‘In a class by herself’: Pelosi has roared back in the Trump era

The finger-wagging in the Cabinet room. The sunglasses Pelosi cooly donned as she strode out of the White House. The sarcastic clapback at the State of the Union. Pelosi’s most viral moments — establishing her as an icon of the new left, more than three decades into her congressional career — nearly all come in the context of fighting back against Trump.

It’s that very struggle against Trump, culminating in his impeachment on Wednesday, that will define Part 2 of Pelosi’s career.

“We’re not focusing on ousting Trump. We’re focused on fulfilling our responsibilities under the U.S. Constitution. A lot of that is legislative, but sometimes it’s oversight,” said House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.), a close friend of the speaker.

As for Pelosi, Clyburn was adamant: “She was good the first time around. She’s been great this time.”

From the first weeks of his presidency, Pelosi has been one of Trump’s most forceful opponents. In their very first meeting, the then-House minority leader was the only person in a roomful of congressional leaders to confront Trump when he inaccurately claimed widespread voting fraud in the 2016 election.

Pelosi has also fought against Trump on his own turf, hitting back on Twitter, trolling him in made-for-TV moments, deriding him as “an insecure imposter” and even threatening to cancel his State of the Union address in the middle of an ugly government shutdown.

“[Pelosi] has always prided herself in being measured. And these few incidents where you would argue she isn’t measured but became powerful moments in establishing her in an iconic way, and showing the power that she has,” said Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.), adding that Pelosi’s most viral moments were “probably a surprise even to her.”

For most of his time in office, Trump has largely decided not to punch back. Until recently, Trump was willing to wage personal attacks against nearly every political rival, from Chuck Schumer to Adam Schiff to Joe Biden, but not Pelosi.

That unstated detente has come to an abrupt end as the House has escalated its impeachment push. Trump went after Pelosi for what he called an “unhinged meltdown,” later calling her “Nervous Nancy.” This week, Trump tweeted bizarre personal insults about the speaker’s teeth and followed up on Tuesday with a scathing six-page letter to Pelosi that accused her of lying for repeatedly saying she prays for him.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (D-Calif.) said Pelosi will be remembered more for impeaching Trump than anything else she’s done in her long political career.

“She’s tried to claim herself as the ‘master legislator,’ but now she’s going to be known as the ‘master impeacher’ because that’s all she’s been able to do. But she failed at that too,” McCarthy asserted.

Pelosi has been the public face of the Democrats’ impeachment probe, a position that she had been long reluctant to embrace until the Ukraine scandal broke open after a whistleblower accused Trump of pressuring Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate Biden, a potential 2020 competitor.

Once Pelosi decided to open the impeachment inquiry — announcing the probe at a podium flanked by American flags in her speaker’s suite in late September — she has meticulously managed the process. Everything from House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff’s (D-Calif.) opening statement at the first hearing to the order of Democrats speaking out on the floor on Wednesday has Pelosi’s imprimatur.

She’s even worked to control the mood of her caucus, with she and her top deputies instructing Democrats in a private meeting on Tuesday to refrain from any kind of celebratory cheers on the floor after the House votes to charge Trump with abuse of power and obstruction of Congress.

“Her dealing with impeachment is not a strain for her, it’s part of the job,” said Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.). “Her experience and her skill is allowing her to navigate these extraordinary crosscurrents, one of which is impeachment, but doing it in an even-handed and confident way.”

For some in the caucus’ left flank, Pelosi’s reluctance to embrace impeachment following former special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian electoral interference was a mistake. But they acknowledge that it was Pelosi’s eventual change of heart that led the House to this moment.

“Once it was clear that her leadership in guiding us through this process was going to be monumental, I think she stepped up,” said Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), adding that Pelosi needed to demonstrate “patience for everyone else to come along.”

Pelosi’s path to impeachment also drew some criticism from centrists in her caucus — most vocally from freshman Democrat Jeff Van Drew, who ultimately decided to leave the party over impeachment, though polling showed his political future as a Democrat was already at risk.

“I think her initial view is one that I was more in accord with, and I was actually proud of,” Van Drew said of Pelosi, just two days before reports surfaced that he would become a Republican after a personal plea from Trump.

For Pelosi, Trump’s impeachment isn’t what she thought her legacy would be. Obamacare, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, Wall Street reform, expanded health care for children, action on climate change, repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” increasing the minimum wage, billions of dollars in more money for veterans and medical research — Pelosi’s legislative record is long and impressive.