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Nancy Pelosi's star shines after battle with Donald Trump

Trump has seemed flummoxed by the challenge to his authority of a powerful, self-assured woman

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (C) signs a resolution to temporarily reopen the government, in Washington, DC, 25 January 2019. EPA
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (C) signs a resolution to temporarily reopen the government, in Washington, DC, 25 January 2019. EPA

It was Nancy Pelosi's first big showdown as House speaker, but in the tense staring match over border wall funding with President Donald Trump, the self proclaimed master dealmaker blinked first – and was left licking his wounds as his adversary won plaudits for a resounding victory.

Just a few short weeks after facing a challenge to her presumed leadership of the House Democrats, the 78-year-old San Francisco congresswoman has emerged as a shrewd tactician and a talismanic "Iron Lady" for newly emboldened progressives.

Mr Trump brought a temporary end Friday to the longest government shutdown in US history, dropping his insistence on immediate funding for wall construction along the Mexican border.

The announcement marked a significant climbdown by the president, suspending a row that paralysed Washington, disrupted air travel and left more than 800,000 federal employees without pay for five weeks.

The Democrats were not required to yield a single inch, and the retreat was described as an "unmitigated victory" for Ms Pelosi by the Washington Post, leaving little doubt of her powers as an adept political brawler.

Over the weekend, administration officials and conservative politicians from House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy to acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney hit the cable news shows to cast Ms Pelosi as an obstructionist on border security while Trump was the reasonable negotiator.

The consensus among observers with no skin in the game, however, appeared to be that Ms Pelosi had "sent [Mr Trump] to bed without dinner," as Republican strategist and MSNBC political analyst Susan Del Percio put it.

"'She Wields the Knife': Pelosi Moves to Belittle and Undercut Trump in Shutdown Fight," read a headline in the Post while CNN analyst Gloria Borger described Ms Pelosi simply as a "badass."

Ms Pelosi, a veteran of more than three decades in rough-and-tumble Washington politics, appears to have got the message out: Mr Trump will ignore or attempt to bully her at his peril.

As she approaches her ninth decade, this daughter of a Democratic mayor seems eager to leverage her experience to resist the president's conservative agenda and to ensure rigorous oversight of an often chaotic administration.

After maintaining a more restrained profile during two years as House minority leader, Ms Pelosi seized on the shutdown to return to the spotlight, repeatedly finding ways to rattle Mr Trump, throw him off balance or get under his skin.

"Pelosi privately refers to Trump as the 'whiner in chief.' She's questioned his manhood. She calls out Trump's lies to his face and openly wonders whether he's fit for the job," Politico noted in the midst of the shutdown.

"She mocks Trump for his privileged upbringing and his lack of empathy for the less fortunate."

All the while Ms Pelosi has maintained a solid bloc of Democratic support, reportedly confounding a president who expected her caucus to fracture under pressure.

Some Washington analysts have speculated that Mr Trump hoped to use the standoff as a way to show Ms Pelosi who was boss.

Asked about that last week, she replied calmly: "Our unity is our power, and that is what maybe the president underestimated."

In a move that surprised even some Democrats, she blocked Mr Trump's big moment in the sun – delivering the State of the Union address from the House floor – and she bristled but remained unruffled when he summarily canceled her visit to troops in Afghanistan.

After Mr Trump backed down on Friday – agreeing to end the shutdown with no promise of border wall money – Ms Pelosi adopted a magnanimous tone. But within hours, she was needling him again.

"What does Putin have on @realDonald Trump, politically, personally or financially?" she asked in one tweet, followed shortly by: "Why has the Trump Administration continued to discuss pulling the US out of NATO, which would be a massive victory for Putin?"

Mr Trump has seemed flummoxed by the challenge to his authority of a powerful, self-assured woman, his approval ratings nosediving as Ms Pelosi's have risen precipitously and public support for a wall has waned.

Perhaps, some old Washington hands say, her toughness should not have come entirely as a surprise.

When the midterm elections in November returned the Democrats to power in the House, some analysts expected a bloody fight for party leadership, with newly elected young progressives demanding the older generation – led by Ms Pelosi – step aside.

Instead, as Politico described it, she vanquished her challengers "with precision and speed that shocked many longtime Hill watchers."

One of the new intake, fiery 29-year-old rising star Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was illustrative of the softening of attitudes on the left brought about by Pelosi's mastery of Trump.

"I will tell you something most of the country probably already knows," she tweeted: "@SpeakerPelosi does not mess around."

Updated: January 28, 2019 08:17 AM

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