WASHINGTON -- With the national debt at $22 trillion and climbing, audience members at the Peter G. Peterson Foundation's 2019 Fiscal Summit on Tuesday were eager to hear how the nation's leaders plan to address the country's budgetary challenges.
But much of the time, they heard instead about partisan divisions, gridlock and the lack of political will to make tough choices.
Interviewed on stage by CNN's Manu Raju, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi suggested the focus of the conversation should be on fixing the nation's fiscal ills.
Instead, she faced multiple questions about potential impeachment proceedings, unkind presidential tweets and the like.
Raju quoted some of President Donald Trump's most recent disparaging remarks about Pelosi.
During a D-Day interview on Fox News with the Normandy American Cemetery as the backdrop, Trump had labeled Pelosi "a disgrace," among other things.
"He called you a nasty, vindictive horrible person. ... He later went on to tweet that you're a disgrace to yourself and your family," Raju told Pelosi. "How do you react to the president of the United States calling you, the speaker of the House, [and] insulting you like that?"
"Well, what bothers me more is that we're talking about that instead of how to reduce the national debt," the California Democrat replied, drawing applause from the audience.
When Raju pursued the line of questioning, asking, "But how do you work with [Trump]," Pelosi cut him off mid-sentence. "I'm done with him. I don't even want to talk about him," she said.
When the questioning continued along similar lines, Pelosi said: "I don't care what you ask anymore. I'm not going to talk about him anymore," drawing laughter from some in the audience.
"I thought we were talking about reducing the national debt," she said.
"We'll get there," Raju replied, before shifting the conversation, yet again, to Trump.
During the conversation, Pelosi accused Trump of being the nation's "diverter-of-attention-in-chief," suggesting he is shifting attention away from the major problems facing the country.
The barrage of presidential criticism isn't hampering her, Pelosi said.
"My stock goes up every time he attacks me," she said.
Pelosi declined to say whether she'd told her Democratic colleagues that she'd rather see Trump in prison than impeached.
"When we have conversations in our caucus, they stay in our caucus. Do people think there's some impeachable offenses the president committed? Yes. How serious are they? Are they criminal? Many people think they are," she added.
Pelosi suggested Democrats are keeping their options open, saying that impeachment is "not off the table." The report by special counsel Robert Mueller "clearly spells out at least 10 or 11 instances of obstruction of justice," she added.
Shortly after Pelosi's departure, Trump fired back at the Capitol's top-ranking Democrat.
"Nancy is a mess. The Democratic Party is a mess. They're doing everything they can to win the election in 2020. They are guilty of many crimes. Many, many crimes. What they've done; they're guilty of many, many crimes. And hopefully in a short period of time, that'll be seen," he said. "All they do is waste time on these investigations where there's no obstruction, no collusion. No nothing. And in the meantime, they can't get a border deal done. They can't do anything. ... We need them to work on illegal immigration, on lower drug prices, on infrastructure and they're not doing anything done. They've come to a halt."
Speaking with reporters before traveling to Iowa, the president suggested Pelosi bears the blame for the latest ill will.
"Pelosi attacked me. She was here. She made a horrible statement that I'm sure she wished she didn't make ... while I was with the Queen of England, while I was with the president of France, and you're not supposed to do that, OK. But the ones that committed the crimes are the Democrats. And others," he said.
Tuesday's event, titled "Building America's Future," was the 10th annual gathering. The Peter G. Peterson Foundation, which highlights the "urgency of key fiscal challenges threatening America's future," is named after its founder, a former Lehman Brothers president and CEO who also served as commerce secretary under President Richard Nixon.
The deficit hawk, who had urged fiscal discipline for years, died in March 2018 at age 91.
When the national debt finally came up in Tuesday's conversation, Pelosi blamed the 2017 Republican tax break for the acceleration in deficit spending, saying it would add $2 trillion to the national debt over the next decade.
The measure was passed "in the dark of night. Speed of light. No hearings," she said. "Now they're saying, 'Help us fix this. Help us fix that.'"
Pelosi praised the late former President George H.W. Bush's leadership on fiscal matters, portraying his violation of his "no new taxes" pledge as a display of statesmanship.
Democrats, she said, are willing to work with Republicans "to reduce the debt as we create good-paying jobs."
Later in the day, acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney said Trump remains willing to work with Democrats on several key issues, including immigration, budgetary matters and raising the national debt ceiling.
But he expressed doubts that fiscal austerity is imminent.
"There is no center of gravity to reduce spending in this town. Period. End of story," he said at the conference.
But sharp cuts aren't the only way to lower the deficit.
It can also be accomplished, when the economy is booming, by reining in the growth of government spending, he said.
"That's what we're shooting for," he added.
"We didn't do a very good job on that in the first couple of years, but again, when you don't have active partners on the Hill, it's very difficult for the administration to do this by itself," he said. Republicans were in control of both houses of Congress in the first two years of Trump's term, then Democrats took control of the House this year.
A Section on 06/12/2019
Print Headline: Focus on Trump-Pelosi feud sidetracks fiscal forum