar Pelosi triumph. In a bold move, Pelosi took the unprecedented step of urging the President to delay the scheduled State of the Union address, which she had, according to longstanding tradition, invited him to give in the House chamber. Pelosi cited both security concerns and the ongoing government shutdown triggered by Trump’s demand for the border wall.

Not used to being disinvited, Trump persisted, essentially declaring that he would show up on January 29th, but again, Pelosi was having none of it. The House was her venue, not the president’s, and only she would determine when he would address the Congress. (The Constitution, of course, only requires that the president “inform” the Congress “from time to time” about the State of the Union. The Founders made no promise of speaking to a Joint Session, in the House chamber, before television cameras.) While some portrayed Pelosi’s position as petulant, one can only imagine the reaction had the Speaker appeared at the front door at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and demanded access to the Oval Office.

But now, Trump has backed down, abandoning his insistence that he be allowed to speak as originally invited as well as his threats to deliver the speech in an alternate setting, perhaps a half-filled airport hanger somewhere in Ohio. Presumably, someone in the White House was able to explain to the President that the entire point of the State of the Union is the majesty (a term that has appeal to a President who gold-plates bathroom fixtures) of the setting: the assembled Congress, the Joint Chiefs, the Cabinet and diplomatic corps. No airplane hanger can compete.

His retreat on the State of the Union may well signal an upcoming retreat on the demand for a border wall.  Against an unmovable Speaker, a president is not quite so imperial as he would like. Rumors of billions of dollars for strengthened border security (but no physical wall) combined with opening the government are circulating; there remains the possibility of addressing the DACA and Dreamer issues as part of a compromise package. Both economic growth and the President’s approval rating have plummeted since he began his confrontation with Pelosi. Reports are swirling of Republicans feeling the pressure from unpaid federal employees, federal contractors, and strained businesses in their districts, and it is that pressure, not bloviating from the President, that will move votes in Congress. 

After the Oval Office confrontation with Pelosi, Trump told reporters that“I actually like [it if] we have to close down the country over border security. I think I win that every time.” He might want to think again. He just blinked.