What Nancy Pelosi knows about Donald Trump -- and more

Pelosi struggles with Trump trust question
Pelosi struggles with Trump trust question

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Story highlights

  • Mark Preston: Forget about great ideas -- true success in Washington can only be achieved by securing a majority of votes in the House and Senate
  • Former aides, current lobbyists, and even GOP strategists acknowledged that Nancy Pelosi is one of the best in Congress at whipping votes, Preston writes

Mark Preston is CNN's executive director of political programming and senior political analyst. He hosts "Full Stop with Mark Preston" on SiriusXM POTUS 124. His full interview with House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi can be heard Saturday at 12 p.m. ET, Sunday at 1 a.m. ET and Sunday at 5 p.m. ET. Follow him at @prestonCNN. The views expressed here are solely the author's.

(CNN)People are scratching their heads, hard-line conservatives are pulling out their hair and Republican leaders are watching from the sidelines as President Donald Trump negotiates directly with Democrats on some of the major issues facing the nation.

Mark Preston
What has gotten into Donald Trump? Has the embarrassing failure to fulfill his promise to repeal and replace Obamacare and the stinging criticism by the courts over his travel ban caused the President to rethink how he conducts business in Washington?
    Even though President Trump indicated that he is more willing now to work with Democrats, the answer is we really don't know. We are just one tweet away from the President changing his mind.
    But House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, who has witnessed five presidents come and go during her time in Congress (Donald Trump is the sixth), suggested the President may be coming to grips with the reality that he cannot govern by decree.
    "I would say that President Trump is, I think, understanding better that it isn't just what the President says, this is not a parliamentary system, that the Prime Minister says something and then his party endorses it. This is a presidential system," Pelosi said in a wide-ranging interview Tuesday that will air this weekend on SiriusXM's 'Full Stop with Mark Preston.'
    "So I think that he's learning now that he not only has to reach out across the aisle, but he has to have the vote on his own side, and that's something that is, I think, quite obvious," Pelosi said.
    Forget about great ideas. True success in Washington can only be achieved by securing a majority of votes in the House and Senate, and sometimes that means breaking bread with political enemies.
    Donald Trump did just that by welcoming Pelosi and Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer to the White House Wednesday night for Chinese food. While House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell did not make the invite list, the Trump/Pelosi/Schumer dinner may be the genesis of a compromise on DACA. Even though -- according to the Washington Post's report from Wednesday's dinner to discuss DACA -- Pelosi had to ask the interrupting mansplainers, "Do the women get to talk around here?"
    But let's not get ahead of ourselves. Nothing is ever done in Washington until it is done and Donald Trump still needs the support of the GOP leadership, which controls the congressional agenda.

    Pragmatism over partisanship

    While President Trump is bombastic in his political pronouncements, he is still an opportunist at heart and when presented with the chance to score a win, at least seven times out of 10 he will take the victory (I would've said 10 out of 10, but again, we are talking about the unpredictable Donald Trump).
    We witnessed this last week when the President, over the objections of Ryan and McConnell, agreed with Pelosi and Schumer to a temporary measure to fund the federal government and raise the nation's debt ceiling. While it was a short-term fix, the agreement lifted an incredible amount of pressure off the President, who is dealing with crises ranging from North Korea to two devastating hurricanes.
    For Donald Trump, the most pragmatic thing to do was buy some breathing room. He did just that.
    But don't misinterpret the recent cozying up to Pelosi and Schumer as a sign the President has newfound friends in Washington. By his very nature, personality and actions, President Trump doesn't have any natural allies in the nation's capital, and he never will.
    Pelosi noted that her relationship with the President "may be something different" depending on the day.
    "I respect the office he holds, I respect the people (who) voted for him," Pelosi said. "We have a responsibility always to find our common ground; if not, we have a responsibility to stand our ground. What I would hope we can arrive at is a place where there is an understanding of what is at stake and that our decisions would be evidence-based and not based on a notion."
    So much for the long, warm embrace from the House Democratic leader, who understands, perhaps better than anyone, that political alliances in Washington are often situational.

    Friend today, enemy tomorrow

    Pelosi may find compromise with Donald Trump on DACA, but as the Democratic leader said, she is more than willing to "stand her ground" against the President when she disagrees with him. And cooperation between the White House and congressional Democrats is likely to dissipate soon after the calendar page flips to 2018.
    If Democrats take back the House in 2018, the Trump administration will no longer be shielded by a Republican-controlled Congress.
    "I think that the power of subpoena is a very important power that the Democrats would then have, and that is something to take very seriously in terms of the executive branch," Pelosi said. "It would give the Democratic Party much more leverage in Congress."
    Democrats' ability to force the Trump administration to comply with congressional subpoenas is one of the things his supporters fear most. With the exception of the Russia investigation, oversight of the Trump administration has not been, let's say, robust.
    Democratic control of the House would press an already embattled White House up against the wall. Investigative inquiries would double, maybe triple -- dare I say quadruple -- consuming the time and energy of a barely functioning White House. On a personal level, it would drive President Trump crazy.

    Cracking the whip

    Likely leading that charge in 2018 would be the then-78-year-old Pelosi, who learned the rough-and-tumble world of politics from her father, a former congressman and Baltimore mayor.
    "I remember staying up late or listening from the other room when they would just get out the yellow legal pads and go over, 'This is how many votes we need, this is where we will get them and this is where we have to do more,'" recalled Pelosi of the late-night political discussions between her father and mother. "That had to add up, so you never overestimated what your vote count might be."
    Since winning election to Congress in 1987 to beating back challenges to her leadership position, much of Pelosi's success can be traced back to her ability to know the outcome before it happens.
    "I am a good vote counter, I would say that," she said.
    But it is not just Pelosi who believes this -- former aides, current lobbyists, and even GOP strategists acknowledged that the California Democrat is one of the best in Congress at whipping votes.
    And like any old-school politician, Pelosi knows her friends and her foes, particularly those in her own political party.
    These political skills helped Pelosi make history in 2007 when she was elected to be the first woman ever to serve as speaker of the House -- a position she held until 2011 when the GOP took back control of the chamber.

    Friendly fire

    Over the years there have been calls for Pelosi, as well as other Democratic leaders, to step down, move aside, make room for the next generation of House Democrats to move up.
    So far, Pelosi has successfully quashed such criticism, most recently from Rep. Seth Moulton, D-Massachusetts, and Rep. Kathleen Rice, D- New York, following a disappointing special election loss in Georgia this past summer -- and put down a challenge last fall from Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio.
    In that race, the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) told CNN 90% of the negative ads aired against Democratic candidate Jon Ossoff mentioned Pelosi.
    The Democratic leader said Republicans are targeting her because of her role in helping pass Obamacare, and at the same time the GOP is unfairly criticizing her liberal, San Francisco constituency.
    "I don't think our caucus should support that," said Pelosi.
    "The thing is that you can't let the opposition choose your leaders, you can't feed into that. Now there is personal ambition in our caucus, there's no question about that, but I feel very confident in the full support that I have in my caucus."
    Pelosi would not specifically say whether she has spoken directly to Moulton, Rice or her other Democratic critics, but did take the opportunity to cast some shade on them.
    "I discuss matters with members who are constructive on how do we go forward," she said. "I will always have a conversation with any member who wants to have a conversation. But I wouldn't elevate them to a high level in our caucus, because they really don't have much of a following."
    Still, the NRCC told CNN to expect more of the same next year: Pelosi will play a starring role in many of the opposition ads that air against Democratic candidates in the midterm elections.
    "She is a very polarizing figure," said Matt Gorman, spokesman for the NRCC. "People have very acute memories about what a Pelosi speakership means."

    Clock is ticking

    When Donald Trump cut the deal with Pelosi and Schumer last week, he bought time not only for himself but also for Congress, whose members were under pressure to reach an agreement on the 2018 budget and debt ceiling increase by September 30.
    With the new date now December 8, the clock is reset and ticking again. Failure to find a resolution on these two issues in time could result in a government shutdown and an inability for the U.S. to pay its creditors.
    At the same time, Pelosi is preparing for a political battle with Republicans over tax reform.
    The Democratic leader noted her "biggest fear," in terms of domestic issues, is if Republicans are successful in passing their tax reform legislation. And she is hoping to see the same grassroots opposition to the GOP efforts to repeal and replace Obamacare in action during the tax debate.

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    "Hopefully the American people will pay very good attention, because the American people are in charge," Pelosi said. "They saved us from the repeal of the Affordable Care Act, people speaking out."
    How grassroots Democrats mobilize or fail to do so could be an early sign about the voter intensity heading into the midterm elections. The same can be said for Republican voters, as the House GOP leadership prepares to defend the 24 seats Democrats need to take control of the chamber in 2019.