Nancy Pelosi: The Rolling Stone Interview
The Speaker of the House on outsmarting Republicans, skepticism of the Green New Deal and not having any regrets
It was a bone-cold January day in the nation’s capital. The federal government — finally back in business after the longest shutdown in American history — opened three hours late due to a dusting of snow and a “flash freeze” in the forecast. Not that it mattered to anyone who worked inside the speaker’s office. Nancy Pelosi was there at her usual time, and her aides were expected to be there too. There was work to do: committees to finish assigning, a postponed State of the Union to organize, and less than three weeks to hammer out a deal with the White House on border security before funding was set to run out again.
Pelosi is at the height of her power, having recaptured the House, dispatched an attempted coup of her leadership, and faced down the president in a very public, extremely high-stakes fight. Her approval rating has risen eight points since November, and now sits higher than it has been in more than a decade.
Nancy Pelosi has waited a long time for this. Born 78 years ago, she was the youngest of Baltimore Mayor Thomas D’Alesandro Jr.’s seven children, and the only girl. While her elder brother was groomed to follow in their father’s footsteps, Pelosi got married, moved to San Francisco, and raised five children before she seriously considered a run for office. When she arrived in Congress, after winning a special election in 1987, women made up just five percent of the House of Representatives. Pelosi served for two decades before she was elected the first female speaker of the House, in 2007, the highest-ranking woman in the U.S. government, and second in line to the presidency.
She welcomed Rolling Stone staff writer Tessa Stuart and the magazine’s founder, Jann S. Wenner, into the speaker’s office, where there are frescoes on the ceiling, oil paintings of the San Francisco Bay and the California coastline, and an expansive view of the Washington Monument. She wore a long, thin gold pin, with a tiny eagle perched on top. It was a mace: the ancient Roman symbol of power. Technically, it’s a bludgeon — the person who wields the bludgeon holds the power. After retreating from a 35-day standoff with her over funding for his border wall, President Trump seemed well aware who wielded the bludgeon in their relationship, at least for the moment. Wenner had come to the interview with a gift: a box of fancy chocolates. (Pelosi is well-known for her love of chocolate.)
Nancy Pelosi: Oh, my goodness. Maison du Chocolat. This is the real thing. Thank you so much. Should we start?
Rolling Stone: Yeah, let’s start, because you’re busy.
No, I meant start with the chocolate.
Of course. Life has changed. Rolling Stone interviews used to start with pot. . . . Now it’s chocolate.
Isn’t that true.
So what do you think your chief purpose is now, in this era of divided government?
The wisdom of our founders was that we would have co-equal branches of government. I think in a large sense, my responsibility now — and it seems to be having an impact — is to impress upon the other branches of government, the executive and the judiciary, the role of the legislative branch. That means to not only pass laws — the Constitution gives us the power of the purse, it gives us the responsibility for oversight, and we will exercise that power. And if we don’t, we would be delinquent in our duties. As speaker of the House, I see my responsibility to honor the Constitution — separation of powers as a co-equal branch of government.
Would you say respect for the concept of co-equal branches of government has been in decline in the past decade or two?
Mostly since this president. President Obama recognized the role of Congress. Right now, we see some Republicans — [Senate Majority Leader] Mitch McConnell for one — complicit in this president usurping the power of the Congress by saying, “If he doesn’t sign it, we won’t pass it.” Well, that’s not the way the balance works. We put forth legislation for the good of the people, and we send it to the president. If he doesn’t sign, you try to override it.
What is your relationship with McConnell like these days?
I’ve worked with him over the years as a member of the Appropriations Committee, back when I was still on committees. I have a respectful relationship with him. I have been disappointed that he was willing to have the government shut down because he wouldn’t face down the president on the president’s bad policy. That’s discouraging for the leader in the United States Senate. Does he take an oath to the president? No. He takes an oath to protect the Constitution.
Do you think there’s anything the president would do that would cause McConnell to break with him? Another government shutdown, or if he declares a national emergency, or a damning report from [Special Counsel Robert] Mueller?
I’m starting a new club. It’s called the Too Hot to Handle Club. The reason the government is open now is because we did make a shutdown too hot to handle. Finally Mitch was feeling the heat, which he conveyed to the president, and here we are with open government, able now to negotiate on how to protect our borders.
Public opinion is everything. Lincoln said: Public sentiment is everything. With it, you can accomplish almost everything; without it, almost and practically nothing. I’m paraphrasing, but nothing is more powerful than the stories of the people affected. You can roll out statistics and timetables, but the consequences — the emotional connection to the rest of the public — is what really weighed in.
Would they back him if he tried to declare a phony national emergency at the border?
The national emergency has its critics on the Republican side. If [Trump] does it, then the next president — whom, we predict, will be a Democrat — can also do it, and they don’t want to establish a precedent that a president can do this, because that really totally usurps the power of the government.
A damning report from Mueller — would that lead us toward impeachment?
You want to remember that President Nixon was not impeached. The Republicans went to him when they saw [the evidence]. The House proceeded with the hearings, but they never impeached because of information that came out that made it clear that they shouldn’t put the country through this process. It’s a very disruptive process to put the country through, and it’s an opportunity cost in terms of time and resources. You don’t want to go down that path unless it is unavoidable.
We have no idea — nor should we — what Mueller may have, if it involves the president or his campaign. I don’t know how bad it would have to be for them to do something, but the Republicans in Congress have ignored a great deal. You have a Cabinet that is a partially “acting Cabinet” because people have left in disgrace or dismay. You have a White House which is a fact-free zone. They have no interest in evidence, data, science or truth when it comes to making decisions.