WASHINGTON – When President Donald Trump tweeted a photograph of Speaker Nancy Pelosi rising to storm out of a meeting with him this week in the Cabinet Room, he meant it as an insult, branding her “Nervous Nancy” and saying she had had an “unhinged meltdown.”
But the photograph — which depicts Pelosi, 79, standing and wagging her finger at a scowling Trump, 73, seated across the table — quickly went viral for an entirely different reason, hailed by progressives as the latest iconic image of Washington’s most powerful woman telling an impetuous president exactly what is what.
Pelosi’s staff rushed to make the picture, which was taken by an official White House photographer, the background of her Twitter profile as her fans posted it with glee, using hashtags like #PresidentPelosi and #PelosiOwnsTrump.
It is hardly the first time the fractured relationship between Pelosi and Trump has best been captured on film.
First, there was the photograph of Pelosi in sunglasses and swinging rust-colored coat, after she upbraided Trump in an Oval Office meeting in December, even before she became speaker. Then there was Pelosi’s sardonic clap at the president during his State of the Union address, in which she wore an arch expression that her daughter later said she remembered from her teenage years, and summed up as, “Frankly she’s disappointed that you thought this would work.”
Now comes a new classic image of Pelosi, at a long conference table filled almost entirely with graying white men, lecturing the president during a contentious meeting on Syria as others look down uncomfortably, averting their gaze.
Like the others, it has ripped across the internet, in what Democrats regard as a spectacular backfire that once again demonstrates that Trump does not quite know how to deal with a woman who is his equal.
By Pelosi’s account, the photo, taken Wednesday before she and other Democrats walked out of the meeting, shows her confronting the president over his decision to pull troops out of Syria, effectively abandoning the Kurds, who have now turned to Russia for help. She wanted to know, was the move a favor to President Vladimir Putin of Russia, who is seeking to strengthen his position there?
“I had concerns that all roads seemed to lead to Putin,” Pelosi told reporters Thursday.
It was a stunning accusation of disloyalty, but the substance has all but been lost in the hoopla around the body language between the two of them, and the gender imbalance in the room. (For the record, a handful of other women were in attendance, including Rep. Liz Cheney, the No. 3 House Republican, who is partly obscured by Pelosi’s outstretched arm as she points to a glowering Trump.)
During the meeting, the president had insulted Pelosi, calling her a “third-grade politician” (at least that was her account; the White House later insisted he had said “third-rate”) and reacted with an angry taunt when she turned to leave, saying, “Goodbye, see you at the polls!”
Hours before he posted the photo, Pelosi had returned to the Capitol and told the news media, “Now, we have to pray for his health, because this was a very serious meltdown on the part of the president.”
Trump used the photo instead to hurl the very same accusation back at Pelosi, as he often does when he is criticized, and his fellow Republicans pointed to the image as evidence that Pelosi was being disrespectful to the president. But Democrats saw something else: a powerful woman schooling an impetuous man, or perhaps a mother scolding a toddler — not to mention a fundraising opportunity.
A group called Mad Dog PAC, which describes itself as engaging in “high-impact, high-visibility, nonviolent activities to help bring about the impeachment and removal of Donald Trump,” is now selling coffee mugs bearing the picture. “Celebrate Speaker Pelosi bringing it to the toddler in chief with our new Pelosi Owns Trump ceramic coffee mug,” its website declares.
Emerge America, a political action committee devoted to electing Democratic women, used the photo in an email fundraising blast. “We’re on a mission to put more women like Nancy in office and demand our seat at the table, and we just set a goal to raise $5,000 in less than 24 hours,” said the missive, which tantalized recipients with the subject line, “This photo of Nancy Pelosi.”
The New York Times generally does not publish what are known as handout photographs — images of events from which news photographers were excluded — which can be powerful pieces of propaganda, as Trump apparently believed the picture of his confrontation with Pelosi to be.
White House officials said Trump released the photo to expose Pelosi as petulant and unwilling to have a calm discussion.
“While everyone else wanted to engage in a sincere dialogue with military leaders, the picture clearly shows the speaker was in the middle of an unhinged, uncontrollable meltdown,” said Hogan Gidley, the deputy White House press secretary.
That is not what everyone saw. Vogue magazine invited three art experts to analyze the picture. “Some see Renaissance influences; others, hints of Norman Rockwell,” the magazine wrote. “Have you noticed the Benjamin Franklin bust in the background and the clock on the mantle bisecting the frame?”
But no one is having as much fun with the photograph as Pelosi herself. It now graces her Twitter and Facebook pages. And her staff took particular delight in the fact that, because it was taken by a White House photographer in a meeting closed to journalists, it would never have become public had the president not released it himself.
“We would never have gotten that photo had he not tweeted it,” said Drew Hammill, Pelosi’s spokesman. “It was a huge gift.”