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Nancy Pelosi: ‘They Come After Me Because I’m Effective’

The House Minority Leader on the midterms, impeachment, her own party, sexism and the sexist-in-chief

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) during a news conference on the day after a mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., on Capitol Hill in Washington, Feb. 15, 2018. A young man barged into his former high school Wednesday, opening fire on students and teachers and leaving a death toll of 17 that could rise even higher, the authorities said. (Eric Thayer/The New York Times)

Eric Thayer/The New York Times/Redux

As the countdown to November commences, with Democrats desperate for a moonshot, Nancy Pelosi sits atop a three-stage rocket, full of possibility and danger. If all goes according plan, the first stage, fueled by America’s revulsion to Trump, will lift Democrats to control of the House. The second stage, powered by a robust Democratic majority, returns Pelosi to her perch as Speaker of the House. The final stage – perhaps the most combustible – sees her unifying a fractious Democratic caucus to check President Trump and deliver on sky-high voter expectations.

Executing this launch sequence would tax the powers of any politician. Pelosi’s task is made more difficult by the ideological divides roiling her own party, and by a GOP that has made her the face of its attacks on Democratic candidates. Pelosi is unique among current congressional leaders in being weaponized against her team – she’s been featured in more than 16,000 attack ad airings through May. “We haven’t seen the Republican leaders singled out in this sort of way,” says Erika Franklin Fowler, a director of the Wesleyan Media Project, which tracks political ads.

Pelosi is one of the most powerful women in global politics. She gets credit for securing passage of much of the legislation in the Obama legacy, including the Recovery Act, Wall Street reform and especially the Affordable Care Act. “Nancy Pelosi has been one of the most transformational figures in the modern Democratic Party,” says Democratic National Committee chair Tom Perez. Pelosi also spearheaded the takeover of the House a dozen years ago in 2006 – an achievement that has become fodder for her critics. “Leader Pelosi has talked about how we need to do what we did in 2006,” says Rep. Seth Moulton, an ambitious Massachusetts Democrat who argues for a “new generation” of House leadership. “I mean, we barely had iPhones in 2006 – it was a different world.”

But for all the talk about Nancy Pelosi, less time has been spent actually listening to her. Rolling Stone sat down with Pelosi for an hour on a May evening in Des Moines, Iowa, where she was raising money for the local Democratic Party. At the fundraiser, standing before a wall-sized American flag, Pelosi sought to flatten the difference between President Trump and GOP candidates. “He’s their guy,” she says of Trump. “Make no mistake: This election, it’s not – well it’s about him in certain respects, we can’t ignore that – but it’s about them.”

Both the fundraiser and the interview took place before Trump began separating families at the border, which Pelosi describes as “an utter atrocity that debases America’s values.” This conversation informed the profile of Pelosi in the latest print edition of Rolling Stone. What follows is an edited transcript.

I want to dig in on 2018 and understand how you’re thinking about the election and how the angles break.
When Hillary didn’t win, people said, “Can you win the House?” And I said, “I’ll tell you in a year.” Because it matters where the president is a year out. If he’s under 50 [percent approval rating], we can win it. Just to put in a little historical perspective. In ‘05 and ‘06, [former Democratic Senate leader] Harry Reid and I said, “We’re going to win the Congress.” People said, “No way. It’s going to be a permanent Republican majority.” Bush had just won. In January of ‘05, he was at 58 percent in the polls. The war in Iraq; people in the streets; he’s at 58 percent in the polls. We would have to bring his numbers down. And he gave us a gift: He was going to privatize Social Security. [That] helped take his numbers down, into like the 40s. What other difference did we want to emphasize? It was “Drain the swamp.” That was ours. [Trump] stole it from us. “End the culture of cronyism, incompetence and corruption.” That was our thing. They were getting indicted, subpoenaed all over the place. And then Hurricane Katrina: Cronyism and incompetence. Thirty-eight percent in September.

With Trump, he’s done the heavy lifting for you?
We can’t take credit for taking his numbers down, but for taking advantage of the opportunity it presented. To keep [his numbers] down we had to make sure people understood what Republicans were trying to do with the Affordable Care Act, what they were doing in terms of inequality and the disparity of income. Anyway, he was at 38 to 40 percent a year before the [2018] election. So, they get the retirements. I think it’s 46 today. And we get the A-Team on the field. We would like to say we recruited [our candidates]. Trump recruited them for us. [Laughs.] We’re in a very good place now.

Trump dominates the media. Do Democrats risk getting drowned out?
I don’t like the fact that everything is concentrated on porn stars and this or that. It’s hard to break in and say, “Wait a minute. He’s terrible, but his policies are worse. He is terrible, but who cares? His policy means something in your lives.” I think people should care that he’s terrible. But evangelicals, they seem to think it’s OK as long as they get a Supreme Court justice [to rule] on a woman’s right to choose and LGBTQ marriage equality.

What’s the Democratic message?
We’ve had for a year, working with the Senate, our agenda: Better Deal. Better jobs. Better pay. Better future. It took eight months or so to put it together, to come to agreement. The members shaped this. It wasn’t something where I said, “This is what I think it should be. Now sell it.” It was: “What do you think it should be?” It’s very important that it spring from the members.

And when people say, “Well, it doesn’t inspire me”… It inspires me. Because it’s about the economy. No matter the other stuff we disagree on, the financial stability of America’s working families is the unifying force in our caucus. That’s why these people are Democrats, not Republicans.

What’s your thinking on impeachment?
I think it’s a gift to the Republicans.

Expand on that.
Because people really want to know how we will improve their lives. We don’t really know what Mueller has. We have a responsibility, if we have information, to act upon it. But we don’t know what Mueller has. Republicans in the House have completely blocked any investigations – to a stupid extent, in my view.

But when I was elected speaker, people wanted me to impeach Bush. In the streets [chanting]: “Impeach Bush!” I thought the war in Iraq was sinful. I was Adam Schiff [the ranking member on the Intelligence Committee] at that time, going into the war. So I knew everything that they had. And they didn’t have anything that said Iraq was developing nuclear weapons. They didn’t have weapons of mass destruction! It would be like me saying there’s 20 puppies on this table. It wasn’t there! Nobody could show it to you. It was a complete lie. But nonetheless he got re-elected.

Going into the [‘06] election, I said it’s off the table. I didn’t mean it’s off the table if you had some goods. If somebody has information, then we can act upon it. But from what we know now, it’s off the table.

Just to make sure I understand: You were saying that impeachment was “off the table” in relation to Bush? Or with Trump?
Even with Trump. If you got something, show it. But I’m not going after it. What we’re going after is the economic security of America’s working families.

Liberal billionaire Tom Steyer is spending millions on a pro-impeachment campaign. Trump is out on the stump warning impeachment is the Democratic agenda. It’s going to be an issue in the campaign –
This election cannot be about impeachment. I don’t think it’s in the interest of America’s working families to focus on that, unless we have more to go on, which we don’t at this time. You get the power of subpoena, you don’t know where it takes you. I wouldn’t not impeach the president for political reasons. But I wouldn’t impeach him for political reasons, either. That’s just not what it’s supposed to be about. I think it’s not unifying for the country.

So that’s my message to Steyer. He’s my friend, former neighbor – I just completely don’t agree. I wish he would spend the money pointing out the horror show that the tax bill is. [Read Steyer’s response to Pelosi here.]

So if the election is not about regime change here at home, what is your vision for checks and balances? Would a lot of the next two years be about boxing Trump in?
It’s about who has the leverage. Like, we killed them on the Omnibus bill. You know why? Because we are united, and they are not. They need our votes; that gives us leverage. They wanted to put all this money into defense. And we said, “We have to have the same amount of money domestically – parity in the increase.” They just don’t believe in domestic investment. Even though the domestic agenda is one-third security. They didn’t want to do it. But then they had to [because House Republicans couldn’t agree on a budget that could also clear the Senate]. And when we got that money, we were able to do much more for opioids, the National Institutes of Health and all these other investments. So unhappy were the Republicans, 90 of them voted against the bill. Just to show how well we did.

If we have the majority, it’s a different negotiation with the president of the United States. He’ll know we’re in a different place.

He’ll know that he has to play ball?
He’ll know that we have the leverage. The gavel. [Picks up a knife, bangs its base on the table.] The gavel makes all the difference in the world … I didn’t mean to pick up the knife. [Laughter.] The awesome power. The speaker has awesome power.  

You had a bad experience with DACA. It started well enough – with headlines touting Trump’s negotiations with “Chuck and Nancy.” But it went sideways quickly. Did that experience color your faith in the president as an honest broker?
We presented DACA… Chuck [Schumer] and I presented to him, saying, “We look forward to working with you. One value we hope we share is to protect the Dreamers.” [Pelosi puffs herself up, impersonating Trump] “Yeah, Yeah, Yeah. Protect the Dreamers.” And then we just have to work out the commensurate border security. We have a responsibility to protect our borders; what is commensurate for this number of people to be protected?  

It goes to the speaker [Paul Ryan]. The speaker says, “I put together a task force on our side that’s going to say what we can live with – it’ll be ready in a week.” It’s a week. Then two weeks, three weeks, a month, two months, three months – nothing. The speaker says, “I couldn’t make anything come of it.” And the president, I said to him: “Are you in charge!?” I don’t know if the president ever was sincere about it. But if he were, we could have made it happen.

WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 21: (L-R) Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) join fellow Democrats and their supporters to introduce a new campaign to retake Congress during a news conference at the U.S. Capitol May 21, 2018 in Washington, DC. The campaign, called 'A Better Deal for Our Democracy,' aims at 'taking back the power from special interests and getting rid of the pay-to-play culture of corruption, cronyism and incompetence embodied by the Trump Administration.' (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI)

Realistically, what are Democrats going to be able to do with Trump as president?
When we talk about leverage, it’s not just leverage within a bill. It’s leverage within the context of a legislative agenda: You want this? We want that.

A big infrastructure bill is something that we think we can achieve. Because it has so much popular appeal. And we’ve always done it in a bipartisan way. This partisanship on infrastructure only started when Obama was putting something forward. Of course, then they didn’t want anything he did. We can’t not do what we’ve asked the speaker to do now, to bring up a gun safety bill. Because it will save lives from day one. [A bill to protect the] Dreamers – it’s not asking them to go out on a limb. Nothing that we’ve been asking doesn’t have overwhelming public support. It’s just that they don’t believe in governance. They don’t believe in science, facts, data, evidence, truth. They don’t believe in any of that. If you don’t want to govern, it’s important not to know anything, so you don’t have to act upon it.

We’ve seen consecutive Republican speakers flame out, essentially, because they couldn’t deal with the insurgency on their right flank. What is your secret to keeping Democrats united?
I’m really good at what I do. I’m a legislative virtuoso. I really love legislating. It takes knowledge, and experience, institutional memory. I was forged in the Intelligence Committee and especially the Appropriations Committee. I know how you can reach agreement.

Let’s turn to the elections – the mechanics. You have something like 104 districts that are more favorable than the Conor Lamb district Democrats won in Pennsylvania. That’s probably too big a playing field to be serious about funding races all across it. How do you narrow it down?
Civilization as we know it today is at risk in this election. We have to win. We have to win. So you can’t spread your money too thinly, because you can run the risk…

If the election were today – no question we would win. But you have to be aware of the undercurrents. Because you don’t know what can come along – and what comes along eclipses what you’re doing.

People say, “Is it a wave? Is it a tsunami?” Well, it’s a lot of droplets that make up a wave or a tsunami. But they are all close – these races are all close. So it’s not like a presidential [election] where someone might get momentum and get a great big vote. I don’t want people to think that there’s a wave coming so that they don’t have to work very hard in every single district. Because you could have a wave that earns you 20 seats big and you miss 30 seats small [leaving the GOP in control of the House].

So, say we have 104 [competitive races], and say we want to go down to 70 [that the party contests fully]. It’s a motivation to you, if you are one of our candidates, to work your heart out. Because if you’re not doing so well, we’ve got others to draw on. You see? Everybody in the 70 has to really perform, or else they know we’ll go someplace else.

It’s not about them. As I say to people, “It’s not about you, deciding that you don’t like to work on Sunday.” It’s about the one in five children in America who live in poverty – one in five who go to sleep hungry at night; one in four in some states. That’s what it’s about. It’s about fairness, it’s about our country, it’s about our values.

And besides which, we don’t even have to win 70. I’d like to win half of that – 35. We only need 23. I’d take it today in a second, the 23. But we want more than that.

You’ve been weighing in on primaries in a way that’s gotten some people’s noses out of joint.
[Pelosi shrugs.]

The concern is that party leaders are substituting their judgment for the will of the voters. How do you respond to that?
The fact is we just want to win based on our values. We haven’t, frankly, weighed in that much. The chairman made a decision to weigh in in Texas, and people got all upset because the Bernie people got upset. In the beautiful tent that is the Democratic Party, we have a lot of people, and the districts that we have to win are pretty moderate-to-conservative districts. In a primary, which is a multi-candidate field, it is likely the most liberal candidate will win – who doesn’t have the faintest chance of winning the general election. Now everyone’s had a chance to show their stuff. Nobody did this from day one. I’d rather take the heat from somebody saying, “Oh, they thwarted the enthusiasm,” than take the heat of people saying, “Why didn’t you weigh in, and now you’ve lost.”

Republicans have made you a central campaign issue. What do you make of that?
They come after me because I’m effective. I’ve made some very powerful, rich enemies. Whether anti-government people in terms of the Affordable Care Act, whether it’s Wall Street reform, going after them on climate, in terms of the fossil fuel industry. I’m pro-labor; they want to destroy labor. So they put up the money and go into these districts. I don’t think we should allow the Koch Brothers to choose the leaders of the Democratic Party. But that’s what they’re trying to do.

You don’t see any value in spending money to bring your own poll numbers up?
I never have. People that I raise money from – other people – say, “Let me create a fund; you should be spending money on yourself.” And I say, “I’d rather spend the money on the candidates who win rather than getting into a tickle contest with a skunk over some of this stuff.” I just want to win the election.

Your critics say you’re too liberal–
I’m [pro-] LGBTQ, I support those issues. I’m proud to. But they use that – they go into these districts and they say, “Too liberal.”

San Francisco values–
Which are the values of Saint Francis – “Make me a channel for thy peace.” You have a problem with that? I’m proud of all of that. I don’t think the [Democratic candidates] who say, “I’m not going to vote for Nancy” are disassociating themselves from the progressive agenda, or LGBTQ equality. They’re just responding to an ad in their district.

SAN FRANCISCO, CA - JUNE 23: U.S. Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi rides during the 2018 San Francisco Pride Parade on June 24, 2018 in San Francisco, California. (Photo by Arun Nevader/Getty Images)

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi in the 2018 San Francisco Pride Parade on June 24th, 2018.

And that’s OK with you?
I just want them to win the election. But I do think that there are some districts where this isn’t as important as it was in Conor Lamb’s – that was a 20, 21 point Trump district.

Looking at the poll numbers, it looks like what those ads do is animate the Trumpiest of the Trump folks.
But I think they said in Conor Lamb’s district it was down to single-digit, the people who cared. The first issue was Medicare was at 43 percent, and then it went down to the teens for campaign finance, which was a big issue in the district. And then to single digits for other things. The public knows what is important. And most people want to know what you have to offer. So I think it shows the bankruptcy – they really don’t have any ideas. Their tax bill is failing them because it’s a fraud to begin with – and people understand that it’s a scam. And we’ll keep that pressure on them.

But I don’t think for a second that we should allow Republicans to choose the leaders of the Democratic party because they put money in with their – what’s the word I want to use? Making a caricature of somebody. I mean discriminatory. They discriminate against LGBT. That’s just who they are. It’s a funny thing about them: They do not share our values. You might find one or two or something.

And then John Boehner leaves and joins the board of a marijuana firm.
Transactional. Transactional.

Let’s look ahead to the speaker contest that would follow the election. What do you make of the Tim Ryans or Seth Moultons who’ve called for a new generation of leadership–
Inconsequential. They don’t have a following in our caucus. None.

Is it frustrated ambition on their part?
I don’t know. I think there are lots of people who have worked very hard, and are more in line for what will happen one of these times. But they’re not to be considered [among] who those people would be. I mean, there are people who work very hard to win the elections, who have been in legislative battles. People who paid their dues. Not to put anybody down. Anybody is consequential. But I have great support in my caucus. I’m not worried about that. And I’m certainly not worried about them.

Have you ever been tempted to step away?
If Hillary had won and the Affordable Care Act was protected – I feel very proprietary about the Affordable Care Act. She’d be a woman in charge, the Affordable Care Act [would be] protected. I could have happily gone home. Nobody in California gets Potomac Fever, believe me. So it’s not about wanting to be there. It’s just a question of, “Who can fight this man who’s in the White House? Who really knows the territory?” None of us is indispensable, but some of us have more experience and confidence in how to get the job done.

And I can’t even think that they [her prospective male challengers] think it’s a good idea to say, “We have the first woman speaker, and now we’re going to say, ‘We’re not going to do that’” I mean, no. No.

Is there a margin you need to secure that gavel? You talked about wanting to win 35 seats.

No ,no. You only have to win [the leadership vote] in your caucus – and then you go to the floor [for the speakership vote]. People vote for the Democrat or they vote for the Republican. So I feel very comfortable about that. But I don’t feel like talking about it. My time is money, and mobilization and the rest. Part of it is messaging – and talking about me and what happens to me is the least important part of all of it.

I think some of it is a little bit on the sexist side – although I wouldn’t normally say that. Except it’s like, really? Has anyone asked whatshisname, the one who’s the head of Senate?

[Aide Jorge Aguilar who is sitting beside Pelosi] McConnell.

McConnell. I mean he’s got the lowest numbers of anybody in the world. Have you ever gone up to him and said, “How much longer do you think you’ll stay in this job?” Nobody ever went up to Harry Reid and said that. Nobody ever says that to anybody except a woman. But it’s a thing.

And you know what? You get the upside and the downside of it. The one thing I want women to know is that you don’t walk away from a fight. You don’t let them make your decisions for you. I don’t mean to sound arrogant. But I am confident. I am confident.

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