Trade deals, Trump impeachment trial showcase 'Washington whiplash' at its finest

Only in Washington could you have such a juxtaposition.

During the 2016 campaign, President Trump railed against what he termed as “unfair” trade deals. He held particular enmity for NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement, ratified in 1993. The President viewed NAFTA as the genesis of trade packages which undercut American workers – especially at the core of his political base in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin.

Late Thursday morning, the Senate awarded Trump the most significant, most bipartisan policy achievement of his presidency. By an overwhelming 89-10 vote, the Senate ratified the USMCA, a new trade accord between the U.S., Mexico and Canada.

But the juxtaposition was coming.

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Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, the Senate’s President Pro Tempore as the most senior member of the majority party, presided over the vote. Grassley, 86,  was especially happy about the USMCA for farmers and the agriculture industry in his state. But Grassley was perched on the dais for another reason as well. He was waiting for something else.

Nanoseconds after the Senate aligned with the House on the USMCA, the Senate was about to initiate the Trump impeachment trial. In his role as President Pro Tempore, Grassley was there to swear in U.S. Chief Justice John Roberts to preside over the trial.

This was a unique case of Washington whiplash. Congress awards the President perhaps his most-sought-after legislative victory. Seconds later, it was onto the grave consequences of impeachment.

Waiting at the other end of the U.S. Capitol for the Senate to wrap up the USMCA was a coterie of seven House members. They milled about in the Speaker’s Ceremonial Office, just off the House floor, anticipating a cue from the Senate, which had cleared its docket of legislative business. The vote on the USMCA concluded, and that meant it was time for the House’s impeachment managers -- prosecutors tapped by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., to present their case.

One could distill the quintessence of a bicameral Congress into what unfolded next at the Capitol. What the Founders scribbled down on parchment two-and-a-half centuries ago in the Constitution respirated into a real-life showcase of Article I, Section 2 of the Constitution. That portion of the Constitution dictates the responsibilities of the House. The final charge the Founders assigned the House in that constitutional alcove was “the sole Power of Impeachment.”

Article I, Section 3 of the Constitution spells out the role of the Senate. The Founders punctuated that segment of the Constriction with two paragraphs about the Senate holding “the sole Power to try all Impeachments.”

And once word traveled across the Capitol that the Senate was ready, House Sergeant-at-Arms Paul Irving gave the go signal. Irving escorted the seven impeachment managers across the Capitol, past the House chamber, by the Will Rogers statue area where TV reporters often do their live shots, through Statuary Hall which once served as the House chamber, past the formal Speaker’s Office, through the Capitol Rotunda in the center of the building, along the corridor near the Old Senate Chamber and the office of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., before arriving in the Ohio Clock Corridor just outside the Senate chamber.

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This was where members and officers of the House and Senate metamorphosed the words of the Constitution into a sentient tableau.

“I was struck by the deep, steep sense of solemnity. There was a knot in my stomach when the Chief Justice came into the chamber and then pronounced the name, Donald John Trump,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn. “The difference in the reference to President Trump struck me as really distinguishing this proceeding from any other.”

This proceeding has not been seen in more than two decades involving a sitting President.

“God bless you,” whispered Grassley to Roberts after he swore in the Chief Justice to preside over the trial.

Multiple people in the Senate chamber noted how jarring it was to see and hear Roberts take charge of the Senate. The late Chief Justice William Rehnquist, who oversaw President Clinton’s trial, was a fan of Gilbert and Sullivan operettas and festooned his robe with four gold stripes to mimic the Lord Chancellor in “Iolanthe.” There were no such embellishments by Roberts; just a solid, dark robe, perhaps matching the seriousness of the occasion – and setting the tone for the trial.

The outcome of Clinton's trial was mostly -- mostly -- a foregone conclusion: the Senate would acquit the 42nd President. However, then-Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., indicated to me in an interview late last fall that he wasn’t 100 percent certain the Senate would exonerate the President when the trial started.

Few see any mathematical path to the Senate marshaling the 67 votes required to convict Trump. That may be true. But what we really don’t know are the political reverberations of the trial and what it means in an election year. Will the trial embolden the President’s supporters? Will there be some new revelation that diminishes support for Trump? Will voters penalize Democrats for overplaying their hand? Will Democrats make inroads with voters? Will ballots cast by senators facing competitive reelection bids exact a price at the polls?

The other juxtaposition is that the trial comes right at the time of the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary. The conventional wisdom is that Joe Biden and Pete Buttigieg get a boost with four Democratic senators running for president tied down in Washington. But frankly, nobody knows how this could resonate with voters.

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On Tuesday, we find out the exact parameters for a Senate trial. McConnell will likely propound a resolution setting up 24 hours for the House to present its case, 24 hours for the President’s team to rebut the House and then 16 hours for written questions from Senators. Then the question about witnesses may arise. In 1999, the framework was more cut and dried. All 100 senators were on board with a resolution setting up the guidelines for the trial. Here, Democrats may try to make motions or ask for votes. One could even see Trump, stewing in the White House, watching the trial, getting on the phone to a friendly GOP senator, and pushing for dismissal.

Everyone presumes the trial will consume the next five or six weeks of traffic in Washington. But, things happen. Another flare-up with Iran. A natural disaster. A national tragedy. We’ll juxtapose those potential events with a Senate trial. And that means another case of Washington whiplash.