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President escalates border battle with Democrats, cancels congressional travel

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of Calif., speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Jan. 17, 2019.
Image Credit: AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster
January 17, 2019 - 9:00 PM

WASHINGTON - Donald Trump grounded Nancy Pelosi and other congressional leaders Thursday, cancelling — and disclosing — their secret military trip overseas in an apparent fit of pique over the combative House speaker's effort to block the U.S. president's high-profile state of the union address.

In a letter to Pelosi, Trump linked the decision to cancel the trip to Brussels, Egypt and Afghanistan directly to his ongoing battle with Democrats over $5.7 billion in funding for his proposed U.S.-Mexico border wall — a standoff that has the federal government mired in the longest shutdown in American history.

"In light of the 800,000 great American workers not receiving pay, I am sure you would agree that postponing this public relations event is totally appropriate," Trump wrote in a letter released by the White House.

"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."

The letter was widely interpreted as Trump's response to Pelosi's decision earlier this week to effectively rescind her pro-forma invitation to the president to deliver the state of the union, a hotly anticipated, internationally televised highlight of the congressional season that was sure to feature plenty of shutdown-fuelled, anti-Democrat rhetoric.

And even though the trip involved travelling into a war zone, Trump insisted the Democrats would be welcome to go ahead with their itinerary — on their own dime.

"Obviously, if you would like to make your journey by flying commercial," he wrote, "that would certainly be your prerogative."

Pelosi did not immediately respond to the letter, leaving that job to her Democratic lieutenants.

The No. 2 Democrat in the House, Rep. Steny Hoyer, called the 800,000 furloughed and unpaid government workers "hostages" to the president and described Trump's actions as "petty, mean-spirited and beneath any president of the United States to take."

Pelosi, Hoyer noted, is third in line to the presidency: "Doing this small, petty act is unfortunately all too regular for this president."

Rep. Adam Schiff, the Democratic head of the intelligence committee and one of the members of Congress who was to be on the trip with Pelosi, said the group had anticipated holding defence and intelligence briefings with military commanders in Afghanistan. He said that was especially important given Trump's confusion-plagued pullout of Syria.

Meetings to reassure NATO leaders in Brussels were also planned in the wake of recent media reports suggesting Trump — well known as one of the group's most prominent detractors — has contemplated pulling the U.S. out of the military alliance entirely.

"All too often in the last two years, the president has acted like he's in the 5th grade," said Schiff.

He said the move was an "impetuous act" that even came as a surprise to the Department of Defense, which handles logistics for such visits.

"To have someone who has that kind of character running the country is an enormous problem at every level.... but regardless of what the president's motivation is for this, one thing we are adamant about is we are not going to let the president of the United States tell the Congress, 'You can't do your oversight.'"

Schiff wouldn't elaborate on whether that meant the trip would be resurrected in some form, saying only that too much about the speaker's travel plans had already been publicly disclosed.

He also demurred on the question of whether Trump's decision was a shutdown-related gambit, or retaliation for Pelosi's decision on the state of the union — a power-play move that earned the well-regarded and crafty political veteran a lot of glowing news coverage in Washington.

As if to prove the point, Trump's campaign fundraisers sought to make hay of the skirmish Thursday by soliciting donations: "Dems want to DISINVITE me from the state of the union," read one text message, attributed to the president. "We must FIGHT BACK!"

Another message, this one from "Team Trump," urged supporters to sign a petition to "ensure Dems get the message and FUND THE WALL."

Trump declined to address the conflict during a visit Thursday to the Pentagon, saying only that he's determined to ensure the U.S. has "powerful, strong border security."

At her news conference earlier in the day, Pelosi reiterated she is willing to negotiate money for border security once the government is reopened, but is drawing the line at a wall.

"I'm not for a wall," she said.

— With files from The Associated Press

News from © The Canadian Press, 2019
The Canadian Press

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