Washington Memo

Washington as Unruly Sandbox: Squabbles, Antics and Tantrums

As the shutdown drags on, political tantrums and bickering have become the norm in Washington.
Credit...Sarah Silbiger/The New York Times

WASHINGTON — In a week of White House tantrums and fast-food dinners, of canceled speeches and aborted congressional trips, it seemed fitting that Karen Pence, the wife of Vice President Mike Pence, announced that she was going back to her job as an elementary schoolteacher.

Washington these days resembles nothing so much as an unruly sandbox. As the shutdown drags on, septuagenarian politicians are squabbling like 7-year-olds, House freshmen staged a boisterous protest march to the empty office of the Senate majority leader and the president’s lawyer went spectacularly off the rails in a television interview. There did not seem to be an adult in sight.

“I am excited to be back in the classroom and doing what I love to do, which is to teach art,” Ms. Pence said in a statement about her new job, conjuring up a world of finger-painting and construction paper that seemed more civilized than the “Lord of the Flies” playground inhabited by her husband and his colleagues.

In that world, President Trump sent Speaker Nancy Pelosi a letter telling her that he was postponing her trip with a congressional delegation to visit American troops in Afghanistan. The president’s salvo came 24 hours after Ms. Pelosi informed Mr. Trump that because of the shutdown, she was rescinding her invitation to him to deliver a State of the Union address in the House chamber.

Democrats celebrated Ms. Pelosi’s letter as a power move by a seasoned Washington heavyweight. But the speaker could not resist one last taunt: Mr. Trump, she said almost under her breath to a scrum of reporters, could always deliver the speech from the Oval Office if he wanted.

Credit...Sarah Silbiger/The New York Times

Mr. Trump struck back in characteristic style, denying Ms. Pelosi access to a military plane to take her to Afghanistan. There was to have been a stop in Brussels, where she would have met with NATO officials.

“In light of the 800,000 great American workers not receiving pay, I am sure you would agree that postponing this public relations event is totally appropriate,” Mr. Trump wrote, mimicking the faux-solicitous tone of her letter to him. “Obviously,” he added, “if you would like to make your journey by flying commercial, that would certainly be your prerogative.”

Representative Adam B. Schiff, a California Democrat who was scheduled to accompany Ms. Pelosi to Afghanistan and Belgium, swiftly accused Mr. Trump of “fifth-grade conduct.” Senator Mazie Hirono, Democrat of Hawaii, said, “He’s very childlike in his view of the world. It’s all about him.”

Senator Patty Murray, a Democrat from the other, more grown-up Washington, said she recognized much of the current behavior in the nation’s capital from her time as a preschool teacher. Every classroom, she said, had the full range of personalities, including bullies and victims, and the trick, she said, was not to cede to the bully or allow tantrums to disrupt the entire classroom.

“My experience is, you let them calm down and come back to you peacefully before you give them anything,” Ms. Murray said. “You don’t hand them that cookie or piece of candy when they’re yelling and screaming because then you will be doing that until they’re 18 years old.”

Ms. Murray, unsurprisingly, was generous toward her fellow Democrat, Ms. Pelosi. She likened her to a sure-footed teacher in her handling of Mr. Trump. Certainly the new speaker, who has fact-checked Mr. Trump during meetings and publicly warned him not to disparage the power of her Democratic majority, seems to have gotten under the president’s skin in a way that few others have during his two years in Washington.

Credit...Sarah Silbiger/The New York Times

Yet the tit-for-tat between the speaker and the president suggested something else: that despite his inability to change the politics or institutions of Washington, Mr. Trump has managed to change its culture. The capital now plays by his freewheeling rules.

“He does generally force people to play down to his level,” said Michael D’Antonio, a biographer of Mr. Trump. “It’s impossible to deal with him in any other way. It takes almost a Zen master to resist being provoked by him.”

There is no doubt that Trump-like behavior is proliferating. When the House freshmen, all Democrats, arrived at the office of the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky, on Wednesday to deliver a letter demanding that he reopen the government, they quickly discovered he was not there.

One of Mr. McConnell’s deputies, Don Stewart, accepted the letter and promised to give it to his boss. The lawmakers then milled outside Mr. McConnell’s office to plot their next move, as tourists gawked and cameras clicked, particularly at Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Democrat of New York and a media darling.

“Oh, my God, this is your life!” Representative Veronica Escobar, Democrat of Texas, said to Ms. Ocasio-Cortez, 29, as she watched the hubbub swirling around her colleague.

It was the kind of spectacle that Mr. Trump would appreciate.

Mr. Trump seemed less likely to appreciate the spectacle that unfolded a few hours later on CNN. One of his personal lawyers, Rudolph W. Giuliani, told the host Chris Cuomo, “I never said there was no collusion between the campaign or between people in the campaign” — a statement that made him the first Trump adviser to concede that it was possible that members of the Trump campaign had worked with Russia to sabotage the 2016 presidential election.

Credit...Sarah Silbiger/The New York Times

The next morning, Mr. Giuliani walked back his remarks, saying, “I have no knowledge of any collusion by any of the thousands of people who worked on the campaign.” For good measure, he added that Hillary Clinton’s campaign was the one guilty of collusion with Russia.

Nor could Mr. Trump have appreciated fake copies of The Washington Post that hoaxers handed out to passers-by outside the White House and elsewhere in the capital. “Unpresidented,” a banner headline said. “Trump Hastily Departs White House, Ending Crisis.”

Like much in Mr. Trump’s Washington, even Ms. Pence’s decision to return to teaching is not without an undertone. The private Christian school where she will teach does not allow gay students and requires employees to affirm that marriage should only be between a man and a woman.

For the president, the most comforting moment of this turbulent week may have come on Monday, when he welcomed the Clemson University football team, winners of the college football championship, to the White House for a meal of burgers and fish sandwiches from McDonald’s, Wendy’s and Burger King.

The image of fast food under the twinkling candelabra of the State Dining Room — which Mr. Trump said was a necessity, given the lack of White House staff because of the shutdown — gave rise to a thousand snarky tweets and jokes on late-night television.

“I thought it was a joke,” said one Clemson athlete, overheard in a video shared on Twitter.