Representative Andy Levin of Michigan, a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, told me that he was “fine” with the two articles the House settled on. But “would I personally do more? Yes … I believe that the president has violated the emoluments clause since the day he came into office, for example.” Tlaib echoed her colleague: “For many of my residents, from the beginning—before the Ukraine call—they were very concerned that they had a sitting CEO in the Oval Office that was making decisions in the best interest of his foreign investment versus the best interest of the American people.”
Not only did Democrats miss a powerful opportunity to catalog—and denounce—what they see as the full extent of Trump’s wrongdoing, progressives told me, but they completely flubbed the delivery. An hour after condemning Trump’s lawlessness in a speech announcing the articles of impeachment on Tuesday morning, Pelosi held a second press conference to reveal that Democrats had finally reached a deal with the White House on a trade deal, the North American Free Trade Agreement replacement called the United States–Mexico–Canada Agreement.
“Some have said that we need to pass this to show that we will work with Trump, and others have said that, somehow, we can pass this and it’ll be a victory for us,” Levin said. “I don’t think either is really that true … No matter how we message this, this will be seen as a big victory for Donald Trump.”
Pelosi, for her part, has argued that the timing of the USMCA announcement was coincidental, and she’s rejected criticism that the deal is a win for the president, telling reporters after the second press conference that it “came a long way from what [Trump] originally proposed” and should be seen as an achievement for American workers.
It’s not hard to see why some in the Democratic caucus wanted the trade deal done and announced. The agreement may give vulnerable Democrats, especially those from districts Trump won in 2016, something useful to bring back home—evidence that they aren’t obstructionists. That could, in turn, potentially help blunt the impact of any impeachment-related backlash and, given these Democrats’ key role in winning the House last year, ultimately help protect the Democratic majority. (Although, as my colleague Ronald Brownstein wrote recently, impeaching Trump might not be as politically risky as it may seem to these lawmakers.)
Progressives I talked with don’t buy this. They see both the content of the articles and the timing of the USMCA announcement as cowardly: When faced with a historic opportunity to call out a historically lawless president, progressives said, House leadership chose to play it safe.
“They are catering to scared members of their caucus who think they won [in 2018] by [toeing] a middle ground, when they actually won due to anti-Trump outrage,” argues Adam Green, a co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, a political-action committee.
Ultimately, the week’s events help illustrate one of the core disagreements between the two wings of the party going into 2020: whether vulnerable frontline members should be protected at all costs—even if that means appealing to moderate and Trump-sympathetic voters—or if, as progressives argue, the party should leave those voters behind. “We don’t fight Trump and Republican extremism by coming to the middle,” Hess says.