Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives, recently handed President Donald Trump a way to cancel next week’s State of the Union address without losing face. Instead, he refused her offer, setting in motion a standoff that has uncomfortable parallels to—if also important differences with—a pivotal moment in the history of English democracy.
In a letter last week, Pelosi noted that Secret Service agents and Department of Homeland Security officials had been furloughed by the shutdown. “Sadly, given the security concerns and unless government re-opens this week, I suggest that we work together to determine another suitable date after government has re-opened for this address or for you to consider delivering your State of the Union address in writing to the Congress on January 29th,” she wrote.
Trump waited until Wednesday to reply, declaring that there were no security concerns that would prevent his appearance. “I look forward to seeing you on the evening on January 29th in the Chamber of the House of Representatives,” he wrote to her. “It would be very sad for our Country if the State of the Union were not delivered on time, on schedule, and very importantly, on location!”
There isn’t much precedent for an American president threatening to storm the House over the speaker’s objection. While Trump has the right to be in the chamber, as CBS News’ Ed O’Keefe notes, he can’t address the House and Senate without their joint approval. And he does not have Pelosi’s. Hours after Trump’s letter, she replied that she would not consider a motion to hold the State of the Union until the shutdown ended. “Again, I look forward to welcoming you to the House on a mutually agreeable date for this address when government has been opened,” she wrote.
Should Trump choose to ignore Pelosi, and attempt nonetheless to give his State of the Union at the House next Tuesday, it would echo one of the uglier chapters of the British monarchy.
Charles I, who reigned over England, Scotland, and Wales from 1625 to 1649, never enjoyed good relations with Parliament. England was a largely Protestant country with a strong tradition of parliamentary government, but Charles, who had married a French Catholic queen, believed in a king’s absolute right to govern.
Charles had refused to convene Parliament for eleven years, to avoid any checks on his power. But to secure funds for a war against unruly Scottish nobles to the north in 1640, he faced the ancient dilemma of English kings. Parliament’s consent would be needed to levy any new taxes, but it was unlikely to be given without concessions by the crown.
Relations between members of the new Parliament and the king quickly disintegrated after he summoned it in 1640. The House of Commons and the House of Lords passed laws to strip away his powers, attaching funds to them so he would give royal assent. With most of Europe still consumed by religious turmoil, many Protestant members feared Charles was part of a foreign plot to restore Catholicism over England. In 1642, tensions came to a head. Charles issued a warrant for the arrest of five key members of the Commons for high treason.
The Commons refused to immediately hand them over. The following day, armed soldiers arrived and broke open the doors, and Charles himself entered the chamber to personally arrest the members. All five of them had already fled, however. Charles then turned to the speaker to ask where they had gone. “May it please your majesty, I have neither eyes to see nor tongue to speak in this place but as this house is pleased to direct me whose servant I am here,” the speaker famously replied, reasserting the legislature’s privileges. Charles’s act was a brazen violation of England’s unwritten constitution. He was the first monarch to set foot in the House of Commons, and none of his successors have dared to do so again.
Granted, as bizarre as politics have become Trump, such a scene is implausible in modern America. And the stakes today are nowhere near what they were 1642. The king stormed Parliament to arrest five of its members on allegations of treason, not to give a speech outlining his policy agenda. Charles’s actions also directly precipitated a civil war that ultimately ended his reign. While relations between the House and the American president are currently frosty, to say the least, there is no risk of open warfare between the two sides.
What both rulers share is a disdain for the very idea of political opposition in the legislative branch. After Pelosi’s announcement, Trump told reporters that the Democratic Party under her leadership was a “very dangerous party for this country” and that he was “not going to allow the radical left to control our country.” He regularly casts the debate over border-wall funding as an existential struggle against Democrats who want to bring criminals and drugs into the United States. Delegitimizing political opponents is one of Trump’s favorite tactics, whether against media outlets that report on him or federal judges who rule against him.
Trump is also driven by his personal whims, often to the detriment of his and his party’s policy goals. His presidency has been defined by his inability to work alongside lawmakers, even when both chambers were controlled by Republicans. His approach to negotiating with congressional Democrats has been to issue ultimatums, then wait for them to move in his direction. He causes crises, then uses them to force concessions. This strategy may satisfy his desire to wield leverage over his opponents in the short term. But it has also hardened Democrats against giving into his demands and intensified the American public’s opposition to his policies.
As the year progresses, these disputes will only get more pronounced. House Democratic lawmakers are planning a battery of oversight hearings into the past two years of his administration. There will be inquiries into White House security clearances, the politicization of the Census, the acting attorney general’s tenure at the Justice Department, and much more. Michael Cohen, Trump’s former personal attorney, was slated to testify before Congress next month but requested a delay, citing threats against his family. The intense scrutiny will only deepen Trump’s desire for a subservient Congress.
Trump hasn’t yet decided what to do now that Pelosi has rebuffed him. The New York Times reported Wednesday that he’s exploring alternative venues for his address. But he could instead take a page from Thomas Jefferson, who in 1801 began a century-long tradition of submitting the State of the Union to Congress in writing instead of delivering it as a speech. Jefferson opposed the prospect of a presidential speech because he thought it too reminiscent of the British monarchy. For Trump, however, that may be part of the allure.
Update: Trump announced on Twitter late Wednesday evening that he would postpone his State of the Union until after the shutdown ends.