President Trump grinned and gave a thumbs up as he strutted to the South Lawn of the White House on Wednesday, hoping to shift public attention from his Senate impeachment trial to the signing of a long-promised trade deal with Mexico and Canada.
But even as he made good on his 2016 campaign pledge to replace NAFTA — once Canada ratifies the deal — he kept bringing up impeachment.
Before signing the new U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement, known as USMCA, Trump joked to Republican senators at the crowded ceremony that he was only being nice to them because he needed them to acquit him at the trial.
He kidded Republican House members that they wouldn’t get any special treatment — “To hell with you,” he said — because the impeachment action had moved out of their chamber.
He did not mention Democrats even though they played a major role in drafting the accord and then helped pass it with overwhelming majorities in both the House and Senate, a rare bipartisan win for the White House.
No Democrats attended the event. House Democrats said they were not invited; the White House said some Democrats were.
Trump, who is notable for his light public schedule, is suddenly engaged in a blitz of activity, hoping to make the case to Americans that he is busy running the country while Democrats are engaged in a partisan attempt to take him down.
Whether by design or coincidence, the president has celebrated several policy milestones while senators debate his fate, all just before he gives his third State of the Union address next Tuesday.
He signed a preliminary trade pact with China two weeks ago in the gilded East Room, claimed credit for the strong U.S. economy at the World Economic Forum in Switzerland last week, and rolled out an ambitious, if highly unlikely, proposal for Middle East peace on Tuesday.
Trump has also stepped up his campaign schedule, staging a raucous reelection rally Tuesday night in Wildwood, N.J., and planning another Thursday night in Des Moines.
“While we are creating jobs and killing terrorists, the congressional Democrats are obsessed with demented hoaxes, crazy witch hunts and deranged partisan crusades,” Trump said in Wildwood. “It’s all they know how to do, the do-nothing Democrats.”
The harshly drawn contrast is an update of the strategy that President Clinton successfully pioneered during his impeachment trial in 1999, which ended in his acquittal.
Convinced he was the victim of a partisan impeachment, Clinton vented his anger in private while trying to appear bipartisan and businesslike in public. Trump rarely hides his anger. And he portrays every setback as partisan-inspired, constantly mixing his political agenda with his official duties.
Trump thus has employed an all-of-the-above strategy — he conducts a meatier-than-usual public schedule, and then fires broadsides on Twitter and in off-the-cuff comments.
Trump has tweeted at a record pace in recent days. On Wednesday, he repeatedly urged Republicans to block Democrats’ efforts to call witnesses at his impeachment trial, including former national security advisor John Bolton, who could provide first-hand testimony about Trump’s dealings with Ukraine that are at the heart of the impeachment charges.
Though Trump appointed Bolton in April 2018 to one of the most sensitive jobs in government, and kept him there for 17 months, Trump mocked him as “a guy who couldn’t get approved for the Ambassador to the U.N. years ago” who “begged” for a job from Trump, only to make many “mistakes in judgment” once he had it.
During Clinton’s impeachment, his aides used surrogates to demonize Kenneth W. Starr, the independent counsel who led the investigation, while trying to make Clinton appear above the fray even as his affair with a White House intern diminished his stature.
They succeeded in tarnishing Starr — who unexpectedly reemerged this week as one of Trump’s defense lawyers — and created enough pressure in the Senate for a bipartisan acquittal. By the end, Clinton’s poll numbers had shot up because the economy was booming and many Americans believed his conduct was not impeachable.
Trump’s advisors and backers believe the president has a similar future.
“It’s ‘A Tale of Two Cities.’ The literal city of Washington remains transfixed with impeachment and little else,” said Steve Cortes, an advisor to Trump’s super PAC, America First Action. “Meanwhile, the figurative ‘city’ of America surges with vitality and optimism because of President Trump’s policies, particularly economically.”
Trump argues that Democrats are targeting him because he is winning, not because of alleged misconduct. And he asserts, as he did in his 2016 campaign, that he sacrificed an easy life of wealth to endure the maelstrom of politics out of patriotism.
Replacing NAFTA was “probably the No. 1 reason that I decided to lead this crazy life that I’m leading right now, as opposed to that beautiful, simple life of luxury that I led before this happened,” Trump said at the signing ceremony Wednesday as as men in hardhats stood behind him.
Even if Trump replicates some of Clinton’s strategy, he faces a different obstacle. Clinton was in his second term, not facing reelection when he was impeached. It’s unknown how he would have fared if he had faced voters again.
“This idea that Clinton gained from this is not true,” said Bob Shrum, an outside political advisor to Clinton during his presidency.
He noted that Democrats gained only five seats in the House in the 1998 midterm elections — about five weeks before Clinton was impeached in the House.
If not for impeachment, Shrum added, Clinton’s vice president, Al Gore, would “have easily” won the presidential race in 2000. Instead, Shrum said, Gore’s ties to the Clinton scandal dragged him down and he lost narrowly to George W. Bush.
“People thought he did a good job, but wanted him to go,” he said.