WASHINGTON — House Speaker Nancy Pelosi privately told Democrats on Wednesday that President Donald Trump’s State of the Union address was a “pack of lies” and she felt “very liberated” ripping up the pages of his speech on national television.
The California Democrat, in a dramatic gesture after Trump finished speaking Tuesday evening, shredded a copy of his words while standing on the dais behind him. On Wednesday morning, a visibly irritated Pelosi told her colleagues in a closed-door meeting that she was looking for “one page I could spare that didn’t have a lie on it” and couldn’t find it — and she had no regrets about what she did.
“He disrespected the chamber he was in … to use it as a backdrop for a reality show … to give a speech that had no connection with reality,” she said. “It was a pack of lies … About a quarter through it I thought, ‘You know — he’s selling a bill of goods like a snake oil salesman.’ We cannot let this — we cannot let this stand.’ “
Multiple Democratic officials in the room described her comments, speaking on condition of anonymity to talk frankly.
Pelosi’s clear frustration comes as Trump has experienced perhaps one of the best weeks of his presidency. He is the third president to be impeached and has been the subject of six months of intense scrutiny for pressuring Ukraine to help him politically, yet his approval ratings have risen to 49 percent in the latest Gallup Poll, his highest ever.
The Republican-led Senate is poised to acquit him on two charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress. Meanwhile, Democrats were still scrambling after the chaotic Iowa caucuses Monday night, in which the party has been unable to declare a winner due to vote counting woes. The inconclusive outcome leaves Democrats with a jumbled mix of candidates and no clear front-runner to take on Trump in November.
Trump turned his prime-time speech into something of a reality show. He gave out a scholarship to a young black student, he reunited an Afghanistan-based military sergeant with his wife and two small children, and he awarded conservative commentator Rush Limbaugh with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Trump also used his address to take credit for the nation’s economic success, criticize Democrats on immigration policies and claim that he will protect Americans with preexisting health conditions — a vow at direct odds with his effort to gut the Affordable Care Act, which includes the guarantee that patients can’t be denied that coverage.
The performance irritated Democrats, who have worked for more than a year to try to hold Trump accountable only to see his numbers rise in recent weeks. But Pelosi and her caucus were even more upset because Trump claimed some of their policies as his own, even though his administration has pursued the opposite.
Pelosi complained to her colleagues, telling them “we saw the president of the United States shred the truth right in front of us.” In fact, she reminded them, Trump is in court right now trying to end Obamacare, “he’s taking away disability benefits from people on Social Security,” and he’s “dismantling Medicaid.”
“She, like all of us here, are genuinely horrified by the pack of lies that he unveiled last night,” Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., said of Pelosi’s anger. “I mean, he says he wants to protect people with preexisting conditions. He’s been spending three years trying to take those protections away … Look, we need to remind people what his record is, and the fact that he just is a pathological liar.”
Indeed, Pelosi’s fury resonated with her members, who gave her a standing ovation. Rep. Lois Frankel, D-Fla., argued that the State of the Union was no venue for a “political campaign” and that the Limbaugh award was “nutty.”
“I don’t think it was a planned moment,” Rep. Andy Levin, D-Mich., said of Pelosi ripping up the pages, “but her instinct for where the caucus is at is unerring. It did capture the way people are feeling.”
The rising tensions between Pelosi and Trump come as House Democrats find themselves at a crossroads: Do they continue investigating a president they believe is trampling the Constitution, despite voter fatigue on probes and impeachment? Or do they slow their investigations and try to refocus their energy on policy issues that resonate with voters nine months before the election.
Democrats often say they can do both — but they’re also dogged by a reality that any Trump investigations overshadow everything else on Capitol Hill.
Pelosi’s leadership team has signaled a desire to focus on policy. House Democratic Caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., and Rep. Katherine Clark, D-Mass., used a weekly news conference to discuss a host of legislative proposals that have been stalled in the GOP-controlled Senate.
And yet impeachment investigators also say they have a duty to keep digging on Trump, probing his financial interests, allegations that he used his office for self-enrichment and that he obstructed justice.
As he left the caucus meeting Wednesday morning, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., said Democrats would likely subpoena former national security adviser John Bolton, who details in a forthcoming book that Trump told him he was leveraging military aid to Ukraine on investigations of his political rivals, the allegation at the heart of the House impeachment charges.
Other Democrats, however, have cautioned that no decision has been made.
Nadler argued to reporters that Democrats needed to continue investigating the Ukraine matter and the broader probe into the 2016 campaign despite the pending Senate acquittal.
“I think when you have a lawless president, you have to bring that to the fore, you have to spotlight that,” Nadler said. “You have to protect the Constitution, whatever the political consequences.”
Between investigating and legislating, Democrats appear genuinely torn. The Democratic split screen was on full display within 30 seconds of one another in a news conference Pelosi’s lieutenants held after the morning caucus.
“As far as I’m concerned, the shredder wasn’t available and so she did what she needed to do,” Jeffries said of her ripping apart Trump’s speech. A few breaths later he pledged to keep working with the president.
“We are going to work with President Donald Trump whenever and wherever we can on behalf of the American people, but disagree when we must,” he said, suggesting the president’s values would “decimate the middle class.”
Rep. Richard Neal, D-Mass., chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, is slated to continue negotiations with administration officials on financing a massive infrastructure bill later this week, but said Tuesday’s speech roiled those waters.
“I think that the State of the Union also ought to be a call to purpose, and last night I think that there were very few specifics, and in fact I thought that he walked back his commitment to infrastructure last night,” he told reporters.
Could he keep working with Trump on infrastructure? “I don’t know,” Neal said. “It’ll be difficult, that’s for sure.”