In the span of one hour Tuesday, House Democrats moved to impeach President Trump for abusing his office and simultaneously handed him his biggest legislative accomplishment of the year by agreeing to a long-stalled North American trade deal — a dramatic clash of two issues that will define the president’s legacy and the 2020 election.
Even for the often chaotic and unpredictable Trump presidency, the contrasting events marked an odd moment as Democrats worked with the White House to advance one of the biggest trade deals in a generation — with a chief executive they accuse of such heinous acts that he’s likely to become the third U.S. president to be impeached.
But both sides have strong motivations for working together despite, or maybe even because of, the bitter political war over impeachment.
For Trump, securing Democratic support for the renamed U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement puts him on the verge of fulfilling one of his biggest campaign promises, just as he prepares to face voters again in 2020.
For Democrats, the conflicting images bolstered their claim that they didn’t come to Washington merely to fight Trump — that they can “walk and chew gum,” to cite a claim repeated by Democrats and their aides for the last several weeks. Democrats insisted the timing — unveiling impeachment articles as they announced agreement on a revised North American Free Trade Agreement — was not planned.
“Sometimes they coincide — there’s not much you can do about it,” said Chairman Richard E. Neal (D-Mass.), who, as chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee played a role in both impeachment and the trade deal. “I repeatedly noted that when we got the agreement [on the trade deal], we would go with it. We got the agreement, we’re going with it. So you can’t control the timing.”
For voters, the dueling announcements offered a glimpse into an alternate reality, a real-time contrast between the embattled presidency that Trump now has and the one that might have been — in which a political outsider cuts across party lines to deliver a trade deal.
That the two events happened an hour apart was all the more jarring. When a reporter asked House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) about the “whiplash,” she interjected, “and the day is young.”
For both parties, the issues debated Tuesday likely will have a major impact on the 2020 campaigns.
Democrats in the progressive wing of the party have been arguing for years that the president needs to be held accountable, a clamor that only amplified in the wake of his attempt to get Ukraine to investigate his political rivals. If the House hadn’t moved to impeach, Democratic enthusiasm that propelled the party in the 2018 election would likely have suffered.
But moderate Democrats have also been itching for bipartisan victories such as the trade deal, which will bolster the party in farming communities, such as California’s Central Valley.
The trade agreement stands to be one of the only major pieces of legislation that get through the divided Congress this year and to Trump’s desk. Freshman Democrats, many of whom unseated Republicans in areas of the country where the president is relatively popular, have been privately begging Pelosi for victories like this that they can tout to their constituents.
But the president stands to benefit, too. The House — or “do-nothing Democrats” as he says — will serve as a foil in his race for reelection. And while moderate Democrats can run on USMCA, so can the president. The deal will hand Trump his biggest accomplishment since the 2017 GOP tax deal.
“Americans don’t like seeing naked partisanship,” said Tim Murtaugh, director of communications for Trump’s reelection campaign, arguing that although Pelosi didn’t want to give Trump a political victory, she realized that her members needed the trade deal just as much.
“She can read the polls just like anyone else could,” he said. “Naked partisanship is not what Americans want.”
The mix of trade and impeachment cresting at the same time threatens to blunt the impact of both — which might be what some Democrats hope for.
“This is good for our country. This is good for our economy — nothing to do with Trump,” said Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas).
The clash even prompted some confusion in Congress, where lawmakers largely deal with one issue at a time and have certain issues they want to talk about — or don’t.
“We’re ready to rock and roll,” Cueller, a longtime booster of the trade deal, shouted to reporters upon exiting a meeting of House Democrats on Tuesday morning.
Then he quickly added, “I’m talking about trade.”