History will record December 10 2019 as the day Nancy Pelosi’s Democrats drew up articles of impeachment against Donald Trump. But his decision to meet the same day with Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, gave a clearer pointer about the tide of US politics. Had Mr Trump been worried about being convicted in the upcoming Senate trial he would have avoided any contact with Russians.
As it happened, Ms Pelosi omitted direct reference to Mr Trump’s Russia ties. The impeachment articles focused on his “abuse of power” over Ukraine and “obstruction of Congress”. Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation did not even merit a footnote. This allowed Mr Trump to declare victory on a report that he falsely claimed had exonerated him.
Ms Pelosi’s reading of US politics will now be put to the test. Her instinct has always been to keep impeachment simple and do it quickly. Focusing on Russia would have stymied both those priorities. A similar pragmatism applies to Ms Pelosi’s decision on Tuesday to back Mr Trump’s US-Mexico-Canada agreement — his revised version of the North American Free Trade Agreement, which critics have dubbed Nafta 2.0. Having secured Democratic concessions on labour and environmental rights, Ms Pelosi described the deal as a “victory for American workers”. But her move assumes a voter attention to detail that was apparently lacking over the Mueller report. Mr Trump, meanwhile, believes USMCA is his deal and its passage will be his victory.
Can Ms Pelosi and Mr Trump both be right? By the zero sum nature of US politics the answer has to be no. One of them will benefit more than the other.
Generally speaking, voters tend to blame the White House for gridlock on Capitol Hill and reward it when Congress is doing something. This suggests that Mr Trump will emerge with more bragging rights. The fact that the USMCA is only marginally different from the original Nafta does not speak well of either party’s grasp of reality.
In purely trade terms, the revised deal is much ado about very little. The impact on the real US economy is estimated at 0.35 per cent extra growth over the next decade, which is well within the margin of error. But its enactment will give Mr Trump the chance to boast that he has mastered the art of the deal.
Ironically, Ms Pelosi’s move overshadowed Mr Trump’s decision — again, on the same day — to allow the World Trade Organization’s appeals court to go defunct. The end of the world’s disputes resolution mechanism will have far greater consequences for the global economy.
In Ms Pelosi’s defence, she was damned if she did and damned if she didn’t. Republicans have repeatedly accused the Democrats of dropping all else in their overzealous pursuit of impeachment. Her accession to USMCA on the same day she published the articles of impeachment was an attempt to show she could walk and chew gum at the same time. But it is an entirely political bet.
In reality, the House of Representatives has passed dozens of bills since Ms Pelosi regained the speakership in January. Almost all have run aground in the Republican-controlled Senate. Among these is a bill to tighten US election security against foreign interference in the 2020 presidential election. Mitch McConnell, the Republican Senate leader, has acquired the nickname “Moscow Mitch” for blocking any move to strengthen the integrity of the US electoral process. If one chamber of Congress deserves the title “do nothing” it is the Republican-controlled Senate, not the House.
Yet Ms Pelosi nevertheless felt pressured into giving Mr Trump a win on the fear that America’s voters had not noticed any of this. She may eventually be proved right. But the day was rich in irony. When asked what Mr Trump would be discussing with Russia’s Mr Lavrov, a White House spokesman replied: “election security”. On Twitter they might describe that as trolling.