Washington (CNN)President Donald Trump keeps taking Nancy Pelosi’s bait.
The President’s wild, improvised response Thursday suggests that so far, the speaker is winning the hugely consequential clash between Washington’s top two political forces.
It’s not often that Trump, the man who dismembered the most talented Republican primary field in years in 2016, seems to be struggling for traction in a face-to-face political fight.
But Pelosi is turning Trump’s own arsenal against him, using the politics of mockery and provocation to leave him for once, off balance and forced to respond to a more nimble rival.
And Trump’s increasingly livid reactions are helping Pelosi out of a delicate political spot.
This week opened with the Beltway narrative that she was under growing pressure from a Democratic caucus impatient with her reluctance to open an impeachment inquiry against Trump.
Now, his attacks and several helpful court wins as Democrats seek Trump’s financial records are unifying her coalition and even validating her warning Trump wants impeachment to brand her party as extreme and overreaching.
The Trump versus Pelosi show is turning into an intriguing daily political game. But the consequences are hardly trivial: After the 2020 election it’s likely that only one of the rivals will be left standing.
In his second eruption against Pelosi in as many days on Thursday, Trump showed just how much she’s got under his skin.
He called the highest-ranking woman in the history of American politics “a mess” and “crazy.” In another wild rant, he questioned whether she was smart enough to read a bill — even though the speaker has proven herself a fully cogent and keen legislator.
“I have been watching her for a long period of time. She’s not the same person. She’s lost it,” Trump claimed to reporters, in an off-script diversion from a White House event to highlight new measures to help US farmers suffering from his China trade war.
Pelosi is operating off a playbook specifically designed for Trump as she hits him where it hurts most, targeting his ego, his courage, his manliness and his sensitivity over his fortune.
She wondered whether his rejection of an infrastructure deal could be chalked up to “a lack of confidence on his part.”
Pelosi went after Trump’s tough guy image, speculating that his obsession with an extremely long border wall was “like a manhood thing for him, as if manhood could ever be associated with him.” And she has mocked Trump’s inherited wealth: Federal employees can’t “just ask their father for more money,” she said, during the government shutdown earlier this year.
The President’s counter-attack came a day after he walked out of a meeting with Pelosi and other congressional Democrats, after she accused him or orchestrating a “cover up.”
Trump has now suspended all cooperation with House Democrats until they fold their multiple investigations of his campaign, presidency and financial affairs.
Aides told CNN that Trump was especially angry at the speaker’s comment that he had a “tantrum” and media perceptions that his temper ran out of control in their meeting on Wednesday.
His anger prompted him to stage a deeply bizarre and unpresidential spectacle in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, demanding testimony from aides on his own temperance.
“You were very calm,” senior Trump aide Kellyanne Conway said.
The President, again seeming infuriated that he was not being understood, argued that he had been consistent on many political questions all his life: “I’m an extremely stable genius.”
It didn’t take long for Pelosi to jab back.
“When the ‘extremely stable genius’ starts acting more presidential, I’ll be happy to work with him on infrastructure, trade and other issues,” Pelosi wrote on Twitter.
This war of insults between a speaker and a President is hardly dignified. It’s possible voters who are already disgusted with Washington will just become even more disillusioned.
One Republican senator, John Kennedy of Louisiana, on Thursday pleaded with both sides to talk it out rather than acting like “8-year-olds in the back of a mini-van fighting.”
Trump supporters, who embrace his unorthodoxy, plain speaking and combative style won’t be fazed by his antics. And Beltway confrontations are often scored differently outside DC. Trump also has a history of confounding the wisdom of political pundits.
Can there be a winner?
One source told CNN’s Gloria Borger on Thursday that the President is happy with how the latest political skirmishes are playing out, believing that he’s got “the Democrats in a box.” Trump believes the bloated Democratic presidential field and public fatigue with the Russia investigation help him — though he is frustrated about Democratic investigations into his family finances.
“His frame of mind is bold. He thinks he’s putting them right on the ropes,” the source said.
But Trump may have more at risk than Pelosi. Not every American wants to see their President ranting from behind a podium. And — as much as the GOP seeks to make her the face of the Democratic Party — Pelosi won’t be on the presidential ticket.
Trump has already come off second best in one showdown with Pelosi — in the government shutdown at the turn of the year — that showed how presidents are most exposed in such situations and often stand to take more of the blame.
A prolonged chill between the White House and the House could be bad news for both sides. Each party wants action on infrastructure, prescription drugs prices and other priorities.
But Pelosi has passed more than 250 pieces of legislation since January including some major bills, many of which are stuck in the GOP Senate. Action on climate change, health care, gun reform and ethics is not a bad payoff for liberal voters.
Trump, meanwhile, is eager to get his replacement for the NAFTA trade deal with Mexico and Canada ratified to bolster his own case that he’s a fix-it President. But he needs Pelosi’s help.
And history suggests any major economic crises sparked by the failure of talks on the budget and raising the debt ceiling, would hold more peril for the President than Democrats.
The events of the last two days saw Pelosi get off a hot seat and force Trump into the more difficult position.
With House Democrats infuriated by the administration’s policy of blanket non-cooperation with their oversight efforts, a growing minority of lawmakers has been calling for impeachment.
“The fact is, when you have a Constitution and you have a rule of law, and it’s being destroyed in a reckless gangster manner, you need to act,” Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tennessee, told CNN’s Poppy Harlow on Thursday.
White House press secretary Sarah Sanders zeroed in on such sentiment Thursday.
“Nancy Pelosi’s problem is that she’s totally lost control of her party,” Sanders told CNN’s “New Day.”
“She’s got the far left wing telling her what to do, maybe some of the moderates that actually want to get something done and she’s lost control, and at some point she has to make a decision of which direction she’s going to take.”
Sanders’ efforts were soon undercut by the President’s fireworks. His attitude has allowed Pelosi to ease the pressure — arguing that despite what may be impeachable offenses, Democrats should not play into the President’s hands.
“There’s no question, the White House is just crying out for impeachment. That’s why he flipped yesterday. … You all have a story that isn’t real. I mean, you want to believe that there’s all this unease in our caucus. That simply isn’t the truth,” Pelosi said on Thursday.
Trump was later asked directly whether he wanted to be impeached.
“I don’t think anybody wants to be impeached,” he replied, but then cited polling — that Pelosi can also read — that shows a majority of Americans oppose such a divisive step.
“I don’t think the American people are going to stand for it,” Trump said, in a hint of the broader case he would make to the public if House Democrats did open an impeachment investigation.
The fight between Pelosi and Trump remains fluid. There’s no guarantee that she will maintain her current edge. And one thing is for sure, Trump will never back down.
But it’s clear the White House needs a more effective strategy to deal with a speaker who has already exploited her power to return the White House to Democrats once before in 2008.