WASHINGTON — Democrats’ return to a legislative majority changes the power dynamics in Washington, but within hours of the new Congress, President Donald Trump sought to do what he has done so well during his tenure: claim the media spotlight.
This was Nancy Pelosi’s moment — historic in that she is the first person to return to the speakership since Sam Rayburn in 1955, and is the first and only woman to hold the post. At her swearing-in ceremony, she surrounded herself by her grandchildren and dozens of other kids were present to see their parents or grandparents take office.
But just after 4 p.m., with the Capitol still bustling as Pelosi staged swearing-in ceremonies with members and their families, the White House suddenly called a press briefing, giving reporters just five-minutes notice to get to the briefing room.
Trump made a surprise appearance, his first in the press quarters.
He started by congratulating Pelosi for her “tremendous, tremendous achievement,” then went into an extended appeal for the need for a border wall, the issue that is at the heart of the government shutdown.
The message was not new: Trump’s constant refrain has been the need to fund a border wall, to the point where he even posted the “Game of Thrones”-inspired meme “The Wall Is Coming” to his Instagram account on Thursday.
Trump said he’d been meeting with border security officials when he said, “Let’s go out, see the press. You can tell them about the importance of the wall.” He took no questions.
On Capitol Hill, there were at least a few hours of a celebratory atmosphere among Democrats, despite the shutdown.
Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), the new chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said returning to the majority “feels good.” “The House is a tough place to be in the minority.” Rep. Harley Rouda (D-Calif.), who flipped longtime congressman Dana Rohrabacher’s Orange County district, said the experience so far had been a bit “surreal.” “I think I had a grin on my face for an hour and a half.”
Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) found the speaker vote and swearing-in ceremony “very moving.”
“There were people who said we never could take the House back,” he said. “[Pelosi] never gave up. She never gave in, and she inspired each and every one of us to get out and work hard, and that is what she did.”
A few showbiz names showed up to watch the proceedings. Tony Bennett waved from a front-row seat in the House gallery as Pelosi gave him a shoutout. He sang for her at a dinner at the Italian Embassy on Wednesday night, just as he had performed at a fundraiser when she was first elected speaker in 2007.
Also present was Roz Wyman, the longtime Democratic activist and former Los Angeles city councilwoman, as well Jean Picker Firstenberg, the former CEO of the American Film Institute. Sitting just behind the Pelosi family were Mickey Hart of the Grateful Dead and Tim Gunn, the reality show host.
Gunn called the experience of witnessing Pelosi’s swearing-in ceremony “beautiful,” particularly as she surrounded herself with the kids.
“It’s absolutely thrilling to be inside and see how our government works, and it is a sobering wake-up call at the same moment,” he said. “I was struck by the partisan divide, but we now have a new speaker, and things are going to change.”
Gunn said he has hosted a number of events with Pelosi as a member of her LGBT caucus, and that she had the “extraordinary qualities of character” needed in a polarized D.C.
“She is a facilitator. She is a mitigator. She is a collaborator. She treads softly and diplomatically, yet she is tenacious when it comes to a point, and she will remind you of that point,” he said.
He also couldn’t resist adding one more point about the new speaker. “Who has greater personal style than Nancy Pelosi?”