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The Journal Gazette

Friday, June 14, 2019 1:00 pm

Fact check: Does Pelosi avoid talking about the president overseas?

GLENN KESSLER | Washington Post

"Well, I don't ever criticize the President outside of the country." -- House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., London School of Economics, April 15

"I don't want to talk about the president here because I'm overseas." -- Pelosi, interview on CNN with Christiane Amanpour, Dublin, April 16

"I don't talk about the president while I'm out of the country. That's my principle." -- Pelosi, in Normandy, France, June 6

"Honored in the breach" is an interesting Shakespearean phrase. These days, it is often used to describe a good custom that is rarely observed. But originally in "Hamlet," it referred to a bad custom that should be ignored.

We thought about that dual meaning as we contemplated Pelosi's repeated claim that she does not speak ill of a president while not on U.S. soil -- while combing through her recent statements overseas in which she targeted President Donald Trump or his policies.

So is this a case of "honored in the breach" in the modern form -- or the Shakespearean version?

To explain her practice, Pelosi's office sent the Washington Post an article about the iconic statement uttered by Sen. Arthur Vandenberg (1884-1951), a Michigan Republican: "We must stop partisan politics at the water's edge."

This is also a phrase that has become unmoored from its original meaning. Vandenberg -- who shifted from an isolationist stance to supporting President Harry Truman's internationalist policies, such as the Marshall Plan and the creation of NATO -- was calling for a bipartisan foreign policy. He was not suggesting one should not speak ill of the commander-in-chief while abroad.

But Pelosi and others have interpreted the phrase as meaning that overseas, U.S. politicians should not engage in partisan attacks but show a united front. Pelosi is certainly not supportive of many of Trump's foreign policy moves, in the way that Vandenberg would understand.

In the 24-hour news cycle, with instantaneous communication, one might argue it's a quaint notion. What's the difference between bashing the president in a CNN interview from Washington vs. one in Ireland? Both interviews will be beamed instantly around the world. Viewers will likely care more about the words that are uttered, rather than where they are said.

So how well did Pelosi hold up to her own standard? She often struggled with it.

At the London School of Economics, she said: "You're getting me dangerously close to leaving the shores of the United States, but I would say I don't think any president of the United States should use the tragedy of 9/11 as a political tool. I think that is wrong, I think it's beneath the dignity of the office."

Pelosi was responding to an attack by Trump against Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., in which he shared a video on Twitter of the lawmaker spliced with footage of the burning Twin Towers from the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack. Conservatives had been sharing a snippet of an Omar speech to suggest she had played down the significance of the Sept. 11 attacks.

Pelosi also tweeted about the controversy overseas.

At another time at the LSE session, Pelosi attacked Trump's trade policy but tried to sugarcoat it: "This isn't a criticism, just a difference of opinion," she said, arguing the United States could have joined with the European Union to put pressure on China. "I wasn't pleased when the president put tariffs on the E.U. It started to weaken that strength that could have been there, vis a vis China."

In her interview with Amanpour, Pelosi referred to Trump as "the president who's trying to usurp the power of the legislative branch of the government." When Amanpour asked Pelosi about Trump suggesting Democrats were ant-Semitic, she responded, "I think the president is bankrupt of any ideas."

Then she added: "I don't want to talk about the president here because I'm overseas. But come see me in Washington, D.C., and I'll tell you what I think about that, the president."

Pelosi spokesman Drew Hammill said that Pelosi does not want to engage in partisan attacks while overseas. He drew a contrast with Trump, who blasted Pelosi as "a disaster" during an interview in France that featured a backdrop of thousands of white grave markers at the Normandy American Cemetery. In this instance, Pelosi shrugged off Trump's attack and refused to comment.

"These days it is difficult to avoid talking about the president, but she certainly tried," Hamill said.

Pelosi appears to be trying to have her cake and eat it, too. She says she does not want to talk about the president overseas, but then she slips in criticisms, including a sharp one: He's "bankrupt of any ideas." The distinction between a policy difference and a partisan attack is especially hard to discern. It's certainly not in the spirit of the original meaning of Vandenberg's line.

Either Pelosi needs to hold fast to her standard -- that she does not talk about the president -- or abandon it. She was restrained in Normandy. But other times, it appears to have been a principle honored in the breach. We award her two out of a possible four Pinocchios.

Two Pinocchios