WASHINGTON — A bus emblazoned with the US Air Force logo was idling outside the Capitol on Thursday, members of Congress on board, ready to depart for Joint Base Andrews and a waiting military aircraft. Inside, Speaker Nancy Pelosi was in her office making final preparations to lead the congressional delegation on a secret visit to American troops in Afghanistan with a stop in Brussels.
Then came word from the White House: President Trump was grounding their plane and killing the trip.
Trump’s decision to upend Pelosi’s travel plans was a remarkable bit of one upmanship in an increasingly bitter 27-day government shutdown drama in which Trump and Pelosi, the newly elected Democratic speaker, are the main antagonists.
The day before Pelosi had suggested the president cancel or delay his State of the Union address this month, citing security concerns amid a prolonged partial shutdown that has forced thousands of federal employees to work without pay. Trump at first said nothing, but 24 hours later, without mentioning her request, the president released a sarcasm-tinged letter in which he told her the trip was off.
“In light of the 800,000 great American workers not receiving pay, I am sure you would agree that postponing this public relations event is totally appropriate,” Trump wrote. “I also feel that, during this period, it would be better if you were in Washington negotiating with me and joining the strong border security movement to end the shutdown.”
“Obviously,” Trump added, she still had the option of flying commercial.
The letter amounted to the latest reminder, if any was needed, that the stalemate over Trump’s demand that Democrats support his request for $5.7 billion to build a border wall has reached such a poisonous pitch that even the most tradition-bound rituals of government — the president’s annual address to a joint session of Congress, lawmakers’ periodic trips overseas to gather facts and perform oversight — have been consumed in a storm of ill will and competing agendas.
It came on a day in which there were once again no negotiations between the two sides, but some indication that House Democrats, increasingly concerned they have not sufficiently countered Trump’s demands for a wall with ideas of their own, were privately weighing offering their own plan for more effectively securing the border.
The move would be something of a shift in strategy for the Democrats, who have steadfastly refused to engage in a debate with Trump about border security as long as the government remains shuttered.
“There have been concerns by some members saying we need to tell our constituents what we’re for and what it would look like in terms of border security,” said Representative Lucille Roybal-Allard, Democrat of California and chairwoman of the appropriations subcommittee that handles homeland security.
Representative Peter A. DeFazio, Democrat of Oregon and chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, who told a group of committee chairmen at a closed-door meeting Wednesday that it was time for their party to go public with its own border security ideas, reiterated the idea in an interview.
The president, he said, “is making this about border security, but what he is proposing would not provide real border security — it’s a stupid, static wall, which is a symbol, and it’s not a great symbol, and it would be ineffective.”
Among the investments that DeFazio said should be made instead are more money for Coast Guard equipment and personnel to intercept maritime drug shipments, better technology to scan vehicles legally crossing the border to detect illegal drugs, resources for costly reconfiguration of border crossings to make them more secure, and funds for additional personnel to police them.
Later in the day, the Trump administration announced that despite the stalemate it was asking furloughed State Department workers to return to work on Tuesday, citing its vital national security mission.
It was latest instance in which the administration has determined that an agency or department has a critical mission and its employees should return to work. But unlike in other parts of the government, the State Department employees will be paid, at least for work performed in the next pay period. Pay missed because of the shutdown will not be issued until Congress passes a funding bill for the department.
Trump’s decision to revoke Pelosi’s military transport drew howls of outrage from Democrats and some Republicans, and threw into disarray a long-planned trip by the speaker and senior lawmakers — including the chairmen of the House Intelligence and Foreign Affairs committees — to visit American allies and troops stationed overseas.
Democrats, newly in control of the House and eager to use their power to challenge Trump, vowed they would not be bullied into scrapping the trip altogether.
“We’re not going to allow the president of the United States to tell the Congress it can’t fulfill its oversight responsibilities, it can’t ensure that our troops have what they need, whether our government is open or closed,” said Representative Adam Schiff, Democrat of California and chairman of the intelligence panel.
Instead of heading for Joint Base Andrews and boarding a military plane, the lawmakers sat stunned on their bus.
In the Capitol, Representative Steny Hoyer, Democrat of Maryland and majority leader, sputtered with anger.
“It’s petty, it’s small, it’s vindictive,” Hoyer said. “It is unbecoming of a president of the United States, but it is unfortunately a daily occurrence.”
White House officials including Mick Mulvaney, the acting chief of staff, had been irked by Pelosi’s invocation of security concerns as her premise for urging Trump to move his speech, and sought to put her in her place after she had emphasized that she represented a coequal branch in governing, according to aides who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Some of Trump’s usual allies were not amused.
“One sophomoric response does not deserve another,” Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, said in a statement. “Speaker Pelosi’s threat to cancel the State of the Union is very irresponsible and blatantly political,” he added. “President Trump denying Speaker Pelosi military travel is also inappropriate.”
A White House spokesman said that all coming official visits by lawmakers, known as congressional delegations or “codels,” would be canceled until the shutdown is over.
But Melania Trump, the first lady, kept her plans to fly on a military jet to West Palm Beach, Fla., to go to the family’s Mar-a-Lago compound.