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Pelosi’s whiplash moment brings praise and criticism

House Democrats on Tuesday announced they would back President Trump’s signature free-trade agreement just an hour after rolling out articles of impeachment that said he had abused his power and obstructed Congress.

It was a whiplash moment for Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), as her caucus almost simultaneously assured that Trump would become just the third U.S. president to be impeached and set him up for a huge legislative achievement to tout on his reelection campaign.

In the House, the decision was praised by Pelosi’s caucus, who said it underscored her message that Democrats will govern and work with the president on important legislation even as they investigate him.

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“I think we’ve just shown that we have an ability to not only walk and chew gum at the same time, but to run, chew gum, do cartwheels at the same time on behalf of the American people,” said Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.), the House Democratic Caucus chairman and a key Pelosi ally.

Yet the moves were derided by many Democrats, who saw Pelosi not only handing Trump a victory but stepping on the impeachment news. These Democrats saw Pelosi, who is focused on preserving the Democratic majority in the House, as undermining the party’s efforts to defeat Trump.

“Giving Trump bipartisan cover on one of his biggest political vulnerabilities and preventing a potential Democratic President from negotiating a better, more worker-friendly deal in 15 months makes absolutely no political or substantive sense to me,” Dan Pfeiffer, a former adviser to President Obama who hosts “Pod Save America,” wrote on Twitter.

A Senate Democratic aide called Pelosi’s move “the height of schizophrenia.” 

“How do you message in one day that the president of the United States should be on trial for his criminality, bribery and obstruction and also say ‘Boy, are we glad he came out with this trade deal’?” the aide said. “Are you kidding me?”

Pelosi brushed off the criticism that Democrats shouldn’t have given Trump a win on the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement, which will replace a North American Trade Agreement (NAFTA) that has been widely derided by Democrats.

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She also said that the simultaneous timing of impeachment and trade is simply a result of the typical year-end rush to get things done in Congress.   

“If somebody gets a collateral benefit from something, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have the benefit that is for our country, pass up that opportunity. Some of these things are very perishable,” Pelosi said in a televised interview at Politico’s Women Rule Summit.  

Republicans argued the trade news had everything to do with politics and nothing with end-of-year timing.

“If you need any more evidence of how unpopular impeachment is, watch the two press conferences today,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said at his own press conference. He accused Pelosi of holding up the deal until it could be paired with impeachment, saying the only reason “she finally relented was because of the unpopularity of impeachment itself.” 

Pelosi and other Democrats hailed the trade deal as a major Democratic victory, saying they had forced Trump to make significant concessions that will benefit U.S. workers and improve upon NAFTA. She said the new deal, which is backed by the AFL-CIO labor confederation, will be a future template for trade deals.

“We’re so far away from the proposal that he put forth that this is a triumph for American workers,” Pelosi said at the Politico summit. 

Democratic sources said the pairing of the two issues was a politically strategic and highly choreographed maneuver intended to unify a diverse and often unruly 233-member caucus that spans the ideological spectrum. They said it simultaneously appeases progressives clamoring for Trump’s impeachment while offering vulnerable frontline freshmen a legislative win they can take home to their constituents.

“It was 100 percent strategic. She knows that more of us want to talk about trade than impeachment,” one Democrat, who represents a swing district Trump won in 2016, told The Hill.

Pelosi has made sure all year to never get too far ahead of the Democrats in swing districts who made it possible for her to reclaim the Speaker’s gavel in the first place. For months, she was the voice setting a high bar for impeachment. Her position change when the president’s controversy in Ukraine was revealed by a government whistleblower — and when centrists in her caucus backed an impeachment inquiry.

“She is an unbelievably savvy, strategic thinker,” Rep. Brendan Boyle (D-Pa.) told The Hill.

“A wise general” is how Rep. André Carson (D-Ind.), a member of the House Intelligence Committee, described the Speaker.

The decision to limit impeachment to two articles and not include a third on obstruction of justice was also in keeping with Pelosi’s strategy. Democrats in swing districts are eager to keep impeachment as limited as possible and want to wrap up their first year in the majority with policy accomplishments.

“I think voters want to see us getting things done,” said freshman Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-N.J.), who flipped a GOP-held district last year.

Malinowski dismissed the idea that there was any contradiction in arguing that Trump posed an existential threat to the country while also cutting a bipartisan deal with his administration.

“Most of us really do believe that we’re here to do the right thing. I think it’s the right thing to impeach a president who has placed himself above the law, who is trying to sell out our national security for personal political gain. And at the same time, I think it’s the right thing for us to get a trade agreement that’s going to help our constituents,” Malinowski said.

Vulnerable Democrats who tried to hold impeachment at arm’s length all year weren’t ready to say yet if they will vote for the two articles of impeachment, citing a need to fully review the text.

But freshmen like Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Mich.) were more than happy to gush about the new trade deal. 

“I’m really thrilled that we fought hard,” Slotkin said.

Alexander Bolton and Niv Elis contributed.

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