The deal is more of an incremental step, far from what Trump promised Americans when he was on the campaign trail in 2016 pledging to beat China, which he called an “enemy” that cost U.S. jobs, spied on U.S. businesses and stole U.S. technology.
The strategy shows how Trump will approach 2020 — dressing up initial steps as big wins that deliver on the sweeping promises he made in 2016, all while facing constant bombardments from Democrats accusing him of corrupt behavior.
It’s a tactic he’s already started to employ in other areas. Trump has claimed victory on building a wall on the southern border, despite only erecting a few miles of a new barrier. He has touted success on reducing North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, despite negotiations going cold. And he has recently been making the argument that he “saved” elements of the American healthcare system, despite failing to implement his preferred plan.
Still, no issue creates more suspense for Trump in 2020 than the economy. With the business community fretting about a China trade war-fueled recession, Trump must signal that he’s making progress on avoiding an economic downturn.
That’s what he tried to do on Wednesday, trumpeting a “phase-one” agreement with China in a packed East Room, the largest room in the White House. He was joined by Vice President Mike Pence, 27 members of Congress, four Cabinet secretaries and two governors. Fox News host Lou Dobbs and major Republican donors Sheldon and Miriam Adelson were also seated in the audience and got shout outs from the president.
The ceremony was ongoing when, down Pennsylvania Avenue, the House began taking up a procedural votes on impeachment. TV networks quickly switched to show the events in both the White House and the Capitol at the same time.
At about 1:30 pm, as the White House was briefing reporters on its impeachment strategy, the House officially voted 228-193 to send two articles of impeachment against Trump to the Senate and name a team of impeachment managers. The Senate trial is expected to start Tuesday.
“We’re prepared,” a senior administration official told reporters. “We have been ready and are ready to get things moving in the Senate because the facts overwhelmingly show that the president did nothing wrong and we’re happy now that we’re going to have a chance to vindicate the president and get this process behind the country so the American people can move on.”
The nation’s capital is used to split screen days, but Wednesday was extraordinary even by Washington, D.C., standards.
In December, when Trump announced he would sign phase one of the China deal on Jan. 15, he may have thought the Senate would in the midst of the trial. But a weeks-long impasse delayed the start, putting the event smack dab in the middle of the House vote to send the impeachment articles to the Senate.
As part of the deal, the United States agreed to cancel some new tariffs and drop its formal designation of China as a currency manipulator. For its part, Beijing agreed to buy more American agricultural, energy and other products.
Some Trump confidants privately admit that the president is hyping a modest deal as he faces intense pressure de-escalate with China ahead of a campaign in which Trump will face Democratic criticism that the China tariffs have harmed blue-collar Americans.
These allies also fear the tariffs could put a dent in the economy — which they see as Trump’s strongest selling point — though they note several important economic indicators, like the stock market, have stayed relatively strong despite the trade war.
“I think it’s a near-term detente to calm nerves and win re-election,” said one outside Trump adviser who speaks to the president. “Not a big deal positive or negative as far as the substance of the agreement.”
Still, the deal was enough for Trump and some of his allies to declare victory.
“This is exactly why the American people sent President Trump to Washington — to reexamine old assumptions and break things if necessary,” said Jenny Beth Martin, co-founder and honorary chairman of the Tea Party Patriots. “He has wooed and he has warned, he has used all his skills as a negotiator, and now he has succeeded in overturning a trade policy that benefited China but not us.”
Trump appeared buoyant ahead of the signing ceremony, bounding into the Green Room where press members were holding and introducing some of his friends who had shown up for the event. Smiling and surprising his own aides, Trump flung open the door and inviting his friends to make comments about the China trade deal.
“Prior administrations have not stood up to them, and that has hurt middle-class American workers,” said former Sen. Jim DeMint, who now serves as chairman of the Conservative Partnership Institute. “Trump’s efforts to stand up for our interests are welcome, and will ultimately result in freer and fairer trade.”
While Democrats have supported some of Trump’s attempts to pressure China economically, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) this week criticized the latest agreement for not going far enough to secure commitments from China to halt unfair economic practices.
“The terms of the agreement will result in very little progress in reforming China’s rapacious trade behaviors and seems like it could send a signal to Chinese negotiators that the U.S. can be steamrolled,” Schumer wrote in a letter to the White House dated Monday.
At the signing ceremony, Trump mocked Schumer but didn’t address his critiques. He only vowed that work will begin immediately on phase two of a deal. His zigzagging remarks featured introductions for dozens of guests, an announcement that he may go to Mount Rushmore for July 4th and and an anecdote about ripping up a speech with negative comments about China while on the campaign trail.
And then, as the House readied for its impeachment vote, Trump couldn’t help but talk a little about impeachment, too. He called it a “hoax,” joked that he needed “good legal advice” and stressed that lawmakers should feel free to leave and vote on impeachment.
“Some of the congressmen may have a vote,” he said. “It’s on the impeachment hoax. So if you want, you go out and vote. Frankly, it’s not going to matter because it’s gone very well. But I’d rather have you voting than sitting here listening to me introduce you, OK?”
A short while later, the House members departed.
Meridith McGraw and Melanie Zanona contributed to this report.