House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had quite the morning.
Her public schedule on Tuesday began by making history: the U.S. House she leads had prepared two articles of impeachment to remove President Donald Trump from office for abuse of power and obstructing Congress. Trump would be only the third President to have such a distinction. And yet less than an hour later, Pelosi stood with her fellow Democrats to declare that her party would also vote to back a trade deal with Mexico and Canada — a significant legislative victory for Trump as he heads into a year of re-election. Before lunch, Trump saw the strongest challenge to his tenure and perhaps the biggest boost to his legacy.
That split-screen reality belies the deeply contradictory undercurrents in Washington as lawmakers try to wrap up their work for the year, making a bipartisan push to get legislation through the House amidst one of the most divisive political fights in the nation’s history. The trade deal wasn’t the only evidence of cross-aisle cooperation on Tuesday. By afternoon, the White House announced it was backing a defense spending bill negotiated in Congress that would add paid family leave for federal workers, a longtime goal for Democrats and first daughter-turned-senior-adviser Ivanka Trump. And it looked as though lawmakers were getting close to making another bipartisan deal to fund the rest of the government through September and avoid a looming Dec. 20 shutdown.
For months, lawmakers from both parties have invoked the cliché that they can pursue legislative goals despite the all-consuming impeachment process — the old walk-and-chew-gum line. But as 2019 comes to its roaring end, and deadlines stack up next to plane tickets home for the holidays, they are testing their multi-tasking talents. The Democrats’ lawyers pulled an all-nighter Monday into Tuesday to finish their nine-page articles of impeachment. Harried lawmakers barely registered the highly unusual assertion from the Attorney General that the FBI acted in bad faith in investigating the Trump campaign in 2016, or Trump’s re-election rally Tuesday night in Pennsylvania. “It’s hard to see how there’s time to get it all done,” said Sen. John Thune, a South Dakota lawmaker and the number-two Republican in the Senate.
Trump and his fellow Republicans may get some breathing room. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said on Tuesday the Republican-controlled Senate would not take up the impeachment question this year, telling reporters at the Capitol that he anticipates taking up the substance of impeachment around the time the college bowl games end in January. He added that he expects Trump to stay in office, given the Senate’s Republican majority.
But Trump might want to hold off on taking any victory laps. McConnell also said the Senate would not consider the Trump-favored trade deal until after impeachment had been dealt with, and that he was not committed to allowing new testimony during the trial, as Trump indicated he might seek. Republican Senators have also been privately phoning the White House to tell counsel’s office that Trump had better not try to turn the Senate trial into a circus with stunt testimony, according to two senior aides to GOP lawmakers who are sympathetic to Trump’s predicament.
Whatever bipartisan progress being made is expected to be the exception once 2020 arrives with its promises of a Senate impeachment trial unfolding as Trump seeks re-election. Sen. Chuck Schumer, the chamber’s top Democrat, told his lawmakers who are seeking the party’s presidential nomination that impeachment was more important than their personal White House ambitions. “This has to come first,” Schumer repeated to reporters on Tuesday. And, with Iowa leading off the nominating calendar with its Feb. 3 caucuses, an impeachment trial of any length in the Senate could also sideline Senators seeking the Democratic nomination; once it begins, lawmakers must attend in Washington six days a week.
That all-consuming impeachment debate will extend beyond the party elite. For activists of all stripes, impeachment proceedings are must-see TV. That sets up a contest for eyeballs between events in Washington and the still-uncertain Democratic field seeking the party’s nomination. Democratic lawmakers uniformly rejected suggestions that politics was motivating their moves. “You know, impeachment is not political. [U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement] is not political. We’re trying to do the right thing,” Rep. Tom Malinowski of New Jersey tells TIME. In fact, Democrats insisted nothing less than the DNA of the country was at risk. “If we allow one President — any President — no matter who she or he may be, to go down this path, we are saying goodbye to the republic and hello to a President-King,” Pelosi said during an appearance at a women’s summit organized by Politico.
But the politics of the moment — and the crazed 10 days that lie ahead — are contradictory and chaotic. In the span of just hours, Democrats handed Trump potentially legacy-defining articles of impeachment and re-election-tailored accomplishments that would allow him to brag about his work on behalf of workers, families and the military. In such a divided country, both political camps will be able to choose which tableau they want to view.
— With reporting by Alana Abramson / Washington