WASHINGTON — The war of words between President Trump and Speaker Nancy Pelosi escalated in dramatic fashion on Thursday, with each leader questioning the other’s temperament and mental fitness in an extraordinary exchange of personal insults.
The president, who has largely avoided direct personal attacks on the speaker, finally gave her a derogatory nickname — calling her “Crazy Nancy,” after Ms. Pelosi had suggested Mr. Trump’s behavior was so erratic it required an “intervention” from his family and staff.
“She’s a mess. She’s lost it,” the president said during an event to announce $16 billion in aid to farmers, in part to compensate for his tariffs policy on China. That event transformed into a monologue and a question-and-answer session with reporters, which included a reprisal of an old self-assessment that Mr. Trump is an “extremely stable genius.”
Ms. Pelosi quickly shot back on Twitter, saying, “When the ‘extremely stable genius’ starts acting more presidential, I’ll be happy to work with him on infrastructure, trade and other issues.”
Their public feuding comes as Mr. Trump is headed to Japan on Friday and Congress goes on a weeklong Memorial Day recess, ensuring that little will be resolved any time soon. But the collision was anything but accidental. Ms. Pelosi set out Thursday morning to pick a fight with Mr. Trump, three people close to her said, part of a strategy to unnerve a president who has defied the efforts of House Democrats to subpoena documents and summon witnesses to testify about his conduct.
But her decision to dramatize the fight also represented an embrace of Mr. Trump’s own signature political tactic: an attempt to divert attention from a divisive internal debate — in this case a drive by two dozen of her caucus members to push ahead with impeachment — with a headline-grabbing attack, in hopes of uniting her own political base. Other leaders who have fought Mr. Trump on his own terms have failed.
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Mr. Trump’s response was visceral and reactive. He questioned Ms. Pelosi’s intellectual capacities, saying that she was incapable of understanding the details of a proposed new trade agreement with Canada and Mexico. A day after saying he would not work with Democrats on legislation until they stop investigating him, he demanded that the House pass his revised trade agreement with Canada and Mexico.
As he spoke, a group of farmers and ranchers, some wearing cowboy hats in the White House, stood and stared.
The president then enlisted a series of aides — Kellyanne Conway, Mercedes Schlapp, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Larry Kudlow and Hogan Gidley — to bolster his contention that he was calm during his brief infrastructure meeting on Wednesday with Ms. Pelosi and other congressional Democratic leaders, a meeting that ended after three minutes.
One by one, his aides acceded to his wishes and affirmed his characterization in a ritual rarely seen in democratic governments.
“Very calm. No temper tantrum,” Ms. Conway said. “Very calm and very direct,” Ms. Schlapp added. “Mercedes is right. Kellyanne is right. You were calm,” Mr. Kudlow said. “Very calm,” Ms. Sanders said when prompted. “I’ve seen both. This was definitely not angry or ranting.”
It was the second day in a row in which Mr. Trump had bitterly attacked the Democrats, in sessions that were a rambling blend of his consistent roll call of villains in the Russian inquiry, larded with a heavy ladle of grievance.
For her part, Ms. Pelosi was intent on playing a two-pronged game: bashing Mr. Trump publicly while toiling in the Capitol to dissuade House Democrats from impeaching him.
Ms. Pelosi said on Thursday that House Democrats were “not on a path to impeachment,” even as she accused Mr. Trump of trying to whip her caucus into a distracting political battle by stonewalling congressional oversight.
Buoyed by two recent victories in court over the White House, Ms. Pelosi suggested that Mr. Trump was too unstable to govern. The president’s theatrical scrapping of Wednesday’s infrastructure meeting at the White House raised questions about his temperament and behavior, she said.
Mr. Trump had “another temper tantrum,” she told reporters at her weekly news conference at the Capitol. “Again, I pray for the president of the United States. I wish that his family or his administration or his staff would have an intervention for the good of the country.”
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In a side spat, Ms. Conway, for the second day, tried to engage Ms. Pelosi.
After Wednesday’s brief meeting in the White House Cabinet Room, Ms. Conway asked Ms. Pelosi if she wanted to respond to the president’s speech in the Rose Garden — to which the speaker responded, “I’m responding to the president, not staff,” according to her aides.
On Thursday, Ms. Conway accused Ms. Pelosi of treating her “like I’m either her maid or her driver or her pilot or her makeup artist.”
Ms. Pelosi shrugged off the comments, telling reporters, “I’m not going to talk about her.”
But such spats are sideshows for Ms. Pelosi as she tries to stem the momentum toward impeachment. On Wednesday, during a caucus meeting, she faced down calls from about 25 House Democrats who wanted her to move immediately on impeachment. Instead, she urged them to “follow the facts” by allowing court cases to play out before passing final judgment.
Since then, a federal court on Wednesday affirmed the House’s right to obtain Mr. Trump’s financial records, the second such ruling this week.
“What really got to him,” Ms. Pelosi said on Thursday, was “these court cases and the fact that the House Democratic caucus is not on a path to impeachment.”
“That’s where he wants us to be,” she told reporters, adding, “The White House is just crying out for impeachment” to divide Democrats and take the focus off the president’s failures and policy inaction.
Earlier Thursday, during a closed-door session with her caucus, Ms. Pelosi made the case more explicitly, arguing that the president hoped to provoke impeachment in order to achieve public exoneration by the Republican-controlled Senate, which acts as the final arbiter on impeachment hearings.
For the moment, Ms. Pelosi seems to have stopped a mass defection of Democrats to the pro-impeachment cause. But to do so, allies said, she must avoid the appearance that she is being soft on Mr. Trump.
That appears to mean amplifying her criticism of him, and giving public voice to opinions about the president that she has kept private until now.
On Thursday, she jokingly referenced the Constitution’s 25th Amendment, which allows for a president to be removed from office if it is determined that he is “unable to discharge the duties of the office.”
“Article 25,” Ms. Pelosi said, “that’s a good idea.”
An aide later said she was referring to the 25th Amendment.