Impeach Trump or work with him? Democrats are pushing forward on both

House Democrats have accused President Donald Trump of high crimes and misdemeanours, but have also announced they are moving forward on legislation that Mr Trump has made top priorities.
House Democrats have accused President Donald Trump of high crimes and misdemeanours, but have also announced they are moving forward on legislation that Mr Trump has made top priorities.PHOTO: AP

WASHINGTON (NYTIMES) - On the day that House Democrats formally accused President Donald Trump of high crimes and misdemeanours, something unusual happened in the capital: A divided government actually started to work.

Within minutes of announcing on Tuesday (Dec 10) that Democrats would charge Mr Trump with abuse of power and obstruction of Congress, Speaker Nancy Pelosi was behind closed doors with her rank and file, informing them that she was ready to deliver the President his biggest economic priority: passage of a new trade deal with Canada and Mexico.

That was not all. Democrats are also on the brink of approving a bipartisan defence Bill, the largest in the nation's history, after weeks of negotiations with Republicans, and intend to pass legislation this week on another issue that Mr Trump has made a top priority: lowering the cost of prescription drugs.

The sudden outbreak of bipartisan cooperation, almost certain to be fleeting, was hardly an accident.

To Ms Pelosi, it was proof that Democrats could deliver on their legislative agenda, while effectively stripping Mr Trump of the argument that Democrats were ignoring the important business of their country in their zeal to get rid of him.

But Mr Trump pounced. Addressing reporters on the South Lawn of the White House on Tuesday afternoon, he called the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, or USMCA, "the silver lining to impeachment", and said Democrats were using it to "muffle down the impeachment, because they're embarrassed by it".

Ms Pelosi has long insisted that Democrats could "walk and chew gum at the same time" by working with the President on legislation even as they tried to oust him.

She is well aware that if she is going to keep her majority, and her job as Speaker, she cannot send her members - especially nervous moderates in Trump-friendly districts - home for the holidays empty-handed after they had voted to impeach the President.

So Tuesday turned into a split-screen morning in the capital, as Democrats, the news media and the White House grappled with what amounted to a case of whiplash.

 
 
 

Ms Pelosi appeared before cameras at 9am with her top lieutenants to announce the impeachment articles, and again at 10am to announce a deal on the USMCA.

In between her two appearances, Mr Trump's Twitter feed, ordinarily devoted to attacking the "Do Nothing Democrats" for running "The Greatest Witch Hunt in American History!" seemed to veer wildly off course.

"Looking like very good Democrat support for USMCA," the President wrote. "That would be great for our Country!"

Some Democrats criticised their leaders' strategy.

"USMCA being brought up at this moment is a very strange diversion," Representative Marcy Kaptur, an Ohio Democrat, who has expressed concerns about the trade pact, told reporters.

"It's a way of trying to get you to talk about more than one issue in the news."

Ms Pelosi insisted it was not politics, but the calendar itself, that dictated the one-two punch of calling for the President's removal in one moment and handing him one of his biggest priorities in the next.

"It's just as we get to the end of a session, there have to be some decisions made," she said during the news conference on trade, adding, "We didn't know what day it would be."

But the optics were hard to miss. Wearing an American flag pin with the words "One Country, One Destiny" on her lapel, Ms Pelosi turned the trade news conference into a show of Democratic strength.

She surrounded herself with more than two dozen of her members, including relieved-looking freshmen who represent districts won by Mr Trump and have been pining for broadly popular accomplishments to show to voters before their re-election races.

The impeachment articles, narrowly focused on Mr Trump's effort to enlist Ukraine to investigate his political rivals, also reflected Ms Pelosi's worries about protecting those moderates facing political risk.

Democrats opted not to charge Mr Trump with obstruction of justice based on his attempts to thwart Mr Robert Mueller's investigation into Russian election interference in 2016.

Congressional Democrats "are getting more done in two weeks than the US Senate has done in the last year", said one vulnerable freshman, Representative Tom Malinowski of New Jersey, adding: "The heart of the Democratic Party right now is the Democratic Congress and the House of Representatives."

 
 
 

With time running out before the end of the legislative year - the House is scheduled to finish its work by Dec 20 - Democrats are in a rush to get everything done.

There is likely to be a vote on the defence Bill in the House on Wednesday or Thursday, with the final passage expected next week in the Senate so that the Bill can be sent to Mr Trump.

Next week in the House, there will be back-to-back votes on impeachment and the trade Bill, most likely in that order.

Democrats and Republicans must reach a deal on federal spending in time to take a vote to avert a government shutdown.

"We want to leave on a positive message," said Representative Steny Hoyer, the Democratic leader, adding: "We need to keep the trains moving if we're going to get out of here on the 20th having done what we want to get done."

Senator Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader, said on Tuesday that the Senate would not take up the trade pact until next year - after the impeachment trial expected in January.

But Mr Trump is almost certain to move quickly to sign the defence Bill, which authorises a 3 per cent pay raise for the troops and creates funding for a new space force, a high priority of the President.

That brings the spectre of a White House signing ceremony at the precise moment Democrats are impeaching him - perhaps, if tradition holds, with Ms Pelosi at his side.

Democrats are already highlighting that as a win - the first time that "paid family medical leave for millions of federal workers, including military families, will be the law of the land", Representative Hakeem Jeffries, the chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, said in an interview.

When Ms Pelosi became Speaker in January, Democrats sought to pursue a triangulation strategy of circumventing the Republican-led Senate to work directly with the White House on issues like prescription drugs and infrastructure.

Democrats thought they might replicate what happened in 2018, before they took the majority, when they worked with Mr Jared Kushner, Mr Trump's son-in-law, on an overhaul of criminal justice laws.

That strategy has yet to work, and Republicans on Tuesday accused Democrats of pushing a partisan prescription drug Bill that has little chance of being signed by Mr Trump.

But nothing clarifies the congressional mind as much as the end of the year, and Democrats, who ran for office on kitchen-table economic issues like jobs and the high cost of prescription drugs, are clearly in a hurry to make good on that promise.

And as to the case of whiplash she was inflicting on the Capitol, Ms Pelosi had a wry answer: "The day is young."