Nancy Pelosi tried so hard to shield Joe Biden from Donald Trump’s expected “skullduggery” on the debate stage that she enabled a bit of it elsewhere.
The top Democrat in the House said during a press briefing on Aug. 27 that the former vice president should refuse to go one-on-one with the president in the fall because, in her evaluation, Trump will likely just “belittle what the debates are supposed to be about.”
“They’re not to be about skullduggery on the part of somebody who has no respect for the office he holds,” she said from the Capitol.
But regardless of intention, Pelosi’s words sharpened a weapon the Trump campaign has already started to use against Biden: claiming, contrary to evidence, that he may try to avoid facing Trump live on stage.
With an official government transcript and video footage at their disposal, Pelosi gifted her Republican opponents days of quotable material to turn against the Democratic nominee just as the race started to tighten up. Biden was saddled with the question in television interviews that took place in the hours after her remarks, and was still repeating the same answers—that yes, he will happily debate Trump—nearly one week later.
“I’m looking forward to debating the president, and I’m going to lay out as clearly as I can what I think we have to do to bring this country back and build it back better,” Biden said to a reporter’s question following a speech in Delaware on Wednesday. “And I’m looking forward to the debate.” (The Biden campaign brushed off Pelosi’s difference of opinion saying that they agree on “her views of the president’s behavior.”)
On Sunday, the Trump campaign circulated a letter signed by the president’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani to the Commission of Presidential Debates urging that they require Biden to give “written assurance” that he will show up to wrangle. Earlier last month, they petitioned the group to bump up the planned schedule, a request they vetoed.
“Pelosi the master strategist didn’t screw up,” a senior Trump campaign official theorized. “She’s clearly laying the groundwork for Joe Biden to withdraw from the debates.”
When asked about the Trump campaign’s use of Pelosi’s stance to put pressure on Biden, the speaker’s spokesperson pointed to an interview she gave after her press conference, during which she clarified her statement was intended solely as a reflection on Trump.
“Why I said he shouldn’t debate him has nothing to do with Joe Biden. Joe Biden will be great,” Pelosi said on MSNBC’s The Beat with Ari Melber. “My concern was that the president has not shown any respect for the office that he holds, and I don’t expect that he will have any respect for the debates for that office as he has not shown any respect for giving people the right to vote without intimidation.”
To observers of Pelosi on the Hill, that explanation checked out, and most say she genuinely believes that Trump is an unworthy sparring partner for Biden. Some allies also concede that she might have been trying to safeguard him from the president’s unpredictable nature.
But in interviews, some Democrats winced at her remark and suggested that in the moment, Pelosi—considered even by her critics to be a ruthlessly strategic operator—may have followed her disdain for the president straight into a misstep.
“It’s not strategic,” said one Democratic aide, speaking on the condition of anonymity, of the crack. “She hates that motherfucker.”
In the past, Pelosi has strongly objected to the insinuation that she despises Trump, adamantly telling a reporter in December: “I don’t hate anybody. We don’t hate anybody. Not anybody in the world. Don’t accuse me.”
Despite her attempt at better public relations, it’s conventional wisdom that the two leaders have perhaps the most abysmal relationship between a president and a House speaker in recent memory. Pelosi and Trump have not directly spoken since October 2019, when she and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) walked out of a White House meeting with the president, claiming he’d had a “meltdown.”
Before the Trump-Ukraine revelations forced her hand, Pelosi suggested that Trump’s behavior didn’t merit the weighty, solemn rebuke of impeachment. “Impeachment is so divisive to the country that unless there’s something so compelling and overwhelming and bipartisan, I don’t think we should go down that path, because it divides the country,” she said in March 2019. “And he’s just not worth it.”
More than a few Democrats heard echoes of the impeachment saga in Pelosi’s misgivings about Trump’s worthiness for something so important as a presidential debate. “She thinks Biden shouldn’t even grace the stage with that guy,” said the Democratic congressional aide.
At least one member of the Democratic caucus wholeheartedly endorsed her position that Trump had not earned the right to appear in the matchup.
“Right now, you just can’t have a serious presidential debate with this guy,” Rep. Jared Huffman (D-CA) told The Daily Beast, referring to Trump. “It’d be a food fight. And he’s gonna be the one throwing all the food.”
“It would serve to legitimize this guy who, a long time ago, stopped telling the truth and just bet everything on these alternate facts, conspiracy theories, and lies that he repeats over and over everywhere he goes,” he said.
Other Hill Democrats defended Pelosi, arguing instead that she may have actually helped Biden manage expectations. Another Democratic staffer posited that it “seems possible that she wants to help the Trump campaign bungle the expectations game, just as they did before the conventions, when they led people to believe Biden would be a yammering, senile old man incapable of speaking in coherent sentences, a description which wound up applying much better to Trump’s convention appearances.”
“It wasn’t an error,” said a third former senior Democratic Hill staffer well versed in both chambers. “The only thing that’s going on here is that she has so little regard for the president that part of her doesn’t want to have Biden go through with this. He’s just going to spend his whole time going in the gutter,” the source said. “It is what it is.”
Despite Biden’s insistence that he will debate, top Trump allies made it clear they were not ready to let it go. And for good reason, Ed Rollins, the chair of the pro-Trump Great America PAC, explained. Her comments “reinforced the message that we’ve been pushing that he’s not capable of being out on the campaign trail,” he said. “I think it may have helped that premise.”
On a call with reporters on Wednesday morning, Tim Murtaugh, the Trump campaign’s communications director, noted that the recent chatter about Biden possibly forgoing the televised event did not originate from inside their campaign, but “from the speaker of the House, the highest ranking Democrat in this nation.”
The first debate, which is scheduled for Sept. 29 in Cleveland, Ohio, is expected to be a major momentum-grabbing moment for Democrats. Fox News host Chris Wallace will moderate, the debate commission announced. And some outside Democratic groups have indicated they are open to pitching in with messaging.
“We may certainly consider increasing [our] spend online as people are watching,” Guy Cecil, chairman of the Democratic super PAC Priorities USA, told The Daily Beast. “In particular online, so that we can drive our targeted universe to, for example, apply for their ballot.”
Biden, too, revealed that he has already started getting ready.
“I’ve begun to prepare by going over what the president has said, multiple lies he’s told,” he said following his address in Wilmington. “What I’d love to have is a crawler at the bottom of the screen, a fact-checker when we speak.”