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Trump celebrates major rewrite of North American trade rules

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump on Wednesday signed into law a major rewrite of the rules of trade with Canada and Mexico, celebrating the fulfillment of one of his top campaign promises while declining to share the moment with Democratic lawmakers whose support was essential to getting it over the finish line.

Trump said renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement was “probably the No. 1 reason that I decided to lead this crazy life that I’m leading right now.”

Alex Brandon/AP  

President Donald Trump pumps his fist after signing a new North American trade agreement with Canada and Mexico, during an event at the White House, Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2020, in Washington.

“Today, we’re finally ending the NAFTA nightmare,” Trump said in a ceremony on the South Lawn. The event featured hundreds of business and farm leaders from around the country and scores of Republican officials. No Democratic members of Congress were on the White House guest list.

Trade experts say the impact of the new U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement will be modest. Canada and Mexico already represent the top two export markets for U.S. goods. The independent U.S. International Trade Commission last year calculated that the deal would add 0.35%, or $68 billion, to economic growth and generate 176,000 jobs over six years. That’s not much of a change for a $22 trillion economy with 152 million nonfarm jobs.

Evan Vucci  

President Donald Trump shows off a new North American trade agreement with Canada and Mexico, during an event at the White House, Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2020, in Washington. The president is joined by, from left, senior advisers Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump, Vice President Mike Pence, House Minority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy of Calif., and others.

“It’s a blip,’’ said Syracuse University economist Mary Lovely, who studies trade. “The main thing is what it isn’t: It isn’t a continuation of uncertainty, and it isn’t a major disruption’’ to business.

The new pact, along with the signing of a “phase one” agreement with China, dials down trade tensions that have contributed to slowing economic growth globally.

It also gave the president a chance to at least briefly shift the focus in Washington, where Trump’s impeachment trial has occupied center stage for weeks.

“I keep my promises, and I’m fighting for the American worker,” Trump said.

Still, Trump couldn’t resist making a few indirect references to impeachment in his remarks. He noted, for example, that Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, was headed back to the Capitol to ask questions at the trial.

“He’s got some beauties, I’ll bet,” Trump said.

Alex Brandon  

President Donald Trump prepares to return a signed hardhat after signing a new North American trade agreement with Canada and Mexico, during an event at the White House, Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2020, in Washington.

The leaders of the U.S., Canada and Mexico signed the deal in late 2018. But it still faced a long road to ratification. Legislation implementing it received overwhelming, bipartisan support in Congress after several months of behind-the-scenes negotiations between Democratic lawmakers and the Trump administration.

Trump made a point of praising Republican legislators for their work in passing the deal. He singled out one Republican lawmaker after another during the ceremony, those from farm states, those from battleground states in tight reelection races and, of course, GOP leadership.

Trump did not mention the role of Democrats, but they said that even if they weren’t at the signing ceremony, their influence was being felt.

“What the president will be signing is quite different from what the president sent us,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. “We were able to make vast improvements. If we weren’t, we would not have been able to pass the bill.”

Rep. Earl Blumenauer, chairman of a House trade panel, said inviting Democratic lawmakers to the ceremony would have underscored the inadequacies of the president’s initial agreement and the fact that Democrats made the agreement possible.

“It’s a clear illustration of how Trump operates — with division, hyperpartisanship and childishness,” said Blumenauer, D-Ore.

White House spokesman Judd Deere said Democrats were invited but chose not to attend. He would not say how many or identify them.

NAFTA, which took effect in 1994 under President Bill Clinton, tore down trade barriers between the three North American countries, and commerce among them surged. But Trump and other critics said NAFTA encouraged factories to leave the United States and relocate south of the border to take advantage of low-wage Mexican labor.

Trump threatened to leave NAFTA if he couldn’t get a better deal, creating uncertainty over regional trade. His trade negotiator, Robert Lighthizer, pressed for a revamped pact designed to bring factory jobs back to the United States.

The new agreement, for example, requires automakers to get 75% of their production content (up from 62.5% in NAFTA) from within North America to qualify for the pact’s duty-free benefits. That means more auto content would have to come from North America, not imported more cheaply from China and elsewhere.

At least 40% of vehicles would also have to originate in places where workers earn at least $16 an hour. That would benefit the United States and Canada — not Mexico, where auto assembly workers are paid a fraction of that amount.

Lighthizer worked behind the scenes to strike an agreement that ended up being endorsed by the AFL-CIO and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Democrats successfully pushed to strike language allowing countries or companies to avoid sanctions simply by refusing to participate in dispute-settlement panels.

They also insisted on ensuring enforcement of provisions intended to protect workers from intimidation and violence, and they pressed for a committee that will monitor Mexico’s labor reforms. The Democrats also won a significant concession from the administration on drug prices. Gone is what Democrats considered a giveaway to the pharmaceutical industry: a provision that offered expensive biologic drugs, which are made from living cells, 10 years of protection from cheaper knockoff competition.

Lighthizer noted that trade agreements since NAFTA generally have passed with increasingly narrow majorities and often along party lines. He thanked “Republicans and Democrats, who worked so hard on this agreement.”

The House voted 385-41 for the bill, with 193 Democrats among those supporting it. The margin in the Senate was 89-10.

Critics include environmental groups concerned that the agreement does not address global warming. Some conservatives say the agreement will make cars and other products more expensive for consumers.

The president won’t waste any time highlighting the deal in battleground states that will determine who wins this year’s presidential election. On Thursday, he planned to be in Michigan, where some of the state’s auto workers should benefit from a deal that encourages more manufacturing in the United States.

Woman seeks pardon for role in string of killings in 1950s

Associated Press

LINCOLN — A woman who accompanied her older boyfriend during a string of killings recounted in the Bruce Springsteen song “Nebraska” is seeking an official pardon, saying she was 14 years old at the time and that he had threatened to kill her family if she didn’t obey.

Caril Ann Fugate, who is now 76 and goes by her married name of Caril Ann Clair, said in her application for a Nebraska pardon that she’s seeking peace of mind as she ages, the Omaha World-Herald reported. She was 14 when she accompanied her 19-year-old boyfriend, Charlie Starkweather, on a bloody journey that left 11 people dead, including her mother, stepfather and baby half sister, before the pair was arrested in Wyoming.

Starkweather was charged with 11 counts of murder but went to trial for only one. He was convicted and executed by electric chair on June 25, 1959.

Clair was charged in only one of the killings, and was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. Her sentence was later reduced and she was paroled in 1976.

In her pardon request, Clair, who now lives in Hillsdale, Michigan, said the Nebraska Board of Pardons has a chance to right a historical wrong.

“The idea that posterity has been made to believe that I knew about and/or witnessed the death of my beloved family and left with Starkweather willingly on a murder spree is too much for me to bear anymore,” Clair wrote in her 2017 application, which the board is scheduled to consider on Feb. 18. “Receiving a pardon may somehow alleviate this terrible burden.”

The infamous saga, which inspired the 1982 Springsteen song “Nebraska” and the 1973 film “Badlands” starring Sissy Spacek and Martin Sheen, began in November 1957 when Starkweather robbed and killed a 21-year-old gas station attendant in Lincoln. On Jan. 21, 1958, authorities say he went to his girlfriend’s house and killed her three family members after her mother and stepfather told him to stay away.

Starkweather said Clair was home the entire time, but she said she wasn’t and that when she got home, he met her with a gun and told her that her family was being held hostage and wouldn’t be killed if she obeyed him. The two then set off and weren’t captured until eight days later near Douglas, Wyoming, which is nearly 470 miles west of Lincoln.

In her request, Clair said a pardon would represent only a formal forgiveness of her crime, which she says she committed in mortal fear.

“When I was 14 years old, I was abducted and held captive by Charlie Starkweather. I was terrified and did whatever he wanted me to,” wrote Clair, who acknowledged that she was present when one of the victims was shot and that she did hold the money taken from him.

“I lived in constant fear for my family’s safety. Because I loved them with all my heart,” Clair wrote.

Among those who submitted letters in support of her pardon request were a granddaughter of two of Starkweather’s victims, two of Clair’s stepsons, a former prison warden and a Michigan woman who hired Clair as a nanny.

Trump defense: Ukraine 'quid pro quo' not impeachable

WASHINGTON — In a striking shift from President Donald Trump’s claims of “perfect” dealings with Ukraine, his defenders asserted Wednesday at his Senate trial that a trade of U.S. military aid for political favors — even if proven — could not be grounds for his impeachment.

Trump’s defense spotlighted retired professor Alan Dershowitz, a member of their team who said that every politician conflates his own interest with the public interest. Therefore, he declared, “it cannot be impeachable.”

The Republicans are still hoping to wind up the impeachment trial with a rapid acquittal. Democrats are pressing hard for the Senate to call additional witnesses, especially Trump’s former national security adviser John Bolton. Bolton’s forthcoming book contends he personally heard Trump say he wanted military aid withheld from Ukraine until it agreed to investigate Joe Biden and his son, Hunter Biden — the abuse of power charge that is the first article of impeachment.

As Chief Justice John Roberts fielded queries in an unusual question-and-answer session, Texas Republican Ted Cruz asked, Does it matter if there was a quid pro quo?

Simply, no, declared Dershowitz, who said that many politicians equate their reelection with the public good.

“That’s why it’s so dangerous to try to psychoanalyze a president,” he said.

Rep. Adam Schiff, the Democrat leading the House prosecutors, appeared stunned.

“All quid pro quos are not the same,” he retorted. Some might be acceptable some not. “And you don’t need to be a mind reader to figure out which is which. For one thing, you can ask John Bolton.”

With voting on witnesses later this week, Democrats, amid the backdrop of protesters swarming the Capitol, are making a last-ditch push to sway Republicans to call Bolton and others to appear for testimony and ensure a “fair trial.”

Trump faces charges from the House that he abused his power like no other president, jeopardizing Ukraine and U.S.-Ukraine relations by using the military aid as leverage while the vulnerable ally battled Russia. The second article of impeachment says Trump then obstructed the House probe in a way that threatened the nation’s three-branch system of checks and balances.

Over two days, senators are grilling the House Democrats prosecuting the case and the Republican president’s defense team. Dozens of questions were asked and answered Wednesday in rapid-fire fashion, with senators under orders to sit silently without comment, submitting their questions in writing. They expect to keep going Thursday.

Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer asked whether the Senate could really render a fair verdict without hearing from Bolton or acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, both potential eye witnesses to Trump’s actions.

“Don’t wait for the book. Don’t wait ‘til March 17, when it is in black and white to find out the answer to your question,” Schiff told the Senate.

That publication date is now in doubt. The White House on Wednesday released a letter to Bolton’s attorney objecting to “significant amounts of classified information” in the manuscript, including at the top secret level. Bolton and his attorney have insisted that the book does not contain any classified information.

The White House action could delay the book’s publication if Bolton, who resigned last September — Trump says he was fired — is forced to revise his draft.

GOP senators are straining to balance the new revelations with pressure for quick acquittal. They have been sternly warned by party leaders that calling Bolton as a witness could entangle the trial in lengthy legal battles and delay Trump’s expected acquittal.

White House lawyers made exactly that point. Attorney Pat Philbin said in response to the Democrats’ first question: “This institution will effectively be paralyzed for months.” It was echoed by others.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell huddled privately with senators for a third consecutive day, acknowledging he didn’t yet have the votes to brush back Democratic demands for witnesses now that revelations from Bolton have roiled the trial.

Republican ideas for dealing with Bolton and his book were fizzling almost as soon as they arose — among them, a witness “swap” with Democrats or issuing a subpoena for Bolton’s manuscript.

Most Republican senators don’t want to extend the trial by calling Bolton, and most Democrats would rather avoid dragging the Bidens further into the impeachment proceedings. The Bidens were a focus of defense arguments though no evidence of wrongdoing has emerged.

Bolton writes in a forthcoming book that Trump told him he wanted to withhold military aid from Ukraine until it helped with investigations into Democratic rival Joe Biden. That assertion, if true, would undercut a key defense argument and go to the heart of one of the two articles of impeachment against the president.

“I think Bolton probably has something to offer us,” said Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska. She met privately Wednesday with McConnell.

Trump disagreed in a tweet Wednesday in which he complained that Bolton, after he left the White House, “goes out and IMMEDIATELY writes a nasty & untrue book. All Classified National Security.”

The uncertainty about witnesses arises days before crucial votes on the issue. In a Senate split 53-47 in favor of Republicans, at least four GOP senators must join all Democrats to reach the 51 votes required to call witnesses, decide whom to call or do nearly anything else in the trial.

Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine tried to give fresh momentum to a one-for-one witness deal saying it’s “very important that there be fairness, that each side be able to select a witness or two.” But Democrats dismissed those offers.

“It’s irrelevant. It’s a distraction,” said Schumer.

Collins, Murkowski and Utah Sen. Mitt Romney signaled an interest in calling Bolton or other witnesses and questions and answers at times appeared directed directly at them.

Schiff’s response to Dershowitz focused on one particular senator: He asked his audience to imagine what would have happened if then-President Barack Obama asked the Russians to dig up dirt on then-candidate Romney, the GOP’s 2012 presidential nominee?

Romney standing at the back of the chamber smiled occasionally at mention of his name.

Far from voiding the last election, Schiff said, impeachment is protecting the next one, in 2020, from any future Trump efforts to ask foreign governments to intervene.

Republicans tried to engage the president’s defense, at times raising the profile of the still anonymous government whistleblower whose complaint about Trump’s July 25 call with Ukraine sparked the impeachment inquiry. Democrats kept focused on the case for Trump’s conviction and removal, which would require 67 votes in the Senate and seems unlikely.

At times, there were telling exchanges. In one, the White House team could not fully respond when Collins and Murkowski asked if Trump had ever pursued Biden investigations before the former vice president announced his presidential bid in 2019.

In another, Dershowitz acknowledged he has changed his thinking on what the Founders intended with impeachment and keeps “refining” his views.

One person watching from the sidelines Wednesday was Lev Parnas, the indicted associate of Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani, w ho arrived at the Capitol but could not enter the Senate with his court-ordered electronic-tracking device. He has turned over evidence for the investigation, and said he wants to testify.