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Why Trump and Pelosi are caught in a bitter, petty game of one-upmanship

The Trump vs. Pelosi shutdown travel fight, explained.

Donald Trump argues with Nancy Pelosi over border security in December 2018, days before the partial government shutdown began. Mark Wilson/Getty Images

A very public disinvitation, name-calling, and downgraded flights: These aren’t the petty acts of scorned celebrity rivals or family drama, but the latest revenge tactics in President Donald Trump and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s bitter game of political one-upmanship.

As the government shutdown approaches the one-month mark, the president and the Democratic leader have spent the past week engaged in a series of personal, and at times petty, acts of retaliation against each other, from throwing thinly veiled barbs to thwarting each other’s public events. Pelosi found a cheeky ploy to call off the State of the Union; then Trump sought retribution by blowing up her plans to lead a congressional delegation on a trip abroad.

All this to gain the upper hand in ongoing negotiations to reopen the federal government.

Both sides have been caught in a stalemate over how to end the partial government shutdown, which has dragged on for nearly a month, corroding the US economy. Trump has demanded more than $5 billion to fund his campaign promise of a border wall; Congress refuses to give him the cash. Negotiations on that single sticking point have devolved into shouting matches and Twitter fights.

And in the meantime, more than a quarter of federal agencies are at a standstill and 800,000 workers aren’t getting paid.

A daily tit-for-tat between Trump and Pelosi

The back-and-forth started on Wednesday when Pelosi told Trump that the annual State of the Union address — which presidents have delivered to a joint session of Congress since 1947 would have to be postponed in light of the shutdown.

Because of security concerns, Pelosi wrote in a letter to the president, he would have to wait until the government reopens before he can deliver the address; alternatively, he could choose to submit his speech in writing, she said. (That’s how presidents submitted their constitutionally mandated assessments of the country between 1800 and 1913, and several other years in the 20th century as well.)

Trump hit back the following day, saying he would have to postpone Pelosi’s planned events too. The Democratic leader had apparently planned to lead a group of lawmakers to Afghanistan to visit American troops there.

In a letter laced with sarcasm, Trump upended Pelosi’s trip on Thursday by calling off the military transport for her congressional delegation at the last minute. (Members of the trip reportedly already had their bags packed and were waiting on the bus to Fort Andrews when they received word that Trump had called off their flight.) Instead, Trump wrote, Pelosi could just fly commercial.

“I am sure you would agree that postponing this public relations event is totally appropriate,” he said. “I also feel that, during this period, it would be better if you were in Washington negotiating with me and joining the Strong Border Security movement to end the Shutdown.”

In releasing his letter to the public, Trump blew the cover on the delegation’s travel plans, which are normally kept secret to avoid security risks when traveling overseas. As third in line for the presidency, the House speaker is granted access to military transport when traveling. During her first stint as House speaker starting in 2007, Pelosi relied on Air Force jets to fly back to her home district in San Francisco. John Boehner ended the practice once he took over the speakership, and that self-imposed ban on chartered domestic flights remains in place today.

War zones, however, are a different matter. The State Department sent the delegation a memo noting that Trump’s letter “significantly increased danger” to lawmakers, the troops, and other government officials supporting the trip, according to Pelosi’s spokesperson, Drew Hammill. Now Pelosi’s trip has been postponed indefinitely.

The delegation’s postponed trip delays damage control to NATO allies

Congressional delegations frequently make trips abroad in order to get face time with troops and build relationships with key allies and leaders. The overseas interactions serve a crucial function in providing congressional oversight of the use the American military abroad and — as with Trump’s own trip to visit US troops in Iraq last month — can provide a general morale boost.

Pelosi’s delegation was set to meet with commanders and troops on the front lines in Afghanistan, and receive national security and intelligence briefings while they were there. But on the way, lawmakers had planned to stop in Brussels to give the pilot a rest and meet with NATO allies and military leaders.

The timing of the trip comes as reports surface that Trump is once again bashing the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or NATO. The 70-year military alliance among the United States, European nations, and Canada is widely credited with keeping Soviet expansionism at bay during the Cold War. But according to Julian E. Barnes and Helene Cooper of the New York Times, Trump repeatedly told senior administration officials in private that he wanted to withdraw from NATO, which would effectively cripple the alliance and hand a major victory to the Russians.

Trump has publicly complained that the alliance is too costly, calling it “obsolete” and “as bad as NAFTA” — a trade deal he recently renegotiated. And it’s no secret that Russian President Vladimir Putin has wanted to see NATO destroyed.

Trump’s national security team — namely former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and National Security Adviser John Bolton — have worked over the past two years to keep the president in line with the US’s commitment to NATO. But in light of Trump’s alleged entanglement with the Russians, and his frequent willingness to buck the intelligence and advice of his own administration officials, his disparaging comments toward NATO have folks worried.

Pelosi’s trip was in part designed to serve as damage control to offset Trump’s public and private comments. The delegation was to meet with European officials and leaders “to affirm the United States’ ironclad commitment to the NATO alliance,” according to Hammill.

Unless Pelosi and crew are able to find a way to fly commercial covertly, that may have to wait until the government reopens — whenever that may be.

There’s something of a double standard on shutdown travel

Beyond dipping into the arena of petty political squabbles to establish dominance, Trump’s actions toward Pelosi establish a double standard for Democrats and Republicans on who is allowed trips abroad in the midst of the shutdown. Trump himself went to visit troops in Iraq just days after the shutdown began on December 22, and New York Republican Rep. Lee Zeldin led a delegation to Kuwait over Christmas.

Of course, that was weeks before this shutdown became the longest one in US history. Now that the country is staring down the month-long mark, government policy is catching up. The Office of Management and Budget issued a memo on Friday announcing that until the shutdown ends, congressional delegations are banned from using any “government owned, rented, leased, or chartered aircraft” without the explicit approval of Trump’s acting chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney.

On Thursday, Trump canceled plans to send Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross to Davos, Switzerland, for the annual World Economic Forum.

But according to the New York Times, in the midst of the squabbles, first lady Melania Trump was still able to keep plans to fly a military jet to Florida to stay at the family’s Mar-a-Lago beach resort.

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