The last time Rep. Nancy Pelosi appeared at a Monitor Breakfast, in March 2017, she made news: She said she would have retired to California if Hillary Clinton had won the election.
"I have grandchildren to love," said the then-leader of the minority House Democrats.
"It was really shocking that somebody like Donald Trump could be president of the United States," Ms. Pelosi said, expressing concern about preserving the Affordable Care Act. "But anyway, that motivated me to stay."
Now-Speaker Pelosi could not possibly have imagined what she was in for. Two-plus years later, the most powerful woman ever in American politics is locked in a battle royal with a president like no other over the future of American democracy.
Speaking at a Monitor Breakfast Wednesday, Ms. Pelosi referred repeatedly to the U.S. Constitution and the role of Congress and the courts in checking presidential power.
"We intend to live up to our responsibilities to protect the Constitution when it comes to the checks and balances on the presidency," Ms. Pelosi said. "This is an important time for our country."
She also ruled out a congressional censure of President Donald Trump as an alternative to impeachment proceedings. "I think censure is just a way out," Ms. Pelosi said, calling it "a day at the beach for the president, or at his golf club, or wherever he goes to get that complexion."
"If the goods are there," she said, "you must impeach."
So far, Ms. Pelosi has been holding firm against rising sentiment - though still a minority - within the House Democratic caucus to launch an impeachment inquiry into Mr. Trump for alleged obstruction of the Mueller investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.
But, she added, "I feel no pressure from my members to do anything, and I have no pressure on them to do anything. This isn't about politics. It isn't about partisanship. It's about patriotism to honor the Constitution of the United States."
Ms. Pelosi's current role is one she has been training for, unwittingly, in her 32 years in Congress, rising from backbencher to speaker - twice. She is a master tactician and a partisan with a gracious manner and a spine of steel, standing up not just for herself but for her branch of government.
She's also in her late 70s, but that's not stopping her. In fact, her age and gender may both be a plus. Mr. Trump too is in his 70s, and so they are peers. And like other women in Mr. Trump's life, Ms. Pelosi "is attractive and knows how to 'hold a camera,'" says Gwenda Blair, a Trump biographer. "She's a grown-up. She exudes significance."
Since regaining the House gavel in January, Ms. Pelosi has shown increasing willingness to go toe-to-toe with Mr. Trump. She outlasted him during the record-long government shutdown and more recently triggered his fury - including prompting a walkout from a meeting on infrastructure - after coolly accusing him of a "cover-up" amid congressional investigations.
For Ms. Pelosi, the attacks by Mr. Trump are doubly beneficial. Republicans grit their teeth every time the president takes the bait, saying that he hurts his image. And within the speaker's famously fractious House caucus, her increasingly pointed rhetoric toward the president buys her time to hold off on a formal impeachment inquiry, which she opposes for now.
The collapse of the once-cordial Trump-Pelosi relationship bodes ill for getting things done. Budget negotiations are at an impasse, risking another government shutdown in the fall. More broadly, Mr. Trump has said he won't work with Democrats on any legislation while investigations of him continue.
As recently as last November, Mr. Trump was praising Ms. Pelosi as "tough and smart" and telling reporters, "I like her. Can you believe it?" He had spared her a demeaning nickname, presumably a show of respect. Now she's "nervous Nancy," "a disaster," and "a nasty, vindictive, horrible person."
The name-calling is a sign Mr. Trump doesn't want to appear weak, says a Republican close to the White House.
"Now, you'll notice 'nervous Nancy' has become more frequent since the prison comment," says the Republican, a reference to Ms. Pelosi's reported closed-door statement to senior Democrats that she'd rather see Mr. Trump in prison than impeached.
Ms. Pelosi has responded to Mr. Trump's insults by saying she feels sorry for him and is praying for him and the country.
The speaker's steely approach to a norm-busting president reflects a literal lifetime in politics - from her Baltimore childhood as the daughter of a congressman and mayor to her 32 years in the House and rise to the speakership. As speaker, she is second in line to the presidency, adding to her aura of power.
Early on, those who dismissed Ms. Pelosi as "a housewife from San Francisco" did so at their peril. Today, even as the GOP has tried to make her a symbol of rampant liberalism, she has shrewdly managed her own caucus as well as her relationship with Mr. Trump. She herself often suggests that raising five children before entering Congress prepared her for today's political challenges.
Like Ms. Pelosi, Mr. Trump also went into the family business - in his case, real estate. And he's hewing to his "Art of the Deal" ways - trying to maximize leverage and exploit weakness - as he navigates his new role. After last November's midterms, when Mr. Trump offered to help Ms. Pelosi win the speakership with GOP votes, it was seen not as generosity but as a bid to gain leverage over her and use her as a foil in the 2020 campaign. She rejected his offer.
Mr. Trump is used to dealing with strong women, like those who have worked for him in senior White House positions. As a businessman, he had a history of hiring women in executive positions "at a time when not everybody was doing that," Ms. Blair says. "He knew they would give him some value."
But Ms. Pelosi has power over the president that other women don't. He can't get legislation through Congress without her. And she doesn't seem to let the president get under her skin.
Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., says the president "doesn't know what to do with her."
"He's a little bit afraid of her," Congressman Connolly adds. "In his own odd Trumpian way, there's even respect for her authority. I don't mean the title. I mean the aura of authority she genuinely projects over a subject, over politics, over a meeting."
Another House colleague, Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., sees a speaker who respects the office of the presidency, but a president "who doesn't honor it."
"When you have the speaker of the House, the leader of the opposition, go to the Oval Office and the president refuses to shake her hand, that's a real breakdown in communication," says Congressman Khanna.
Now the speaker is fighting not just to defeat Mr. Trump in 2020 but to maintain the Democratic majority in the House. In the current climate, little is certain. But Ms. Pelosi can count on this: As part of her deal to regain the speakership, she pledged a limit of two terms. By 2023 at the latest, she can finally retire.
Staff writer Jessica Mendoza contributed to this report.
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