Trump pushes to rack up political victories as impeachment looms
On Tuesday, President Donald Trump and House Democrats announced a new trade deal with Mexico and Canada. On Wednesday, the House passed a military authorization package that included paid parental leave for more than two million federal workers and the creation of the president's proposed Space Force. And on Thursday, top congressional negotiators unveiled a deal in principle to approve a $1.3 trillion federal spending bill for 2020 that will likely avert a government shutdown next week.
By Friday, even as the House Judiciary Committee passed two articles of impeachment against Trump, the president had begun telling allies that maybe impeachment wasn't so bad after all.
All week, in fact, at White House holiday parties and in phone calls with allies, Trump privately mused about trying to prolong the impeachment process because he believes it helps his reelection prospects.
"It's a very sad thing for our country, but it seems to be very good for me politically," Trump told reporters Friday, seated next to the president of Paraguay in the Oval Office.
Even as he faces down the largest crisis of his presidency - poised to become only the third president ever to be impeached - Trump joined with Democrats over the past week in a frenzy of agreements and deals that amounts to a kind of counter-impeachment campaign. He and his allies trumpet the victories as the work of a disciplined president continuing to focus on the needs of the public, while Democrats argue they have forced Trump to hand over sweeping concessions on liberal priorities.
This burst of bipartisan comity is slated to continue in the coming week, with the expected House impeachment vote on Wednesday sandwiched between final passage of the spending and trade deals, along with Senate approval of the massive military package.
The holiday legislative tableau has emboldened Trump. He has suggested that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., is embarrassed by the impeachment inquiry. He has said he believes the trial in the Republican-controlled Senate - where he is expected to be acquitted of the House charges - could be beneficial to him.
And he sees impeachment as perhaps "the best episode, the grand finale" of a reality show presidency, in the words of one longtime confidante who spoke with Trump this week, who requested anonymity to candidly summarize the president's perspective.
At the same time, Trump also has made clear he recognizes the permanent stain that impeachment will imprint on his legacy, railing against the inquiry as "flimsy, pathetic, ridiculous" and "impeachment light" at a campaign rally in Hershey, Pennsylvania, last Tuesday. He thrums between fury and frustration - pecking out tweets at a rapid-fire clip, including a record 123 on Thursday alone - and boasting about his accomplishments.
"The silver lining of impeachment and this witch hunt - that's the reason they approved USMCA," Trump said in Hershey, several hours after the trade deal with Mexico and Canada was announced. "So that's OK with me because they approved it and they're very happy to have it."
Trump's approval rating has barely budged during the impeachment inquiry, remaining mired in the low 40s as it has throughout most of his presidency, according to a Washington Post average of public polls. Support for Trump's impeachment and removal also remains split largely along partisan lines, at 47 percent to 45 percent, polling shows.
The president is deeply concerned about the impact of impeachment on his legacy, but sees the blitz of policy accomplishments as a possible counter, according to one Trump adviser who requested anonymity to discuss private conversations. In a Monday phone call with Cabinet members, Jared Kushner - Trump's son-in-law and senior adviser - urged officials to start planning now for top priority events in 2020 that they hoped to have Trump to attend to showcase his achievements.
Allies and observers say the spate of year-end deals are a boon for Trump heading into his reelection campaign.
"This has been a productive week and it should be an early warning sign of the way it can be for the next few months," said Scott Reed, senior political strategist at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. "Did impeachment prompt it? I can't really tell, but impeachment has brought a whole new level of serious, and it's a good time to start hitting your stride."
Judd Deere, a White House spokesman, attacked "Do-Nothing Democrats" in an email statement and wrote that Trump "remains focused on the work of the American people, and this week's unprecedented accomplishments prove that. President Trump has accomplished more at this point in his first term than any President in history. His policies are building a safer, stronger, and more secure America that will last for generations."
The USMCA deal, according to people involved in the deliberations, finally came together following a confluence of factors, including a narrow window at the end of year to accomplish anything before heading into the 2020 election cycle and an eagerness on both sides for clear achievements.
Administration officials and Republicans said that many House Democrats, squeezed to show tangible results amid an impeachment inquiry where public opinion remains largely divided on partisan lines, were more amenable to working with the White House.
"The president wants victories - I'm not going to say he doesn't - but the timing of it is far more about the Democrats feeling pressured, because a lot of these things the president negotiated long ago," said Marc Short, chief of staff to Vice President Mike Pence.
White House aides also say the administration has long been laying the groundwork for bipartisan dealmaking. The White House Office of Legislative Affairs viewed the 31 House Democrats in districts that Trump won as "natural partners" for the president's priorities, a senior administration official said. In promoting USMCA, Pence visited roughly two dozen swing districts to try to pressure vulnerable Democrats to support the agreement.
"The places the vice president went were very intentional and that's been going on for six months," Short said.
That Trump was not personally involved in many of the trade negotiations also helped with the final USMCA deal, said two administration officials, including one who said the talks were most successful during the periods when Trump refrained from tweeting about the issue. Pelosi worked with U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer as the administration's point person.
Democrats, by contrast, say the deal materialized because they extracted nearly every concession they wanted from the administration, including strong enforcement mechanisms. As Pelosi told her members during a closed-door meeting immediately before announcing the agreement, "We ate their lunch."
Some Republicans, especially those committed to conservative trade policies, agree. "The only reason Pelosi moved on USMCA is because she took Lighthizer, flipped him upside down, and shook all the money out of him and destroyed him," said one Republican leadership aide, speaking anonymously to share a candid assessment.
This person added: "Democrats won on substance; Trump won on the politics of USMCA. And that's because Trump doesn't care about substance."
On Friday, Trump also tweeted news of what he called a "very large" and "amazing" phase one of a trade deal with China. As part of the agreement, the president has agreed to scale back some tariffs, while China has promised to purchase more U.S. farm products and increase its intellectual property protections.
Economic advisers argued to the president that new tariffs set go in place on Sunday would have hurt the United States as well as China - and that it was not a helpful story line during the holiday season, and during impeachment, when Trump wants the markets to climb.
Though the text of the China deal had not yet been released Friday, Trump had already begun calling around to say it was a "historic" deal, said Michael Pillsbury, an expert at the Hudson Institute who spoke to Trump on Thursday.
"Amazing to me to see the Chinese officials do a television press conference this morning to agree with the trade deal and ask that phase two be started immediately," Pillsbury said. "The tariffs seem to work."
The slew of deals and announcements, at the very least, allowed Trump to mount a much-needed victory march. And though vulnerable Democrats may reap some political benefit, some in the party remained torn about helping to boost Trump in the process.
"There's a real philosophical disagreement within the Democratic Party about whether giving Trump big political wins either proves they're willing to make a deal, or if they're just empowering Trump," said Ezra Levin, co-founder of Indivisible, a liberal advocacy group.
At a briefing with reporters Thursday in Arlington, campaign officials struck a buoyant tone, with Kushner, campaign manager Brad Parscale and Republican National Committee chairwoman Ronna McDaniel arguing that the president was in a strong position amid impeachment.
"This lit up our base, lit up the people that are supporters of the president," Parscale said. "They're frustrated, they're upset, and that motivates voters."
By Friday, sitting next to Paraguay President Mario Abdo Benítez, Trump offered to take questions from the media after opening with a single understatement: "This has been a wild week."
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The Washington Post's Jeff Stein and Emily Guskin contributed to this report.
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