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House staffers on a summer trip to Ukraine learned U.S. aid was frozen. Stunned, here’s what they did next.

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WASHINGTON — Two days after a whistleblower secretly filed a complaint about President Donald Trump’s dealings with Ukraine in August, two top congressional staffers arrived in Kyiv on a routine business trip that ended up setting off alarm bells on Capitol Hill.

The aides work for the Democratic leadership of the House Appropriations Committee, which is responsible for federal spending. They had been dispatched to make an on-the-ground assessment of the cash Congress has been pumping into former Soviet states — including Moldova, Georgia and Ukraine — to aid their defenses against Russian aggression.

But after traveling from Chisinau, Moldova, for two days of meetings and Ukrainian special-forces training observation in Kyiv and Berdychiv starting on Aug. 14, the staffers were shocked to learn from U.S. embassy officials that there was no new money coming into Ukraine, a congressional aide familiar with their trip told NBC News. The Trump administration had frozen military aid to the country in the midst of its war with Russia.

What’s more, the two Appropriations staffers, Becky Leggieri and Hayden Milberg, couldn’t even get an explanation for the holdup, because embassy officials didn’t know the reason, the aide said. That set off a scramble in Washington to find out what happened to the hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars that had been specifically earmarked by Congress for Ukraine and that now play a pivotal role in a mushrooming scandal that threatens to lead to the president’s impeachment.

The anonymous whistleblower, a CIA employee, has received a great deal of attention for exposing what Democrats say was Trump’s plot to pressure Ukraine into investigating a rival for re-election — former vice president Joe Biden — to help him politically in exchange for receiving military aid. But even if the whistleblower had not stepped forward, there’s a chance that the scheme would eventually have been exposed by a combination of congressional accountants like Leggieri and Milberg, whose job it is to keep track of every major expenditure, and various executive branch officials who have emerged to share the pieces of the story they knew.

The appropriations staffers didn’t know about the Biden angle, only that military aid was being held up. The whistleblower sewed it all together — and did that in time to prevent a deal from being consummated or for the freeze on the funds to become permanent. But when the staffers realized the money was not flowing, they set off important alarm bells.

“As soon as Appropriations Committee staff learned that Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative funding had been held up, the committee began making urgent inquiries of the Defense Department to understand the situation,” House Appropriations Committee Chair Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., said in a statement to NBC News. “After the Defense Department told our staff that the hold originated at the Office of Management and Budget, we began pressing them for an explanation.”

They wouldn’t get one, receiving only a vague acknowledgment that a re-assessment of U.S. interests was being done, and that only after the freeze became public two weeks later. But pressure from the lawmakers who hold the purse strings for the government is not insignificant.

At the time of the staffers’ visit, the highest ranking U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, Bill Taylor, was “beginning to fear that the longstanding U.S. policy of strong support for Ukraine was shifting,” he told House impeachment investigators in a closed-door deposition in late October. Even two weeks later, when he sent a cable to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to inquire about whether there had been such a reversal in U.S. policy, Taylor testified, it still had not occurred to him that the aid could be conditioned on Ukraine opening an investigation touching on American politics.

“That, however, would change,” he testified.

Ultimately, the visit by Appropriations staffers played only a modest role in exposing Trump’s actions on Ukraine, which was thrust further into public view last week with the first open televised hearings, including one featuring Taylor. But that piece of the puzzle — first discovered by NBC News in a routine House travel disclosure filing made on Nov. 8 — sheds light on how Trump’s actions were partially revealed by wonky number-crunchers, who typically toil away far from the spotlight.

As legendary Chicago mobster Al Capone found out when he was put away for tax evasion, accountants are quick to catch on when something is amiss. All across Washington this summer, in the sleepy offices of the federal government infrastructure, red flags were raised. The same thing was happening at the U.S. embassy in Kyiv. In some cases, the hands being raised belonged to officials within the Trump administration who worried that the suspension of aid was illegal.

The hunt to find out why the money wasn’t moving played out on Capitol Hill and across several federal agencies at the same time the whistleblower complaint was quietly winding its way through separate government channels in August and early September, and it illustrates the difficulty anyone connected to the administration would have in hiding a purported plot to withhold federal funds.

It also raises the possibility that the episode would have been discovered without the whistleblower. There are just too many nonpartisan civil servants who come in contact with a $391 million spending package to execute such a maneuver undetected, according to experts on the federal budget process.

“You could try to create a quid pro quo by holding up the money and hope you get your quo before anybody finds out, but it wouldn’t take very many weeks,” said Kate Eltrich, a former Senate appropriations aide and Obama administration OMB official. “If you were trying to do something nefarious, it would be very difficult to contain that to a small number of people.”

In the case of the Ukraine money, which included defense dollars and State Department grants for the purchase of weapons that Congress required the administration to spend, the sprawling network of federal officials tasked with overseeing aspects of the spending included House and Senate members of both parties, their staffs, nonpartisan budget officials at the State and Defense departments and career government workers at White House agencies.

The top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, William Taylor, and career Foreign Service officer George Kent, behind, testify before the House Intelligence Committee on Nov. 13, 2019.J. Scott Applewhite / AP

The pause in funding spilled into public view on Aug. 28, two weeks after the congressional aides arrived in Kyiv, when Politico published an article in which an unnamed senior administration official said the spending was frozen pending a review of whether its release was deemed in the best interests of the United States. The article, which did not mention any effort to secure an investigation into the Joe Biden or his son Hunter, quoted Democratic lawmakers charging that Trump was helping Russian President Vladimir Putin at the expense of Ukraine.

It wasn’t until after that article was published that OMB finally responded to House appropriators with a similarly vague explanation for why the money was being withheld.

Ultimately, it would take only a matter of weeks for scattered data points to reveal more edges of the puzzle. On Sept. 9, the director of national intelligence notified House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., that a whistleblower had raised a matter of “urgent concern” that the DNI overruled. The whistleblower already had consulted with a member of Schiff’s staff before filing the complaint in August, according to The New York Times, and Schiff was aware of at least the outlines of the concern.

The Intelligence Committee “was unaware of the freeze in security assistance at the time the (appropriations) staffers traveled to Kyiv and had no interaction with them prior to their trip,” an Intelligence Committee official said in an email to NBC News. “At no point has the Committee discussed whistleblower matters with them, either.”

On the same day that he was told of the “urgent concern” matter, Schiff and the chairmen of two other committees sent White House counsel Pat Cipollone a letter demanding that the administration preserve and transmit records related to the possible withholding of aid to Ukraine as a means of forcing that country to open investigations into Joe Biden — a leading contender to challenge Trump in 2020 — and the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

Two days later, after the White House counsel’s office received the whistleblower complaint from the Justice Department, Trump released the money for Ukraine. That decision was announced publicly by Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard Shelby, R-Ala., as he tried to fend off amendments to a military spending bill, assuring his colleagues they didn’t need to force the White House to lift the hold because Trump had assured him it already had been done.

In the weeks since the whistleblower’s complaint was made public in late September, along with a White House summary of a July 25 Trump call with Zelenskiy in which the leaders discussed both U.S. support for Ukraine’s defense and the Bidens, a parade of current and former U.S. officials have testified that Trump and a rump group of his hand-picked political emissaries conducted a shadow foreign policy with Ukraine that focused on boxing Zelenskiy into a simple trade.

If Zelenskiy wanted the money, he had to publicly announce the opening of investigations that would cast aspersions both on Biden and on the U.S. intelligence community’s finding that Russia interfered in the 2016 election to help Trump win the White House, the officials have said under oath. The latter would require Ukraine’s president to fictitiously implicate his own nation and exonerate its mortal enemy in service of Trump.

While Trump and his allies argue there’s “no harm, no foul” because Ukraine ultimately got its aid, the behind-the-scenes machinations in Congress reveal just how tenuous the situation became, with the flow of aid not resuming until after lawmakers began asking questions.

The crisis wasn’t fully averted, because there wasn’t enough time left to spend all of the funds before the fiscal year ended on Sept. 30, as government budget officials ultimately told Congress.

Laura Cooper, an assistant secretary of Defense, testified that the government managed to get roughly 80 percent of the dollars to Ukraine by the end of September. To ensure the remainder didn’t disappear, new language had to be tucked in to a must-pass spending bill known as a continuing resolution to claw back the unspent funds and then reissue them, giving the administration another year to spend the money.

Even now, as Trump faces potential impeachment in the House, it’s not clear that all of the funds have yet made it to Ukraine.

“Thanks obviously to the Congress we got the language in the continuing resolution that thankfully will enable us to obligate all of the funding, ultimately,” Cooper told the House in her closed-door deposition.

And both in Congress and within the administration, the freeze triggered concerns that aid suspension was not just politically questionable but also illegal, according to interviews with congressional aides as well as transcripts from witness depositions in the impeachment proceedings.

“An important part of the accountability of our system is that there are people whose sole job is to carry out what is required by the law or policy,” Eltrich said, adding that having those civil servants is crucial if “you want to prevent corruption.”

Cooper, in her deposition, explained that the administration can only refuse to spend money appropriated by Congress if it takes one of two steps: a “presidential-level rescission,” in which the president formally cancels the money and notifies Congress, or a “reprogramming action,” in which the Pentagon in this case would assign the money to another priority.

Neither of those steps took place, Cooper testified. Mick Mulvaney, the president’s acting chief of staff, acknowledged the White House had been aware of the legal issue regarding not spending the funds set aside by Congress during his news conference last month.

“We knew that that money either had to go out the door by the end of September,” Mulvaney said, “or we had to have a really, really good reason not to do it.”

So did two House appropriations aides who spent part of their summer at the U.S. embassy in Kyiv.

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Trump target Lisa Page sues DOJ, FBI for ‘unwanted invasion of privacy’

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Former FBI lawyer Lisa Page sued her old employers Tuesday, charging they unlawfully released inflammatory text messages between her and FBI agent Peter Strzok in order to redirect Republican anger from top officials at the Department of Justice.

“I sued the Department of Justice and FBI today. I take little joy in having done so. But what they did in leaking my messages to the press was not only wrong, it was illegal,” Page tweeted Tuesday.

The lawsuit was filed one day after the Justice Department’s inspector general found Page “did not play a role in the decision” to open an investigation into the Trump campaign’s involvement with Russia in the 2016 election, despite President Donald Trump having tweeted that she’s one of the people “who started the disgraceful Witch Hunt.”

Page resigned in May of last year. The suit says the torrent of attacks from the president and his allies has caused her “permanent loss of earning capacity due to reputational damage” and cost her an undisclosed amount in legal and therapy fees.

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In papers filed in federal court in Washington, D.C., Page suggests she was intentionally made a scapegoat for Trump’s anger at the Russia investigation to the benefit of then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.

Strzok and Page first made headlines in December of 2017, when it was announced they’d been removed from then-special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation because of text messages that had been critical of the president, including calling him “a loathsome human.”

Republican members of Congress demanded to see the texts and the DOJ decided to oblige, even though they were being investigated by the DOJ’s inspector general, the suit says. The DOJ decided to release them to the press the night before Rosenstein was set to testify before Congress.

“Disclosure of the text messages before Rosenstein’s hearing would serve multiple goals: it would protect the Deputy Attorney General from criticism during his testimony; it would show that the Department was addressing matters of concern to the President; and it would dominate coverage of the hearing, which otherwise could be unfavorable for the Department,” the suit says, with the only cost being Page’s and Strzok’s privacy.

The night before the hearing, “DOJ officials, including then-DOJ spokesperson Sarah Isgur Flores, summoned a select group of reporters to the Department’s offices. There, they allowed the reporters to view the 375 text messages. The reporters were told they were not permitted to remove or copy the messages and could not source the messages to DOJ,” the suit says, noting the procedures were not “routine.”

“Reporters were admitted to the building to view the text messages after close of business,” the suit says, adding that subterfuge was designed to make it look like the messages were leaked by members of Congress and not the DOJ.

Rosenstein acknowledged the messages had been released by the DOJ during his Dec. 13, 2017, testimony.

Two separate inspector general reports found that Page’s opinions about the president hadn’t had an impact on her work at the FBI, but the DOJ’s “unlawful conduct” had already turned Page into “a subject of frequent attacks by the President of the United States, as well as his allies and supporters. In the two years since the December 12 disclosure, the President has targeted Ms. Page by name in more than 40 tweets and dozens of interviews, press conferences, and statements from the White House.”

Trump, the suit notes, “has referred to Ms. Page as “incompetent,” “corrupt,” “pathetic,” “stupid,” a “dirty cop,” a “loser,” a “clown,” “bad people,” “sick people,” a “lover,” a “great lover,” a “wonderful lover,” a “stupid lover,” and “lovely.” He has called the text messages a “disaster” and an “embarrassment.” He has accused Ms. Page of treason and other crimes.”

The suit seeks an unspecified amount in damages for violating the federal privacy act, but “not less than $1,000.”

The Department of Justice did not immediately respond to a request for comment.



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House leaders unveil two articles of impeachment, accusing Trump of ‘high crimes and misdemeanors’

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WASHINGTON — House Democrats on Tuesday unveiled articles of impeachment against President Donald Trump about two and a half months after Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., first announced a formal impeachment inquiry into the president.

Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., announced that his committee will consider two articles of impeachment — one for abuse of power and the other for obstruction of Congress — charging Trump “with committing high crimes and misdemeanors.”

Nadler said the articles of impeachment were being filed in response to Trump allegedly soliciting foreign interference in the 2020 election, compromising national security, threatening the integrity of the upcoming election and concealing evidence from Congress and the American people. Trump, he said, violated his oath of office.

Democrats released the draft articles later Tuesday morning. The articles allege that Trump “corruptly solicited the government of Ukraine to publicly announce investigations” into the Bidens and a conspiracy theory alleging Ukrainian interference in the 2016 election. Trump also “conditioned two official acts on the public announcements that he requested,” Democrats wrote, citing nearly $400 million in military aid and an official White House meeting with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy.

“Wherefore 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 and has acted in a manner grossly incompatible with self-governance and the rule of law,” the articles read. “President Trump thus warrants impeachment and trial, removal from office, and disqualification to hold and enjoy any office of honor, trust, or profit under the United States.”

The second article, focused on obstructing Congress, states that Trump’s conduct violated his oath of office and the Constitution, and that through that alleged obstruction, the president “sought to arrogate to himself the right to determine the propriety, scope, and nature of an impeachment inquiry into his own conduct, as well as the unilateral prerogative to deny any and all information to the” House.

The articles are expected to be considered in the House Judiciary Committee this week and voted on soon after, which would send them to the floor for a vote on impeachment by the full House, possibly this month. If one or more of the articles pass, the Senate would then hold a trial to consider removing Trump. That would take a vote by at least two thirds of the Senate, most likely some time in January.

Trump, Nadler said, exercised “the powers of his public office to obtain an improper personal benefit” and engaged in “indiscriminate defiance of the impeachment inquiry.”

Trump fired back within an hour of the announcement, tweeting, “WITCH HUNT!”

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“Nadler just said that I ‘pressured Ukraine to interfere in our 2020 Election,'” Trump wrote. “Ridiculous, and he knows that is not true. Both the President & Foreign Minister of Ukraine said, many times, that there “WAS NO PRESSURE.” Nadler and the Dems know this, but refuse to acknowledge!”

He later told reporters again that the White House “did nothing wrong.”

“I think it’s a disgrace, so people can make impeachment out of nothing. That was a perfect conversation,” he told reporters on the south lawn of the White House late Tuesday as he left for a campaign rally in Hershey, Pennsylvania. “They were perfect conversations, there’s nothing done wrong and I think it’s a disgrace….I think it’s an absolute disgrace.”

Pelosi and Nadler were flanked by Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., Financial Services Committee Chairwoman Maxine Waters, D-Calif., Ways & Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal, D-Mass., Oversight Committee Chairwoman Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., and Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel, D-N.Y.

“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. Why not let him have foreign help just one more time,'” Schiff said.

“The president’s oath of office appears to mean very little to him,” Schiff added, citing Trump’s chief of staff Mick Mulvaney’s October call to “get over it” when asked about whether there was any link between the president’s push for Ukrainian investigations and the withholding of nearly $400 million in military aid to that country. Mulvaney later walked back his comments.

Pointing to Trump’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani’s recent trip to Ukraine, Schiff said Trump “still wants Ukraine to interfere” in the 2020 election and boost his campaign.

Trump blasted Schiff on Twitter, calling him a “totally corrupt politician.” The president also pointed to the call summary of his July 25 conversation with Zelenskiy, saying when he asked Zelenskiy to do “us” a favor and probe Democrats, the president was talking about the country and not himself.

Speaking at the Wall Street Journal CEO Council Forum on Tuesday, Mulvaney said the articles of impeachment “should surprise nobody,” adding that “politics can and should influence foreign policy and hopefully always will.”

The White House, the Trump campaign and their allies swiftly pushed back too. White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham called the articles of impeachment “baseless” and said Trump “will address these false charges in the Senate and expects to be fully exonerated, because he did nothing wrong.”

Brad Parscale, Trump’s campaign manager, said in a statement that Democrats “are putting on this political theater because they don’t have a viable candidate for 2020 and they know it.” Ronna McDaniel, chairwoman of the Republican National Committee, said Pelosi “can invent whatever false charges she wants, but the American people see this for what it is: yet another partisan attempt to overthrow a duly-elected president and rob voters of the chance to re-elect him in 2020.”

Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, a top Trump ally who sits on the Judiciary and Oversight committees, said in a statement that the articles of impeachment were “the product of a baseless attempt to upend the will of the people less than 11 months before the next election.”

“The Democrats’ impeachment effort is a miscarriage of the House of Representatives’ constitutional obligations and marks a shameful chapter in American history,” he added.

The announcement comes a day after the Judiciary Committee held its second public impeachment hearing, in which lawyers for the Democrats and the Republicans took turns summarizing the cases they’ve built. NBC News reported Monday night that Democrats had settled on bringing two articles of impeachment against the president.

The impeachment inquiry began after Congress was made aware of a whistleblower complaint alleging that Trump was soliciting foreign interference in 2020. That led to the White House releasing the summary of the July 25 call between Trump and Zelenskiy, which showed Trump asking his counterpart to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter, and a debunked conspiracy about the 2016 election.

Multiple current and former Trump administration officials testified before the impeachment probe, but the administration has so far refused to provide investigators with a trove of documents, as well as allow several firsthand witnesses, such as Mulvaney, to testify.

With Congress slated to leave Washington by the end of next week, Democrats are expected to move swiftly to hold a vote in the Judiciary Committee to adopt and recommend the articles to the House for a floor vote before the holiday break.

Democrats had been wrestling with whether to make the articles narrow, focusing only on the president’s alleged misconduct in Ukraine, or expanding them to include issues such as obstruction of justice, raised in former special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia report, or alleged violations of the emoluments clause of the Constitution.

Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., signaled Tuesday that he was disappointed not to see an article on obstruction of justice.

“I will vote for the two articles of impeachment,” he said, though he joked, “But I would also vote for third…It’s a matter of public record — I’ve said, I think one of the articles should be obstruction of justice.”

Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., a co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, told reporters Tuesday that she wished Trump had cooperated with the inquiry.

“I wish we had the president testifying,” she said. “They keep shouting about process and yet they’ve engaged not at all. They have not submitted — it’s unprecedented the president’s obstruction of Congress. They have not given us any documents, he hasn’t allowed anybody to come and testify.”



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House Democrats praise new trade deal to replace NAFTA amid impeachment

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WASHINGTON — Democratic leaders Tuesday praised a new trade deal to replace the decades-old North American Free Trade Agreement, which President Donald Trump and Democrats had frequently criticized.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal, D-Mass., said they were poised to move forward with the United States–Mexico–Canada Agreement (USMCA) less than an hour after Democratic leaders, including Pelosi, Neal and House Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., unveiled two articles of impeachment against the president accusing him of high crimes and misdemeanors.

“There is no question, of course, that this trade agreement is much better than NAFTA, but in terms of our work here, it is infinitely better than what was initially proposed by the administration,” Pelosi said. “It’s a victory for America’s workers, it’s one that we take great pride in advancing.”

“It’s a win for the market as a whole. It’s definitely good for the U.S. economy,” said Chris Zaccarelli, chief investment officer for Independent Advisor Alliance.

Democrats sought to highlight their contributions to the deal — such as removing carveouts for pharmaceutical companies, among others, and barriers to generic medications — and how hard they’d worked on the deal to improve it from the White House’s first draft.

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“These were intense, argumentative, angry negotiations,” Neal said, joking that he and U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer set a record for hanging up on each other.

Getting the deal approved by Congress has been a top legislative priority for Trump, who pushed Democrats to sign off on it before the end of the year. Successful passage would give Trump a win ahead of his 2020 re-election bid and allow him to declare victory on a signature campaign promise to repeal the trade deal he railed against.

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“It will be the best and most important trade deal ever made by the USA,” he tweeted before the Democrats’ news conference.

He later told reporters at the White House that Democrats had held the event to detract attention from their announcement of articles of impeachment just a short time earlier.

“They were very embarrassed by it. And that’s why they brought up USMCA an hour after because they think it will muffle it a little bit,” he said late Tuesday, as he left for a campaign rally in Hershey, Pennsylvania.

Democrats, who wanted the deal to include tougher enforcement of labor rules, could use the trade pact to show they can legislate even amid impeachment proceedings.

“This will be a big deal in the upper Midwest. For the Democrats to say OK to this must mean that they’re getting a pretty good deal, in their view,” said Michael O. Moore, professor of economics and international affairs at George Washington University. “This is the kind of compromise that used to be done in Washington where both sides could claim victory.”

“There’s some people who say why make it look like he has a victory. Well, we’re declaring victory for the American worker,” Pelosi said, when asked about giving Trump a win on the same day as they announced impeachment articles.

Pelosi and administration officials have been going back and forth for weeks over changes Democratic lawmakers wanted to the language reached by representatives from the three countries.

The AFL-CIO announced its support of the new trade agreement Tuesday, a key endorsement for Democrats.

“For the first time, there truly will be enforceable labor standards — including a process that allows for the inspections of factories and facilities that are not living up to their obligations,” the union’s president, Richard Trumka, said in a statement.

“The AFL-CIO has complained for decades that labor, especially low cost labor, and not enforcing environmental rules has given Mexico an advantage,” Moore said. “We’re now moving into a stage where there are stronger commitments to core international labor organization standards.”

“The willingness on Pelosi’s side to go along with this seems to indicate it’s a wonderful precedent for the Democratic party to get a Republican administration to implement enforcement that’s acceptable to Democrats, including labor unions, to labor agreements,” said Jacob Kirkegaard, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics. “It’s a historic win.”

Democrats repeatedly thanked Trumka in their remarks, while Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross complained Tuesday morning that Democrats have held up the process to appease the labor leader.

“The remarkable thing is that it took so long to make such small changes insisted on by the Democrats,” he said on Fox Business Network on Tuesday. “In effect, they gave Trumka, the leader of the union, veto power over the House of Representatives. That seems weird.”

Despite the claims of victory on both sides, though, Zaccarelli said the China trade war — and the prospect of tariffs on $156 billion worth of primarily consumer goods — threatened to eclipse any market boost USMCA might have delivered.

“When you talk about trade, it’s all about U.S.-China negotiations. That’s the elephant in the room,” he said. “What happens on Sunday’s deadline is critical.”

Shannon Pettypiece reported from Washington, and Jane C. Timm reported from New York.

Shannon Pettypiece and Shannon Pettypiece contributed.



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