Podcast: Impeachment To Trade, Moderate Democrats Are In The Driver's Seat : The NPR Politics Podcast House Democrats officially unveiled two articles of impeachment against President Trump at a press conference on Tuesday morning: abuse of power in the Ukraine affair and obstruction of Congress. The scope of the charges, which make only a passing reference to special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into Russian interference, reveals the sway of Democrats' moderate members in shaping the impeachment process.

Within hours of that announcement, Democratic leaders convened a second press conference, this time to unveil a deal with the White House on the United States-Mexico-Canada trade agreement — a major legislative priority for many moderates in the Democratic caucus.

This episode: political correspondent Asma Khalid, congressional correspondent Susan Davis, and senior editor and correspondent Domenico Montanaro.

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Impeachment To Trade, Moderate Democrats Are In The Driver's Seat

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SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: Hey there. Before we get started, it's that time of year where a lot of people are feeling a little generous and thinking of making a contribution to one thing or another.


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DETROW: Now on with the show.

JORDAN: Hi. This is Jordan (ph).

GRAHAM: Graham (ph).

CAM: Cam (ph).

BLAKE: Blake (ph).

LAUREN: And Lauren (ph). We are students at the West Virginia University College of Law.

JORDAN: And we're currently studying for Professor Vince Cardi's bankruptcy final.

GRAHAM: This semester, we used a textbook written in part by two notable former law professors.

CAM: United States senator and presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren...

BLAKE: And California Congresswoman Katie Porter.

LAUREN: This podcast was recorded at...

KHALID: It's 9:44 a.m. where I am in Las Vegas but 12:44 p.m. in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, December 10.

JORDAN: Things may have changed by the time you hear this.

CAM: And hopefully, we will be done with finals.

BLAKE, CAM, GRAHAM, JORDAN AND LAUREN: All right. Here's the show.



SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: That is one of my favorite pieces of congressional trivia - that Katie Porter was one of Elizabeth Warren's law students when Elizabeth Warren...

KHALID: I know.

DAVIS: ...Was a law professor.

MONTANARO: And they wrote a book together.

KHALID: And they wrote a book together.


KHALID: Hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Asma Khalid. I cover the presidential campaign.

DAVIS: I'm Susan Davis. I cover Congress.

MONTANARO: And I'm Domenico Montanaro, senior political editor and correspondent.

KHALID: So I met with some candidates this week, which means I'm currently in Las Vegas, where, as I mentioned, it is just 9:44 in the morning. But, Domenico, it sounds like it's already been a very long day there in Washington, so fill us in.

MONTANARO: Yeah. I mean, it's been a long day. I mean, it started out here at 9:00 a.m. our time, where Nancy Pelosi and other House Democratic chairmen and women came forward to lay out their two articles of impeachment against President Trump.


ADAM SCHIFF: We stand here today because the president's continuing abuse of his power has left us no choice. To do nothing would make ourselves complicit in the president's abuse of his high office, the public trust and our national security.

MONTANARO: And Democrats then announce a trade deal with the White House.


NANCY PELOSI: There is no question, of course, that this trade agreement is much better than NAFTA.

KHALID: All right. So let's talk about those two things, impeachment and trade. And let's begin with impeachment because the long-awaited articles of impeachment were unveiled today by the House Democrats, and as we just heard, there are only two of them. So, Sue, what are those?

DAVIS: So article one is abuse of power, and article two is obstruction of Congress. The - under the article one, they point to evidence like the president's soliciting foreign interference in an election - that he pressured Ukraine by conditioning official acts, including a White House meeting and military assistance in order to get those investigations, and says that he compromised the national security and the integrity of U.S. elections.

Under the obstruction of Congress article, they point to the evidence that the president directed agencies, offices and officials not to comply with that investigation and name-checks the State Department, the Office of Management and Budget and the Energy and Defense Departments for, quote, "refusing to produce a single document or record."

MONTANARO: Yeah. I mean, and what's fascinating about this is this is a pretty narrow set of articles of impeachment that they brought forward. You know, there was - if you look at this, there was one word missing from the entire thing that we've been talking about for a more than a month. Bribery - not in there. No quid pro quo mention, although they talked about, you know, White House meeting and military aid being contingent on this public announcement from Ukraine. And there was no article of obstruction of justice, which, frankly, I'm not that surprised by because it was kind of a late add. When we were looking at the House Judiciary Committee suddenly bringing that up, talking about in reference to the Mueller report and investigation, there certainly must have been quite the conversation going on amongst Democrats on whether to include that or not.

DAVIS: Well, there's certainly no surprise here because Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who's really been running the show on a lot of this process, has been clear from the start that this would be targeted and narrow and expected to focus specifically on the Ukraine matter, which it did. I do think it speaks to the broader politics in the caucus. You know, the lawmakers that helped drive the Democratic Party towards the impeachment investigation were freshmen Democrats, many in swing seats, many who won districts that Donald Trump carried in 2016. And they were not going to get behind articles of impeachment that - through every allegation against the president. They wanted to make a very simple, clear case for it.

The articles of impeachment are just nine pages. They're posted online. Anybody can go read them. They could change, but I would imagine that this is probably going to be, you know, the full extent of it. And I think this is a much easier vote for a lot of Democrats, especially those in tough districts, to take.

MONTANARO: Yeah. I mean, the only, like, allusion even to the Mueller report was this one line where they said these actions were consistent with President Trump's previous efforts to undermine U.S. government investigations into foreign interference in U.S. elections.

KHALID: So do we have a sense of how President Trump himself has been reacting to the news this morning?

MONTANARO: Yeah. I mean, the president, of course, took to his favorite medium, Twitter (laughter). And he decided to say - first of all, he was talking about Jerry Nadler, the House Judiciary chairman. He said that - he just said, I pressured Ukraine to interfere in our 2020 election. Ridiculous. And he knows that is not true. Of course, Democrats believe they've laid out compelling and strong evidence that he did pressure Ukraine. He and other Republicans have said - have made the case, as he did here in this tweet, that because the president of Ukraine said that there was no pressure, then there was no pressure. But, of course, Ukraine is pretty dependent on the United States for military aid.

Trump also tweeted that, to impeach a president who has proven through results, including producing perhaps the strongest economy in our country's history, to have one of the most successful presidencies ever - and, most importantly, who's done nothing wrong - is political madness.

DAVIS: The president also put forward on Twitter a new defense today, or he started saying this in recent days. And keep in mind, this impeachment of estimation has been going on for about three months. But now the president is saying that those famous lines in the transcript of the July 25 call, do us a favor - he is now saying that us, he meant to say, was in reference to USA, not the president himself. Do us a favor. Like, do the United States...


DAVIS: ...A favor. But this is not something that the White House has been saying for months. It's just sort of a new line that has come out. It isn't one of the lines that - he has not found a lot of echo of support from Republicans on Capitol Hill for that specific defense.

KHALID: OK, so when do we expect the House to actually take this up for a vote?

DAVIS: They're expected to approve them either Thursday or Friday, and the House is on track to bring them to the floor of the full house next week just before Christmas, as Democrats have long indicated they would.

KHALID: All right. We're going to leave it there, and when we get back, we'll talk about the replacement for NAFTA.

And we're back, and let's start just by acknowledging that it is bananas that on the day that House Democrats are announcing articles of impeachment, they're also announcing what is perhaps the most significant bipartisan compromise of the entire administration, the USMCA. So let's actually just do a quick refresher because I know trade can be a little bit wonky. What is this deal intended to accomplish?

DAVIS: Remember, rewriting NAFTA was a core campaign promise for candidate Donald Trump in 2016. Last year, in 2018, right after the midterm elections, the White House and the governments of Canada and Mexico agreed to the framework of a new NAFTA, making good on that core campaign promise. But it also has to be ratified by Congress. Today what they announced was that agreement reached between the White House and Congress.

Now, Democrats will say, yes, this was a big win for the president. This is something he has campaigned on, and he's going to get to run for re-election on saying, I made good on that promise. But Democrats today pointed to the fact that the past year of negotiations has an end result where, they say, they have achieved stronger enforcement protection rules for labor, for the environment, that they beat back provisions that would have been sort of a giveaway to big drug companies. And they are saying that the deal that they've reached with President Trump will provide the framework for all future trade agreements.

MONTANARO: And at the end of the day here, it looks like, for Democrats to get behind this, they needed the support of the labor unions. And Richard Trumka, who's the head of the AFL-CIO, said that President Trump may have opened this deal, but working people closed it. He says that there now will be truly enforceable labor standards, which was always a criticism of NAFTA from a lot of the labor unions in the United States. He said - he went on to say that this includes a process that allows for inspections of factories and facilities that are not living up to their obligations. Now, we'll see if that actually happens because we've seen so much offshoring to factories in places - in Mexico in particular because of lower labor standards. We'll see if that changes the dynamic at all and if that brings any jobs back to the U.S.

DAVIS: And getting labor on board politically is so key - right? - because if big labor is on board for this trade agreement, it doesn't really give the left any room to criticize it even though there are sort of the political minds or activists on the left who are looking at this and saying, why are we giving Donald Trump one of his biggest victories in office the same week that we're trying to impeach him? But other Democrats on Capitol Hill - certainly Speaker Pelosi - have said they see those as two entirely different things.

KHALID: So, Sue, spell that out, though, for me because we haven't actually heard about USMCA in a number of months. And for us to hear about this today - it just seems kind of like a strange day.

DAVIS: Rather convenient, isn't it?

MONTANARO: For everybody.

DAVIS: I mean, it's a couple of things. One, the negotiations have taken a long time. But, of course, the fact that they are happening on the same day does speak to the political motivations of Democrats wanting to look like - and the cliche that we hear over and over again - are capable of walking and chewing gum at the same time. There is a political negative for Democrats to go home and look at - the only sum total that they've been able to accomplish is a rather, you know, divisive impeachment of the president. There's a lot of lawmakers who want to be able to go home and campaign on legislation, on results.

USMCA is a big win for a lot of Democrats, especially those same Democrats in those swing seats and Trump seats where this is the thing that they're getting pounded on when they're going back home. This is the thing that Republicans have been going into their districts and running ads on and saying, you're not getting USMCA because Democrat X is so focused on impeaching the president. So moving this forward politically helps Democrats, too - that they can go home and say, look. I think what the president did was wrong, but I'm also still able to work with him when it matters.

MONTANARO: It's a totally weird mixed message, though, of course, because, you know, you've got Democrats, on the one hand, literally minutes earlier saying that the president should be impeached, shouldn't even be in office. And yet, at the same time, they're willing to work with him on something that would normally be pretty routine under any other presidency. Of course, though, that's been one of those things that Nancy Pelosi has talked about over and over again. She has this phrase, remember November. And she's really - that's why she's been so cautious about impeachment in the first place because she knows that it was health care that really helped Democrats win when sticking to that issue in 2018. And she wants to make sure that they don't look like the do-nothing Democrats, as President Trump wants to call them.

DAVIS: Sure. And Pelosi's a deal-cutter, you know? The president talks a lot about how he wants to cut deals. He's a deal guy. He's going to cut better deals. Nancy Pelosi has been cutting legislative deals with presidents she disagrees with for decades. She knows how to do this, and I think that she's able to sort of separate the policy wins and the political needs of her caucus. I think she sees this as a win-win. I don't think she looks at this and thinks, we just helped Donald Trump get re-elected. I think she looks at this and says, I may have just preserved my House majority.

MONTANARO: I think all of that's noted in her book, "The Art Of The Deal."


KHALID: Sarcasm there - all right. So what has to happen from here? Is this a pretty done deal?

DAVIS: So I talked to the Ways and Means chairman Richard Neal, and he said Democrats would like to have this on the floor next week, which means, yes, they could impeach Donald Trump and deliver him one of his greatest campaign promises in the same week.

MONTANARO: Good grief.

KHALID: All right, well, that is a wrap for today. We'll be back tomorrow. Until then, you can keep up with all of the latest updates by heading to npr.org, listening to your local public radio station or the NPR One app. I'm Asma Khalid. I cover the presidential campaign.

DAVIS: I'm Susan Davis. I cover Congress.

MONTANARO: And I'm Domenico Montanaro, senior political editor and correspondent.

KHALID: And thank you for listening to NPR POLITICS PODCAST.


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