If one day could neatly encapsulate House Democrats’ long, busy, and sometimes messy year, Tuesday, December 10, was close to perfect.
At nine o’clock in the morning, Speaker Nancy Pelosi and six of her committee chairs announced articles of impeachment against President Donald Trump.
An hour later, Pelosi appeared with 30 of her colleagues to announce they had struck a deal with Trump and his administration on the president’s top legislative priority: a new U.S.-Canada-Mexico trade deal.
At the first event, there was grave discussion of Democrats’ solemn duty to uphold the Constitution by charging Trump with high crimes and misdemeanors. The articles Democrats introduced posit that Trump did nothing short of debasing the integrity of the American democratic process—an offense warranting “impeachment and trial, removal from office, and disqualification to hold and enjoy any office of honor, trust, or profit under the United States.”
Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff (D-CA) warned that failing to impeach Trump would unacceptably jeopardize the upcoming 2020 election because Trump is determined to undermine it.
“The president's misconduct goes to the heart of whether we can conduct a free and fair election in 2020,” said Schiff. “Ben Franklin said we have a Republic if we can keep it. The president and his men say you can't keep it, and Americans should just get over it.”
At the second event, Democratic members wearing big smiles and multi-colored suits crowded around Pelosi, back-slapping and reminiscing about tough negotiations with the Trump White House.
Trump’s trade negotiator, Robert Lighthizer, was “remarkable to work with,” said Pelosi.
“I think we set a world record for hanging up on each other,” Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal (D-MA) said to laughs. “But at the same time, we knew this was an opportunity we couldn’t let get away from us.”
The most significant tensions at the heart of Democrats’ control of the House have not changed since Pelosi got the gavel in January. All year, Democratic leaders have been caught between competing factions of the party: one prioritizing aggressive oversight of the president and another faction pulling them to work with him on shared policy goals. Over and over they have been faced with the question of how could they work on legislation with a president many Democrats—and even more intensely, the party’s base—believe is an existential threat to democracy?
The whiplash of the morning of December 10 shoved that balancing act—which had been teetering all year long—to its extreme. And Democrats’ job of continuing to sell their case that they can do two things at once could get challenged by the stark visual of using one hand to effectively shake with the president on a hugely significant policy item, while using the other to formally set in motion his removal from office.
Pelosi, speaking to reporters at the trade-centric, jovial press conference, tried her hardest to throw up a barrier in the middle of Democrats’ split-screen morning, saying she wouldn’t take questions even sniffing around the topic of the first event—where questions were not answered. Asked if it was a coincidence that these two things converged on the same day, Pelosi responded it wasn’t. “No,” she said. “It’s just that when we get to the end of a session, there have to be decisions made.”
But even Democratic lawmakers found themselves a bit taken aback by the day’s blunt symbolism. If he’d been told in January that articles of impeachment and a trade deal would emerge on the same day, said freshman Rep. Dean Phillips (D-MN), “I would have said you were out of your mind.”
Indeed, those observing Tuesday morning’s events from the party’s left flank argued that it was, in fact, crazy to position Trump as both a danger to the republic and a negotiating partner within minutes of each other.
“So, can someone explain to me why Dems appear about to sign on to Trump's USMCA trade deal?” tweeted New York Times columnist and economist Paul Krugman. “It's basically no change from NAFTA as is, but Trump will claim it as a triumph. Why give him that?”
But few elected Democrats were willing to go there. A broad swath of lawmakers—from the Speaker down to liberal and moderate lawmakers alike—rejected the idea that there was any kind of inconsistency or cognitive dissonance in their party’s public display on Tuesday.
“Nobody should be surprised,” said Rep. Jim Himes (D-CT), a member of the Intelligence panel who appeared onstage with Pelosi to unveil the USMCA deal. “We've been saying for months now that we can legislate and investigate at the same time, and we owe it to the Constitution, we owe it to the American people, to do both—as we have been saying for months that we were going to do.”
In fact, some Democrats argued that it’s a significant boost to their fortunes to strike a deal with Trump, citing long-running GOP criticisms that they’re too focused on impeachment to get anything done. “It’s a good couple of weeks of work,” said Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-NJ), “for supposedly impeachment-obsessed congressional Democrats who are getting more done in two weeks than the U.S. Senate has in the last year.”
Some tried to reconcile the two viewpoints. “I think he's uniquely dangerous,” said Rep. Dan Kildee (D-MI). “From time to time, the policies that he promotes don't necessarily reflect the danger he presents… I mean, people who commit crimes sometimes stop for red lights. He is not incapable of doing something that's normally human. But that doesn't mean that he's not violating his oath and the Constitution.”
Most of the Democratic hand-wringing over USMCA comes not from the thought of giving Trump a major legislative victory but concerns, largely held by progressives, that the agreement does not go far enough in certain key areas, like environmental protection. But on the whole, most of the resistance to the trade deal—perhaps the signature policy plank of Trump’s first term—is set to come from the president’s own party.
Many Republicans, particularly in the Senate, believe the deal strays too far from conservative free-trade thinking and into turf favored by the left. Democrats have held this up as a selling point: Pelosi reportedly told her caucus that Democrats “ate their lunch” on the trade deal by methodically improving it to better reflect their priorities.
By that thinking, Democrats did not hand Trump a win but leveraged his desire—or desperation—to get something done into a win for their side. “We’re declaring victory for the American worker,” Pelosi told reporters.
The surreal split screen is set to continue through next week, during which House Democrats will dash to get everything done before the Christmas break. It’s possible the House will vote on final passage of articles of impeachment and the USMCA within days of each other.
If the reaction to Tuesday were any indication, that won’t be a problem. In fact, some Democrats indicated that the president’s conduct on Ukraine—their reason for the impeachment—was a reason to move in turn on his trade deal.
“I would hope that most Americans would rightly dismiss anybody who says, in order to achieve political gain, we’re going to hold up positive government action. Huh, what does that sound like to me, ‘personal political gain,’” said Himes, pausing for effect. “Ah, I’m just riffing now.”