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WASHINGTON — On the same day that Democrats introduced articles of impeachment, Republicans used a major trade deal to further depict the impeachment inquiry as both highly political and largely irrelevant.
This argument came into focus on Tuesday morning, as House Democrats and the Trump administration separately announced that they had finally reached a deal on a North American free trade agreement that had been a signature promise of President Trump. Although it was House Speaker Nancy Pelosi who deftly engineered the breakthrough, congressional Republicans and Trump allies claimed full credit, using the accomplishment to argue that they were working on behalf of ordinary Americans instead of worrying about the arcane process of impeachment that was of little interest outside the Acela corridor.
The trade deal, known as the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement, provides Republicans with a new anti-impeachment argument. To date, the GOP’s position has been that the Democratic impeachment inquiry, which opened as a result of Trump’s phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky — in which Trump asked his counterpart to investigate a political rival — has been a secretive sham.
Last week’s strong job numbers also helped bolster the Republican narrative of a president working through the impeachment inquiry.
Pelosi was initially reluctant to open an impeachment inquiry and is sensitive to charges that Democrats have ignored the business of the American people by trying to depose a president they despise. When in October she announced Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., as leader of the impeachment inquiry, she did so at a press conference nominally scheduled to discuss prescription drug pricing.
At that same press conference, she spoke of working with Trump on infrastructure and trade, even as she outlined how Democrats were planning to impeach him.
Two months later, public opinion has not swung decisively in Democrats’ favor, despite hundreds of hours of testimony that seems to strongly suggest that Trump attempted to extort Zelensky into launching investigations into the Biden family and (nonexistent) efforts by Ukrainian elements to aid Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign.
On the day Pelosi and Schiff stood shoulder to shoulder, promising a thorough case against the president, 46.7 percent of Americans supported impeachment, according to an impeachment poll tracker compiled by the news site FiveThirtyEight. Two months and one week later, the share of Americans who have been convinced by Democrats’ case has risen by 1.3 percent.
Pelosi, regarded by friends and foes as a savvy operator, is aware that impeachment could become a political albatross around Democrats’ necks as they head into the 2020 presidential contest. On that same day, after all, House Democrats will have to defend their majority. That could be difficult to do if they have little to show for their two years but an impeachment drive disapproved of by roughly half of Americans.
And so, shortly after standing by House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler as he announced the first two articles of impeachment, Pelosi rushed to a second press conference, in which she announced a deal on the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement. “This is a day we’ve all been working to and working for on the path to yes,” she said.
David Axelrod, a former top adviser to President Barack Obama, praised the deal less for its substance than for its political implications. “Smart of @SpeakerPelosi to deliver this trade deal, just at a time when @POTUS is trying to portray the House as mono-manically focused on impeachment,” he wrote on Twitter. “Wonder if he’ll invite her to the signing ceremony?”
House Republicans, however, were not bound to give Pelosi much credit, either for the trade agreement or for much else. Instead, at a press conference of their own, they depicted her as succumbing to “the radical elements of her base,” as Minority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., put it, and allowing her Democratic conference to become consumed with impeachment, to the exclusion of business more pressing to most ordinary Americans.
That was “a very unfortunate, disappointing” contrast with can-do Republicans, Scalise said.
The Democratic House had passed several bills before the impeachment began, including a measure to enshrine and expand voting rights, new protections for transgender individuals and expanded background checks for gun ownership. None of those bills, however, stands a chance in a Senate controlled by Republicans.
Trump’s own agenda has proceeded apace despite the impeachment inquiry that has consumed both Capitol Hill and the White House. And the trade deal is arguably his biggest accomplishment for months, though as far as Republicans are concerned, no accomplishment will ever appease his foes. “They will not give this president any credit,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., complained.
“But he has withstood this all,” he added some moments later. “Why? Because he did nothing wrong.”
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