Nancy Pelosi stands up in her spacious office in the U.S. Capitol, walks past an enormous window with a commanding view of the Mall and the Washington Monument, and picks up a small plaque from her desk. A gift from Rep. Cheri Bustos (D-Ill.), the plaque has the familiar profile of a young Abraham Lincoln on one side. Pelosi returns to her chair holding the plaque on her palm and reads a quote from Lincoln etched on the reverse side: “Public sentiment is everything. With public sentiment, nothing can fail. Without it, nothing can succeed.”
It was public sentiment, Pelosi says, that convinced her President Trump would back down in the standoff over funding a border wall that partially shut down the government for 35 days earlier this year. And it is public sentiment, she says, that will guide her as she leads the House Democrats and seeks to use their powers as a check on a president she believes disregards the Constitution.
Pelosi, 78, never thought that Donald Trump would be elected president, but in many ways she has been preparing for this political battle all of her life. First elected to Congress in a special election in 1987 and now in her 17th term, she is experienced in all of Washington’s various forms of combat, power and perseverance. She is the first woman to lead a political party in Congress and, in 2007, was the first woman to become speaker of the House. After Democrats won control of the House in November following eight years out of power, Pelosi fended off an effort by some in her party to replace her, and reclaimed the speakership.
Now in her fourth decade as an elected representative, Pelosi is at the outset of a term that will almost certainly be the most critical of her career. I spoke with her last week about her relationship with Trump, the rise of a new generation of women lawmakers, the Green New Deal, the prospect of impeachment and more.
After eight years as minority leader, what does it mean for you to be back in this office?
Has it been eight years? [Laughs.] In some ways it seems much faster than that. Well, being in the majority always feels great, especially compared to the minority. … So it feels good. I mean, it feels responsible. We have important work to do for our country. And I’m very proud that we got here on a path for the people with a clear definition of our agenda. Lower health-care costs, bigger paychecks, building the infrastructure of America, cleaner government. We have H.R. 1 on the floor, and in the first 100 days we will have had introductions, hearings, markups or floor action on everything in our agenda: lowering health-care costs by lowering the cost of prescription drugs, building infrastructure, bigger paychecks. And then guns, dreamers, Equality Act and equal pay.
Is this the most divisive political climate in your 32 years in Congress?
Yeah, well, it’s very divisive because of the person who is in the White House and the enablers that the Republicans in Congress are to him. It was terrible when we were here in the ’90s and [Newt] Gingrich was speaker and impeached the president, Bill Clinton. There’s no question that that was horrible for the country. It was unnecessary and the rest. But in terms of where we are, as Thomas Paine said, the times have found us. And the times have found us now. We have a very serious challenge to the Constitution of the United States in the president’s unconstitutional assault on the Constitution, on the first branch of government, the legislative branch. … This is very serious for our country. Forgetting politics, forgetting partisanship, just talk about patriotism. So in terms of divisiveness, that we don’t see a commensurate — I don’t want to say reaction, just action — on the part of Republicans to the statements and actions the president is taking, yeah, this is probably the most divisive and serious. Serious, because again it’s about our fundamentals; it’s not about our politics.
For 2020, your goal is to keep control of the House and have a Democrat elected president.
And the Senate, the whole thing.
Is this the most critical 20 months of your entire career?
Well, every election we say this is the most important election of our time. And it just gets to be more crucial every time. In ’16, I never thought he would be elected president of the United States. How could it be? But then he was, so that made ’18 more crucial. And we won that. And thank God, because we now have a lever; we have leverage against this assault on the Constitution. This election is very important. I don’t think he’ll be reelected, but it is important for us to elect a Democratic president and a Democratic Senate and Democratic House. So they only become more crucial. Not to diminish the importance of the others, but because of the actions taken by the person in the White House, disregarding the Constitution of the United States, disregarding our commitments to the world in terms of our commitment to NATO, to Paris climate, to our values.
How would you describe your relationship with the president?
Is there a relationship? [Laughs.] How would I describe my relationship to the president? My relationship toward him is respectful, respectful of the office that he holds. Straightforward, just tell him what I think. And I always say you’re not going to hear me saying anything publicly that I’m not saying here in the office. Hopeful that at some point we can find common ground that he’ll stick to. So, yeah, respectful, honest and hopeful.
Do you feel that he has done anything that has been good for America?
He’s been a great organizer for Democrats, a great fundraiser for Democrats and a great mobilizer at the grass-roots level for Democrats. [Laughs.] And I think that’s good for America.
There have been increasing calls, including from some of your members, for impeachment of the president.
I’m not for impeachment. This is news. I’m going to give you some news right now because I haven’t said this to any press person before. But since you asked, and I’ve been thinking about this: Impeachment is so divisive to the country that unless there’s something so compelling and overwhelming and bipartisan, I don’t think we should go down that path, because it divides the country. And he’s just not worth it.
A lot of Americans are really anxious about where the country is right now, and some of them feel the nation’s institutions are in a perilous state. Do you share that concern?
No. Here’s why I don’t: Our country is great. It’s a great country. Our founders gave us the strongest foundation. … All the challenges we have faced, we can withstand anything. But maybe not two [Trump] terms. So we have to make sure that doesn’t happen.
So you’re on the cover of Rolling Stone with Rep. Jahana Hayes (D-Conn.), Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.). Do you see in this new generation of women lawmakers, not just them, but this generation, do you see yourself in them, or do you not see much of yourself in them at all?
Here’s what I see myself in them as: When I came to Congress I had no intention of running for office, shy person that I have always been. I was chair of the [California Democratic] Party, always advancing other people. I loved that because I cared about the causes of the Democratic Party, about fairness in our economy. My motivation is the 1 in 5 children who lives in poverty in America.
So what I see, and I say this to them: I was you. I used to carry the [protest] signs pushing strollers. … And as an advocate, relentless, persistent, dissatisfied always. But when you cross over the threshold and come to Congress, you can bring those enthusiasms, those priorities, your knowledge, your vision, your plan. But you have to want to get results. You have to get results. Then, you were trying to impact others making decisions. Now you are that person. So [my] being a progressive, a liberal from San Francisco, they can’t go any place I haven’t been philosophically. [Laughs.] … So I think I have a good simpatico with a lot of them because, again, that’s who I was. The young women today, though, coming in … the way they balance family and children and home, I’m in awe of them. I’m in awe of them.
Is it harder to manage the demands of the more-centrist members who are going to face tougher reelections, or the more-progressive members who maybe feel a freedom to push a little more?
Understand this: There are a range of views in our caucus, and we respect that. But we are unified. People compliment me and they say, “Oh, you know, you can keep them all together.” I don’t. Our values unify us. And all of us, wherever we are, here or there, are all of one mind that we are here for America’s working families to lower their costs, to raise their paycheck and give them more-honest government in a country where we have gun safety and respect for every person in our society. So there is no management of this. It’s the vitality. We invite it. We’re not trying to curtail it. We’re excited by it.
Has Twitter been good for American politics?
Are you including the president of the United States? I don’t think that’s been good. No. I think truth, fact, evidence, data — I think that’s what’s good for America. As long as that’s being conveyed, I’m for it all. But when it’s not, and I don’t think that’s what the president is conveying, I think that that does a disservice.
It’s Ash Wednesday, and you’re a practicing Catholic. How does your faith guide you in this office?
I was born into a family that was devoutly Catholic, fiercely patriotic, proud of our Italian American heritage and staunchly Democrat. And we saw that connection between church and Democrats as the Gospel of Matthew. When I was hungry, when I was thirsty, when I was naked, when I was homeless, when I was in prison. And that was how we were raised, that we had a responsibility to other people. And that was our motivation. So that’s why sometimes it’s hard for me to understand — I have to admit this, that we were raised to say there’s a spark of divinity in every person. That we’re all God’s children. And yet I see people of faith go down paths that so contradict what they say. For example, on the issue of immigration, so many people of faith, I guess they just don’t think that there’s a spark of divinity or that we’re all God’s children. How disrespectful they are.
When Trump was asking for the money for the border wall, why was it so essential that Democrats not give in?
Because it was wrong. I mean, when the president was advocating for a wall, that was a tangible, visible sign of discrimination. He [was] in sharp contrast to every president before him in modern times. It might interest you to know that the president I quoted most on the campaign trail was Ronald Reagan. … He talks about the Statue of Liberty and what it means to the world to see this beacon of hope, what it means to people who came here, people who are coming here. Then he goes on to say, the vital force of America’s preeminence in the world is every generation of newcomers to our country. And when America fails to recognize that, America will fail to be preeminent in the world. … Ronald Reagan, President George Herbert Walker Bush, President Bill Clinton, President George W. Bush, President Barack Obama all subscribed to the vitality of America being about a renewal of optimism, hope, determination to make the future better. Courageous to come here, to do it as newcomers, making America more American and subscribing to those values of our country.
Except this president used a message of fear against immigrants, against trade, against Hillary Clinton in his campaign, but his anti-immigrant issue is ongoing. It’s the wall, and the wall is not even a campaign promise because he promised Mexico was going to pay for it. It’s a campaign applause line of discrimination and bigotry. And it’s just not right, and it doesn’t do the job. So he wants us to spend billions of dollars when we have other needs to meet the needs of the American people. He wants us to spend tens of billions of dollars on a wall that doesn’t serve the purpose and is a sign of discrimination.
You said earlier you don’t feel it’s worth it to pursue impeachment. Do you believe he’s fit to be president?
Are we talking ethically? Intellectually? Politically? What are we talking here?
All of the above. No. No. I don’t think he is. I mean, ethically unfit. Intellectually unfit. Curiosity-wise unfit. No, I don’t think he’s fit to be president of the United States. And that’s up to us to make the contrast to show that this president — while he may be appealing to you on your insecurity and therefore your xenophobia, whether it’s globalization or immigrants — is fighting clean air for your children to breathe, clean water for them to drink, food safety, every good thing that we should be doing that people can’t do for themselves. You know, I have five kids, and I think I can do everything for them, but I can’t control the air they breathe, the water that they drink. You depend on the public sector to do certain things for the health and well-being of your family, and he is counter to that.
But again, this is coming across too negatively. I don’t usually talk about him this much. This is the most I’ve probably talked about him. I hardly ever talk about him. You know, it’s not about him. It’s about what we can do for the people to lower health-care costs, bigger paychecks, cleaner government.
One of the proposals that has drawn a lot of attention and some support from Democrats is this idea of a Green New Deal. What do you tell members who want leadership to get behind that plan?
I don’t think anybody’s ever told me to get behind the plan. Here’s the thing: When I was speaker, the first time, my flagship issue was climate and energy. And working with President Bush to pass the biggest energy bill in the history of our country, the equivalent of taking millions of cars off the road by raising emission standards, the CAFE standards. He wanted nuclear. I want renewables. We came to a conclusion. We passed a big bill that was the basis for many of President Obama’s initiatives to protect the environment and honor what we agreed to in Paris. …
So the fact that the Green New Deal raises the profile of the issue, that’s really important. But any proposal that someone has, has to come through the committee process. We see it for standards. What does it do in terms of public health, clean air, clean water? What does it do in terms of jobs, jobs, jobs, jobs? How does it keep America preeminent in the green technologies? What does it do in terms of our national security? And I think the generals came out again with a more-current statement of how the climate issue is a national security issue. … And it’s a moral issue if you believe, as I do, that this is God’s creation and we have a responsibility to be good stewards of it — and even if you don’t share that view, if you just believe that we have a moral responsibility to future generations to preserve the planet or pass it on to the next generation in a responsible way. … So I’ve just said if you have an idea, put it forth, we’ll send it to committee. It will be subjected to that review. But know that we all share the value of preserving the planet.
[Your daughter Alexandra] said in an interview: “She knows what she’s doing. And that should make you sleep at night, knowing that at least somebody in this town knows what they’re doing.” I want to ask: How well do you sleep at night?
It depends on how much chocolate I have eaten during the day. Now today I gave up chocolate for lunch — I mean for Lent. [Laughs.] It really was more for lunch because I’m off it already. I had a doughnut for breakfast. I totally forgot till I went to get the ashes that I wasn’t supposed to have that chocolate doughnut for breakfast. Then, once I had the doughnut, I thought I might as well have the chocolate ice cream for lunch. Then my colleague came from Guam and brought chocolate chip cookies. What am I supposed to do? And out of kindness to my colleagues, to my staff and to my families, I don’t think giving up chocolate for Lent is going to work.
Well, that did not last long.
It didn’t last long at all. … What keeps me up at night is the concern I have about the lack of respect for the Constitution, for our values, for our responsibilities and the rest that exists in the White House. And how can we, because you have so many issues, how do we stay focused and just make sure the public knows this isn’t, again, about politics, it’s about who we are as a nation. …
So it’s always about what keeps you up at night. The challenge and what are we going to do about it. And I have a pretty good feel for what we need to do, and, really, to be respectful of every point of view in our caucus. I consider myself a weaver. Like, every thread is important, and you have to just weave it all in. Every thread is important no matter how different — in fact, that’s part of the strength of it. And that beautiful tapestry of what is the Democratic Party in Congress is strengthened by every different thread. So as I say to the members, and will close by saying to you: Our diversity is our strength, our unity is our power. We’re about power.
This interview has been edited and condensed.