US president grounds speaker Nancy Pelosi’s Afghan trip in shutdown tit-for-tat

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US president Donald Trump on Thursday pulled the plug on Democratic speaker Nancy Pelosi’s trip to Afghanistan in apparent retaliation after she asked him earlier to postpone his upcoming state of the union address because of the ongoing partial shutdown of the federal government.

Trump conveyed his decision to the speaker, who is second in line to the presidency and one of the most powerful people in US politics, in a letter just minutes before she and other Democratic leaders on the congressional delegation were to board a bus for a nearby airbase to catch their military flight to Afghanistan, via Brussels, where they were to meet NATO alliance leaders.

“Due to the shutdown, I am sorry to inform you that your trip to Brussels, Egypt and Afghanistan has been postponed,” Trump wrote. “In light of the 800,000 great American workers not receiving pay, I am sure that you would agree that postponing this public relations event is totally appropriate,” he said.

He also derided their trip as a “seven-day excursion”. When, in fact, it was a visit to a battlefront, like the one Trump himself undertook recently to Iraq and those that lawmakers from both parties routinely go on, using military air transport.

As commander in chief Trump has the authority to cancel the trip, some people have argued. But in doing so he also made public a trip that would have remained secret until the delegation was on its way back, as is the practice with battle-zone visits for security reasons.

The president’s letter was an apparent retaliation to Pelosi’s letter to him on Wednesday in which she had suggested he either postpone his upcoming State of the Union address on January 29 because of the impact of the shutdown on the Secret Service, the lead agency for arranging security around the address, and other departments involved.

Or, she had suggested, the president could “consider delivering your State of the Union address in writing to the Congress”. She had pointed out, helpfully, there was precedence for this; in fact, that was the tradition for all of the 19th century and till the presidency of Woodrow Wilson.

Trump and the White House have not addressed Pelosi’s suggestions, but his letter postponing her trip was his way of responding in spirit, if not in letter.

Pelosi’s office shot back at the president, point for point. The Brussels stop was for “pilot rest” and to meet NATO commanders, US military leaders and allies, her spokesperson Drew Hamill said in a statement. And Egypt was not on the delegation’s itinerary.

The purpose of the delegation’s visit to Afghanistan was to “express appreciation and thanks to our men and women in uniform for their service and dedication, and to obtain critical national security and intelligence briefings from those on the front lines,” Hamill continued.

“The President traveled to Iraq during the Trump Shutdown as did a Republican CODEL (Congressional delegation such as the one Pelosi was leading to Afghanistan),” he added.

The tit-for-tat marks a new escalation in a fight triggered by the president’s demand for $5.7 billion for a wall or a barrier, as he now calls it, along the border in the south, which the Democrats, who control the House of Representative and, therefore, the government’s pursestrings, have refused.

The resulting shutdown, which is the longest in US history, is now in the 28th day, forcing many affected federal employees to dip into savings, sell household items, or seek alternative sources of income like driving Uber cabs. An estimated 800,000 federal workers have been furloughed or are working without pay.

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