OurWeek In Politics (December 18, 2019-December 25, 2019)

Here are the main events that occurred in Politics this week:

1. House of Represenatatives Approves Impeachment Articles Against President Donald Trump

The House of Representatives this week voted along party lines to impeach President Donald Trump

President Donald Trump was impeached by the U.S. House of Representatives on December 18, becoming only the third American President to be formally charged under the Constitution’s ultimate remedy for high crimes and misdemeanors. The historic vote split along party lines, much the way it has divided the nation, over a charge that the 45th president abused the power of his office by enlisting a foreign government to investigate a political rival ahead of the 2020 election. The House then approved a second charge, that he obstructed Congress in its investigation. The Articles of Impeachment, the political equivalent of an indictment, now go to the Senate for trial. If President Trump is acquitted by the Republican-led chamber, as expected, he still would have to run for reelection carrying the enduring stain of impeachment on his purposely disruptive presidency. “The president is impeached,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi declared after the vote. She called it “great day for the Constitution of the United States, a sad one for America that the president’s reckless activities necessitated us having to introduce articles of impeachment.” 

President Donald Trump, who began December 18 by tweeting his anger at the proceedings, pumped his fist before an evening campaign rally in Battle Creek, Michigan, boasting of “tremendous support” in the Republican Party. “By the way,” he told the crowd, “it doesn’t feel like I’m being impeached.” The mood in the House chamber shifted throughout the day as the lawmakers pushed toward the vote. Democrats spun lofty speeches, framing impeachment as what many said was their duty to protect the Constitution and uphold the nation’s system of checks and balances. Republicans mocked and jeered the proceedings, as they stood by their party’s leader, who has frequently tested the bounds of civic norms. The start of Trump’s Michigan rally was delayed as the voting was underway in Washington but once he took the stage he boasted of accomplishments and complained bitterly about his foes for two hours, defiant rather than contrite. He called Pelosi names and warned the impeachment would be politically disastrous for Democrats.

No Republicans voted for impeachment, and Democrats had only slight defections on their side, with Jeff Van Drew (D-NJ), Collin Peterson (D-MN), Jared Golden (D-ME), and Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) being the only Democrats who voted against impeachment. While Democrats had the majority in the House to impeach Trump, a vote of two-thirds is necessary for conviction in the Republican-controlled Senate. The trial is expected to begin in January of 2020, but House Speaker Pelosi was noncommittal about sending the House articles over, leaving the start date uncertain. Senate leaders are expecting to negotiate details of the trial, but Democrats are criticizing Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell for saying he will not be an impartial juror and already knows the outcome. 

The House impeachment resolution laid out in stark terms the articles of impeachment against Trump stemming from his July 2019 phone call when he asked the Ukrainian president for a “favor,” to announce he was investigating Democrats including potential 2020 rival Joe Biden. At the time, Ukrainian President Zelenskiy, new to politics and government, was seeking a coveted White House visit to show backing from the U.S. as he confronted a hostile Russia at his border. He was also counting on $391 million in military aid already approved by Congress. The White House delayed the funds, but Trump eventually released the money once Congress intervened. Narrow in scope but broad in its charges, the impeachment resolution said President Donald Trump “betrayed the nation by abusing his high office to enlist a foreign power in corrupting democratic elections,” and then obstructing Congress’ oversight like “no president” in American history. “President Trump, by such conduct, has demonstrated that he will remain a threat to national security and the Constitution if allowed to remain in office,” it said.

Republicans argued that Democrats were impeaching President Donald Trump because they cannot defeat him in 2020. “They want to take away my vote and throw it in the trash,” said Congressman Chris Stewart (R-UT). But Democrats warned the country cannot wait for the next election to decide whether President Trump should remain in office because he has shown a pattern of behavior, particularly toward Russia, and will try to corrupt US elections again. “The president and his men plot on,” said Congressman Adam Schiff (D-CA), the chairman of the Intelligence Committee that led the inquiry. “The danger persists. The risk is real.”

Thus far, it is likely that the Senate will vote to acquit President Donald Trump. Whereas some Republican Senators including Mitt Romney (R-UT), Ben Sasse (R-NE), Richard Burr (R-NC), Susan Collins (R-ME), and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), are moving in the direction to vote to impeach President Trump, arch-conservative Democratic Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia is reluctant at best to support the Senate’s impeachment efforts. Based on this factor, the Senate will likely vote to acquit Trump assuming that Republican defections are kept at a minimum.

2. In A Rare Showing of Bipartisanship, The House of Representatives Approves USMCA, A Landmark Trade Bill Promoted By The Trump Administration

The House of Representatives this week voted to approve the USMCA trade agreement in a major victory for the Trump Administration.

The House of Representatives passed a new North American trade deal on December 19, ending a more than year long slog to iron out Democratic concerns about the agreement. The chamber approved the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, one of President Donald Trump’s economic and political priorities, in an overwhelming 385-41 vote. Thirty-eight Democrats opposed it. The trade pact now heads to the Senate, which is expected to ratify it next year. Most Republicans and Democrats have praised the latest version of the three-nation deal, which replaces the North American Free Trade Agreement. Republican lawmakers and key business groups said it will follow through on Trump’s promise to refresh NAFTA, though they have criticized concessions to the Democratic-held House on intellectual property standards.

Even before the House passed the agreement, Trump started to bill it as a political win as he campaigns for reelection in 2020. Democrats also wanted to show they can work with Trump only a day after they voted to make him the third president impeached in American history. “This vote today is a reminder that, even while the House was working to hold the President accountable for his abuses of office, we were still working hard to deliver on our promises to the American people to focus on economic opportunity,” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) said ahead of the vote. Speaking to reporters December 19 only hours after the impeachment vote, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi aimed to move focus away from the chamber charging Trump with abuse of power and obstruction of Congress. She cheered the trade deal and said it took time because “we weren’t going forward until we had the strongest possible enforcement.”

After Democrats pushed for tougher labor enforcement mechanisms, the key labor group AFL-CIO gave the deal its blessing. But at least one major union , the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, said the bill did not do enough to protect food workers from “unfair competition from foreign companies not playing by the same rules.” Major business groups largely backed the revised USMCA agreement as companies sought market certainty amid Trump’s trade war with China. While the US Chamber of Commerce has pushed for the deal’s ratification, it took issue with the Trump administration removing a provision that protected makers of so-called biologic drugs from generic competitors for at least 10 years. Democrats pushed to remove that measure, saying it would increase drug costs for consumers. 

Republicans have used the deal as a political tool for months, arguing Democrats focused on impeaching Trump rather than replacing NAFTA. Democrats in districts reliant on trade with America’s northern and southern neighbors now aim to put pressure on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to ratify USMCA. In a statement following the House vote, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-IA), one of President Donald Trump’s strongest Senate allies said the Senate would not ratify the agreement in 2019. “Impeaching the president and passing USMCA in the same week makes immediate action impossible. But I look forward to getting USMCA passed in the Senate and ratified early next year,” he said.

3. Senate Confirms 13 Of President Trump’s Judicial Nominees

The Senate this week voted to confirm 13 of President Donald Trump’s judicial nominees, cementing President Trump’s long-term political legacy in the judicial branch.

While the House of Representatives debated articles of impeachment against President Donald Trump, the Senate confirmed 13 of the president’s judicial nominees. The continued churn of President Trump’s judicial confirmation machine ensures that the impact of his soon-to-be-tainted presidency will be felt for decades. Because Senate Republicans unilaterally changed the chamber’s rules, the Senate can expedite the confirmation of these nominations in little more than a day. It remains unclear whether Democrats will force every vote or minute of available debate to slow the process down, even a little. Each nominee will be elevated to a lifetime appointment on a federal district court. Trump has already placed 120 judges on district courts; after December 18’s vote, he will have appointed nearly one-fifth of all district court judges. 

Several of December 18th’s nominees are part of a package deal made between the Trump Administration and Democratic senators. For instance, President Barack Obama first nominated Gary Richard Brown and Robert J. Colville, but Republicans blocked their confirmation. Other nominees, including Stephanie Dawkins Davis, Jodi W. Dishman, John M. Gallagher, Bernard Maurice Jones II, Kea Whetzal Riggs, and Lewis J. Liman, have drawn support from both parties, as well as their home-state senators. Other nominees, however, are controversial. Matthew Walden McFarland, currently a state judge in Ohio, has a conservative jurisprudential record and a history of donations to Republican politicians. He has been a member of the Federalist Society, a conservative network of lawyers whose leader, Leonard Leo, runs a massive dark money operation to stack the courts with jurists who share the goals of the Republican Party. McFarland has also been a member of the National Rifle Association and the Scioto County Right to Life, an anti-abortion group. A majority of the American Bar Association’s Judiciary Committee rated MacFarland “Qualified,” while a minority rated him “Not Qualified.”

Anuraag Hari Singhal, currently a state judge in Florida, appointed by former Governor and current Senator Rick Scott, has a somewhat similar background. Singhal is also a member of the Federalist Society and a past supporter of Republican politicians. Moreover, he is also a member of the St. Thomas More Society, a conservative organization that fights against abortion, surrogacy, and in vitro fertilization. Daniel Mack Traynor, nominated to the district court of North Dakota, is heavily involved with the state’s Republican Party. He is also a member of the Federalist Society as well as the St. Thomas More Society of North Dakota, which advocated for a failed ballot measure that would have blocked access to abortion, surrogacy, in vitro fertilization, and some forms of birth control. And he was a member of the Christian Legal Society, a conservative legal group that unsuccessfully sued for the right to discriminate against gay students at public universities. The two remaining nominees, Mary Kay Vyskocil of New York and Karen Marston, have both been members of the Federalist Society. Vyskocil currently serves as a bankruptcy judge; Marston is a federal prosecutor.

As lawmakers in the House of Representatives vote to impeach the president for high crimes and misdemeanors, their counterparts in the Senate will be voting to confirm that same President’s nominees to the federal bench. As Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR) stated, the Senate “is doing real work confirming judges.” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is pushing through as many confirmations as he can before the chamber holds an impeachment trial early next year. Democrats have decided to play ball, apparently because they support some of the nominees. But other individuals on the brink of confirmation, like McFarland, are quintessential Trump nominees: arguably underqualified and deeply connected to conservative organizations that strongly oppose abortion, gun control, and other progressive goals. And there is a strange disconnect between the work of each legislative chamber when one is effectively indicting the president of criminal conduct while the other rams through his judicial picks. The string of confirmations further ensures that, no matter how and when Trump’s presidency ends, his judges will carry on his legacy from the bench well into the future. 

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