STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
It is arguably a normal day in Congress, Tuesday, December 10, 2019 - normal, at least in the time of President Trump in that so much is happening that it's hard to follow. But the things happening on this day are momentous. In the space of an hour, House leaders announced two articles of impeachment against the president. They also announced they have agreed with the president on terms of a new North American Free Trade Agreement. The agreement puts the renamed deal with Mexico and Canada on a path to passing Congress. Let's begin with impeachment. NPR congressional correspondent Kelsey Snell is at the Capitol. Hi there, Kelsey.
KELSEY SNELL, BYLINE: Hi there. Good morning.
INSKEEP: And let's listen together to Jerry Nadler. He's the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, which is the committee that's producing the two articles of impeachment.
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JERRY NADLER: Throughout this inquiry, he has attempted to conceal the evidence from Congress and from the American people. Our president holds the ultimate public trust. When he betrays that trust and puts himself before a country, he endangers the Constitution. He endangers our democracy. And he endangers our national security.
INSKEEP: What are the ways in which Nadler says the president put himself before the country?
SNELL: Well, actually, they just released the text - just this moment - of the two articles of impeachment. They - it is nine pages and is publicly available now. And they detail abuse of power and obstruction of Congress as two separate articles of impeachment. Now, the abuse of power focuses on President Trump's conduct with regard to Ukraine and his attempts to pressure the Ukrainian government to launch investigations into Trump's political rivals and into the debunked theory that Ukraine, not Russia, meddled in the 2016 election. Now, obstruction of Congress is focused on Trump's conduct with regard to the investigation itself and efforts that his administration took to prevent Congress from getting the information they need to investigate his conduct when it comes to Ukraine.
INSKEEP: We heard Mara Liasson during our coverage earlier today say that in many ways, the obstruction of justice charge is more serious, even though it's a little harder - it seems a little more abstract to the average person.
SNELL: Yes. To be clear, it's obstruction of Congress, which is a little bit different. And this is really important because it is about the relationship between Congress and the White House and Congress's constitutional duty to perform oversight of the White House. Democrats say that if they don't move forward with this article in particular, they are essentially ceding their power of oversight for decades to come. And it makes it so much harder for the president to ever be accountable to the other branches of government.
INSKEEP: I've now got one of the resolutions in front of me. I'm just going to read a little text that has just come out from the House Judiciary Committee so that we have an idea - flavor of this, the formality of it. It's a legal-looking document. (Reading) Resolved that Donald J. Trump, president of the United States, is impeached for high crimes and misdemeanors and that the following articles of impeachment be exhibited to the United States Senate, which is what would happen here, right? The full House would vote on these two articles. And if they are passed, they go on to the Senate.
SNELL: Yeah, just to give people kind of a lay of the land, the first thing that needs to happen is the House Judiciary Committee needs to vote on these articles. And we're expecting that to happen maybe as early as Thursday, though that is not set in stone. Once that's done, it'll move to the full House, where they will take a vote. And if it does - if these articles are approved by the House, then it will go on to the Senate, where, technically, they're required to start the process of an impeachment trial in the Senate immediately, though there's a little bit of wiggle room there. But at the end of the day, we're talking about a very rapid process going forward.
INSKEEP: Yeah. Now, let's go back to that second article, the obstruction of Congress article and the importance of that. There is, of course, a third branch of government that can sometimes be asked to referee disputes between the other branches, the White House and Congress. None of this is abstract. It's the heart of the American system. It's the way you avoid having a dictator. It's a big deal. Adam Schiff, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, was asked today, why not wait for the courts? There are court cases being heard now about who should testify and what documents should go over. Why not wait? He said he was facing nothing but delay and obstruction, even in the courts, from the administration. Let's listen.
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ADAM SCHIFF: It has taken us eight months to get a lower court ruling that Don McGahn has no absolute right to defy Congress - eight months for one court decision. If it takes us another eight months to get a second court or maybe a Supreme Court decision, people need to understand that is not the end of the process. It comes back to us. And we ask questions because he no longer has absolute immunity. And then he claims something else, that his answers are privileged. And we have to go back to court for another eight or 16 months. The argument, why don't you just wait? - amounts to this. Why don't you just let him cheat in one more election? Why not let him cheat just one more time?
INSKEEP: Kelsey Snell, sometimes, Republicans or the members of the president's party - either one - will defend the rights of Congress, even against a president of their own party. Are there any Republicans inclined to see things as Schiff does?
SNELL: Well, that is what the vote that we're expecting in the next week or so will show - is whether or not Republicans have enough discomfort or, you know, agree with Democrats that the president's willingness to go along with the rules, norms and constitutional duties - his lack of willingness, I should say - rises to an impeachable offense. There have been Republicans who are uncomfortable with the fact that the president doesn't always go along with the way things are normally done, even when it comes to things like approving cabinet positions and then putting people in acting jobs instead of having them confirmed. Those kinds of things have bothered not just Democrats but Republicans for some time. The question is, what do they do about it? And this question about the Ukraine situation is much more intense and is at a much higher level than that. So they will have to answer that question when they go to the floor to vote.
INSKEEP: Although it does seem unusual. I mean, presidents sometimes flout Congress in certain specific ways, but they will overall acknowledge the rights of Congress. Here we have a president who says what you're doing is a legitimate, I don't have to follow you at all. Let's hear one Republican voice on this, Doug Collins. He is the top Republican on one of the committees that has been considering impeachment over the last number of weeks. He spoke on Fox News.
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DOUG COLLINS: Adam Schiff, Jerry Nadler will go down in history, along with the speaker, of having the most partisan impeachment on the most - least fact of any we've seen simply because they have issues with the president.
INSKEEP: Is it going to be vital to the president's defense that he keep Republicans united, Kelsey, that no Republicans defect and make the impeachment more bipartisan?
SNELL: Yeah, that's absolutely a big part of what he's going to try to do here. And you'll - I think it's very important to watch the way that Republicans - if any Republicans do side with Democrats, how they frame that. If they pick out, you know, just a small portion of it that they can agree on, that is going to really tell us a lot about what may come in the Senate trial, as well, because it talks a lot about where the party is as a whole.
INSKEEP: Briefly, what's it like to also be at the Capitol on this day when Democrats are saying they've agreed with the White House on the U.S.-Mexico-Canada free trade agreement, the USMCA? Do I have that right? It's the U.S.-Mexico-Canada agreement. Go on.
SNELL: Yes, that's right. And, you know, it's like being in a little bit of whiplash. Earlier today, Speaker Pelosi was asked about it. And she said that the day is young. And I think that that speaks to kind of the moment that we're in, that there is so much that needs to get done. And Congress is feeling this incredible pressure to get everything done as quickly as possible and as much legislating done as possible before they vote on impeachment.
INSKEEP: Well, NPR's Jim Zarroli joins us next. He covers business and trade, has been covering this agreement. Hi there, Jim.
JIM ZARROLI, BYLINE: Good morning.
INSKEEP: So what did Democrats get that made it acceptable for them to make a deal with the White House?
ZARROLI: Well, they got some - you remember more than a year ago, President Trump and the leaders of Canada and Mexico stood up and presented this USMCA, which some people call NAFTA 2.0. And it's changed some things about NAFTA. There was always this question about whether it was really going to get through Congress. Now it appears that it will. It's going to be signed today. The new text is going to be signed today by the leaders of the country - three countries. And what Democrats have done is basically change some of the provisions in the text that President Trump and the others unveiled last year.
There are stronger monitoring standards for labor and environmental rules. Essentially, this would allow inspectors to go into Mexican factories, for instance, to make sure that they're living up to labor protections that are in the agreement. Also, removal of patent protection for some kinds of drugs. That was a big issue for Democrats. So, you know, Democrats say they've tweaked this, made it a lot better. It's a much better and different deal. And here's what Nancy Pelosi had to say.
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NANCY PELOSI: There are some people who said, why make it look like he has a victory? Well, we've - we're declaring victory for the American worker in what is in this agreement. But we would never - not any one of us is important enough for us to hold up a trade agreement that is important for American workers because of any collateral benefit that might accrue to any one of us.
INSKEEP: Jim Zarroli, it's politically meaningful what Pelosi is saying there because there have been some Democrats since the beginning of the Trump presidency who have said this person is such a danger to the republic, we need to oppose him on everything, full stop.
ZARROLI: Yeah. And I think Nancy Pelosi is trying to show that even though they're trying to - Democrats are trying to impeach the president, that when there's something comes along that will make life better for Americans, they will go along with it. They will participate and cooperate. It was interesting to me that, you know, both sides in this, both the Democrats and the Trump administration, are trying to portray this as a big victory. You know, Nancy Pelosi says this was much, much better than what was proposed. Richard Trumka, the head of the AFL-CIO, said this was a vast improvement over the original NAFTA and the flawed proposal from last year. And then you had Vice President Mike Pence today saying Democrats had acquiesced in supporting the deal. And, of course, President Trump is saying this is a huge victory.
INSKEEP: That's a symbolic indication of the moment, isn't it, Jim? Nobody can stand up and said, we have bipartisan cooperation. The only way they can make a compromise is if they both stand up and say, we whooped the other side.
ZARROLI: Yeah, even though they are actually cooperating and have found common ground on at least this one big issue.
INSKEEP: OK. So now it goes through Congress. Most likely, Republicans mostly like this deal. Democrats have signed on. So it goes to the president?
ZARROLI: Yes, that seems to be the case. Some Republican opposition, but, generally, it's expected to be approved.
INSKEEP: OK. NPR's Jim ZARROLI, thanks for the update on this morning when Democrats also spoke of articles of impeachment. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.