Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s landmark trade deal with President Donald Trump gives vulnerable House Democrats a crucial legislative victory amid GOP accusations that they’re obsessed with impeachment.
Yet some Democrats are fretting the agreement comes at an unacceptable cost: Boosting Trump’s reelection, potentially in a major way.
The president is already boasting about negotiating the most sweeping agreement in a quarter-century on his defining issue. His press secretary called Tuesday “the biggest and best trade agreement in the history of the world,” an early hint at the crowing Trump will do over the next 11 months.
Notably, no top tier Democrats running for president have endorsed the pact known as USMCA. And Republicans are jubilant that the deal helps not only Trump’s reelection but their own hopes of keeping the Senate.
“That is a concern. But there’s always the dynamic of: ‘I’m in a deep-blue district so what do I know about winning over swing voters?’” said Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), alluding to how her ideas are sometimes perceived among other House Democrats. “But I do also represent a working-class district, and I certainly believe that a Democratic president would negotiate a better deal.”
Adam Jentleson, a former aide to Harry Reid who is close to Elizabeth Warren’s campaign, put it more bluntly: “Trump is running for reelection on the message that he’s keeping his promises, and Democrats are handing him a huge win in return for a poor return on policy. It’s bad policy and worse politics.”
Pelosi swatted away questions about whether she gave away too much to Trump, defending the deal on its merits.
“There are a few — who have said: ‘Why? You shouldn’t do this. This gives him a win,’” Pelosi acknowledged at a POLITICO Playbook event on Tuesday. “No. We are so far away from the proposal that he put forth that this is a triumph for American workers.”
The consternation among Democratic activists and rejoicing among Republicans comes amid encouraging signs for Trump next year despite his persistent unpopularity. The economy has remained hot, unemployment continues to drop and no Democrat has emerged as an obvious bet to defeat him. Trump now has a ready rebuttal to Democrats’ claim that he’s not the dealmaker he claimed to be; Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) said the USMCA “without a doubt” helps Trump get reelected.
“There’s much more the sitting president gains from these legislative victories — especially something as signature to Trump as trade deals — than the opposition party,” added Waleed Shahid, a spokesman for the progressive group Justice Democrats.
Vulnerable Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), whose own reelection campaign received a massive boost from the deal, responded to the Democratic hand-wringing with glee: “Too damn bad.”
Tuesday was all the more bizarre because the finalizing of the trade deal came in tandem with the speaker’s move to impeach the president. Early Tuesday morning, Pelosi joined six committee chairmen to announce Democrats were bringing two articles of impeachment against Trump. An hour later, Pelosi was flanked by more than two dozen members of her caucus, including several vulnerable freshmen, to announce the trade agreement.
Pelosi long resisted calls to impeach Trump and was aware of the potential political ramifications for her most endangered members. And as the impeachment inquiry proceeded and a year-end vote looked increasingly likely, securing the bipartisan trade agreement became even more urgent.
But the dissonant messaging is intentional: Democrats believe they’ve finally blunted the GOP argument that they can’t impeach the president and legislate at the same time.
“I have always resisted the notion that politics should play into whether we’re going to get things done,” said Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), who ran for president earlier this year. “I made my 9/11 health bill permanent and I didn’t even get to go to the signing. So I did a good thing President Trump took credit for. But that’s my job.”
The broad coalition of liberal and union support for the trade pact has Democrats arguing they outmaneuvered Trump. AFL-CIO head Richard Trumka backs the deal, and liberal stalwarts like Sens. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) both are considering voting for it, a break from their past skepticism on free trade.
“I know he’ll take credit for the whole thing,” Brown said of Trump. “Let him lie.”
Speaking to reporters on Tuesday, Trump called the USMCA deal the “silver lining” of his impeachment, arguing that Democrats’ drive to oust him forced them back to the negotiating table.
“Of all days, we’ve been waiting a year, and they approved today the USMCA,” Trump said. “The impeachment is the reason they approved it … they’re embarrassed by it.”
Pelosi may feel better about keeping her majority, but so too does Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Senate Republicans’ last big legislative achievement was arguably the tax cuts bill of 2017. Senate Democrats regularly accuse them of presiding over a “legislative graveyard.”
Now, vulnerable senators like Ernst have an easy rejoinder. And Republicans are contending that Pelosi only moved because of their pressure campaign.
Advisers to leading Democratic presidential candidates acknowledged privately that the agreement will complicate the case against Trump for the for the eventual nominee.
For months, Pelosi heard from moderate House Democrats desperate for a trade deal that would not only help them fend off GOP attacks back in their districts, but prove to voters they’re doing more than just investigating the president.
Those members got more vocal as the calendar ticked toward December. In a private meeting in mid-November, they warned their colleagues that failing to reach a deal would cost them the majority next year.
For Pelosi, sending moderate lawmakers home for the Christmas break without counterbalancing Democrats’ impeachment inquiry was a nonstarter. But they, like Pelosi, insisted the timing of the two announcements Tuesday was coincidental.
“It’s a total Washington conversation to be like, well, the timing of this and the timing of that,” said freshman Rep. Elissa Slotkin, who flipped a GOP-held district in Michigan. “The USMCA, particularly for my farmers, will have a big impact. And so that’s all I care about.”
Such rhetoric points to a fundamental chasm between the two parties. Republicans made stopping the agenda of former President Barack Obama their calling card, capitalizing on what appeared like hopeless gridlock to regain power.
Democrats were willing to deal, even with a president they loathe.
“That’s the difference between Democrats and Republicans,” said Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.).
The developments could put congressional Democrats at odds with their eventual nominee. Leading Democratic presidential contenders have consistently voiced deep opposition to Trump’s trade deal and signed a joint statement of opposition by the Citizens Trade Campaign that demanded a host of changes.
Warren released her own trade plan this summer, and in Pennsylvania this fall, Biden sparred with Vice President Mike Pence over trade, painting the trade deal as too generous to big pharmaceutical companies.
But labor’s late endorsement gives political cover to House members, and even some Democratic presidential advisers and liberals understood the politics for Pelosi and swing-district members.
“I’m not going to second-guess what Nancy does,” said Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii). “Let’s face it: She’s brought us to this point where there’s a possibility of actually holding this lawless president accountable.”