House speaker as U.S. emissary: Pelosi emerges as force abroad

FILE - In this Aug. 10, 2019, file photo, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi smiles during a news conference at a hotel in Tegucigalpa, Honduras. There’s an American leader whose words increasingly resonate abroad, who’s adored in foreign capitals and who sends a message just by her arrival. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has emerged as an alternative ambassador in the Trump era. (AP Photo/Elmer Martinez)
265805 Pinchos- PGB promo Banner (25 x 5 cm)-5 copy

There’s an American leader whose words resonate on the global stage. Who draws attention in foreign capitals. Who carries a message from the United States by simply arriving.

It’s not just President Donald Trump. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., is emerging as an alternative ambassador abroad, an emissary for bedrock democratic values and the promise of stability that some see as diminishing in the Trump era.

As the president heads to the Group of Seven summit in France next week with his “America First” agenda , Pelosi has been quietly engaging the world from another point of view. She is reviving a more traditional American approach to foreign policy, in style and substance, reinforcing long-standing U.S. alliances and commitments to democracy and human rights, at a time when the old order appears to be slipping away.

“What’s really important for people to know is, we’re all in this together,” Pelosi told The Associated Press in an interview. “This isn’t about me. It’s about our country and our shared values, to show our strength of who we are and what we believe.”

Since retaking the speaker’s gavel this year, Pelosi has led large congressional delegations abroad: to assure European allies at a Munich security conference; warn Britons of the pitfalls of Brexit; assess the migrant crisis in Central America; and mark the 400th anniversary of the slave trade in Africa with members of the Congressional Black Caucus, including the immigrant congresswoman who became the subject of a Trump rally chant, “Send her back!”

Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said that at a time when U.S. policy is “confusing everybody in the world,” Pelosi and the members of Congress are trying to “present the best face of America.”

“Thank goodness that they’re doing this,” Albright said.

With the lawmakers, Pelosi is sending a “very clear message” to the foreign officials in the room, said Rep. Norma Torres, D-Calif., a Guatemalan American who joined the Central American trip.

“Presidents come and go. Congress will always be there,” Torres said.

The scope of Pelosi’s diplomacy often resonates with members of the president’s party, creating rare bipartisan accord.

This past week, when Trump said he hopes it works out with Hong Kong pro-democracy protesters facing retaliation from China — “I hope nobody gets killed,” he told reporters — Pelosi affirmed the U.S. commitment to human rights and urged the Hong Kong government to end the standoff. It was a sentiment shared by several top Republicans, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.

Congressional leaders routinely play a role influencing policy abroad. While House speaker, Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., visited the former Soviet Union. More recently, when John Boehner, R-Ohio, was speaker, he invited Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu to address a joint meeting of Congress amid opposition to the Obama administration’s nuclear deal with Iran. Pelosi, as a young lawmaker, went to China to oppose the violent crackdown on democracy protesters in Tiananmen Square.

But not since the late Republican Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., globe-trotted the world has a U.S. lawmaker emerged with such a presence, as a protector of long-held American values, as Pelosi.

“This is what diplomacy looks like,” said Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., who traveled with Pelosi this month to Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras as the migrant crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border played out.

Trump has not been pleased with some of Pelosi’s trips.

In a stunning move this year, the president abruptly ordered the grounding of the military aircraft that was set to take lawmakers to Belgium and Afghanistan to visit troops. The move was in retaliation for Pelosi’s decision to postpone Trump’s State of the Union address during the federal government shutdown.

Trump dismissed Pelosi’s “excursion” as a “public relations event” and suggested the lawmakers could fly on commercial aircraft to the combat zone. Congressional travel is, by law, federally funded.

Critics may see the trips as merely junkets or, worse, meddling in the administration’s foreign affairs. American politicians generally abide by a rule to leave their political differences at water’s edge. During a trip to Africa, Pelosi surprised some when she declined to answer questions about Trump’s racist tweets against members of Congress.

Sometimes more can be said diplomatically by saying little.

At the Munich security conference this year, Pelosi was embraced by European leaders at a time when Trump’s attacks on NATO were threatening the decades-old alliance of Western nations.

“She was greeted like a rock star,” said Wendy Sherman, an Obama-era ambassador and former State Department counselor under Albright. Around that time, Pelosi and McConnell invited the NATO secretary-general address to Congress.

Still, words matter and Pelosi’s interventions in Brexit rippled this past week across the United Kingdom again. She reiterated the message delivered earlier this year, in London and in a speech to the Irish Parliament, that there will be “no chance” of a U.S.-Britain trade deal passing Congress if British efforts to leave the European Union result in a hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland, which could undermine the peace process there.

Her stand countered the one Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton, was taking during his own visit talking up a quick trade deal.

Lawmakers who travel with Pelosi say the trips are demanding, with grueling schedules and working meals, but rewarding as she delegates others to speak for the group. Many of the trips were initially their ideas.

When the head of the Congressional Black Caucus, Rep. Karen Bass, D-Calif., asked her to Ghana, Pelosi sought out the highest ranking African American in the House, Democratic Rep. Jim Clyburn of South Carolina, to lead the group’s discussion with the country’s president.

Later, Pelosi took a photo with Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., the Somali American refugee who the Trump rally crowd wanted to send “back,” as the two passed through a historic doorway at the coastal site where enslaved Africans were bound for the middle passage to the Americas.

“So much of what we are doing carried history,” Clyburn said.

Mark Salter, a longtime aide to McCain, said while the Republican senator and the Democratic speaker disagreed on “a million things,” Pelosi, like his former boss, “believes in the ideals of this country” and fostering those ideals abroad.

“She’s a statesman and McCain would applaud it,” Salter said. “He would look at the speaker, those activities, with appreciation.”