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China deal and impeachment: Witnessing a surreal 30 minutes in Washington

It was perhaps the most awaited economic moment of his presidency: the signing of a partial trade deal with China.

So why, 30 minutes into his speech, was President Donald Trump expounding upon sneakers he found on eBay and questioning environmental concerns that prevent fireworks at Mount Rushmore?

The answer might be found across town, where on Capitol Hill lawmakers were at that very moment preparing to vote on sending articles of impeachment to the Senate, triggering the start of a high-profile trial.

Trump was eager to dismiss the impeachment saga as a “hoax” during his signing. As he vamped at length about the various players in the China deal’s completion — some more tangential than others — the President seemed intent on seizing whatever spotlight was his before attention inevitably turned to the proceedings on the Hill.

If the China deal represented a high point for Trump’s tenure, the “stigma of impeachment” — as he phrased it in a weekend tweet — represents a low. In true Trump fashion, the two converged at practically the same moment, each vying for oxygen at the same hour of the same day in a clash that only seems to foreshadow the coming election year dynamic.

Even as Trump touted what is undeniably a strong economy and a trade deal that eases for now the trade war he ignited, Democrats were insisting the President is unfit for office and must be removed. It’s the contrast all but certain to underpin this year’s presidential campaign, distilled into a 90-minute midday slice of Washington.

Whatever the reason, Trump did not seem in a particular hurry to put Sharpie to paper as he took a discursive victory lap in a jam-packed East Room.

Victory lap

He spent more than 30 minutes thanking the people he invited into the White House for the signing, starting with his trade team, moving to members of Congress and ending on anyone remotely related to business or the economy.

Even as he was winding up to the eventual moment he sat down and signed the leather-bound agreement, some members of Congress ducked out to return to the Capitol for the impeachment vote.

“I’d rather have you voting than sitting here listening to me introduce you, OK?” Trump said by way of dismissal.

He reserved some of his highest praise for Sheldon and Miriam Adelson, the billionaire casino owners and Republican mega-donors, and Lou Dobbs, the conservative Fox Business host, who were seated in the front row. He questioned where the owner of Dobbs’ network was.

“Where’s Rupert? Is Rupert not here?” Trump asked, searching the crowd. (Murdoch wasn’t there, and Trump griped his media-magnate friend had sold his conglomerate “to a group that doesn’t like Trump as much”).

The President veered between various recollections of Republican senators — Lindsey Graham a “much better golfer than people would understand,” Chuck Grassley made James Comey “choke like a dog” — to an upcoming Mount Rushmore fireworks display he claimed to have saved from cancellation by environmentalists.

“What can burn? It’s stone,” he said. A recent US Geological Survey report cited past fireworks displays as the probable cause for elevated concentrations of contaminants in groundwater near the monument.

He recalled finding a pair of sneakers he’d autographed listed on eBay for $5,000, wondering who would consider exploiting him like that: “I say, what kind of people are these?”

He offered a vivid description of Larry Kudlow, his top economic adviser, standing in the White House driveway, “a beautiful scarf waving in the wind, he was everything perfect, right out of Greenwich, Connecticut.”

And he described ongoing diplomatic efforts with North Korea as “a very, very beautiful game of chess, or game of poker, or, I can’t use the word checkers, ’cause it’s far greater than any checker game that I’ve ever seen.”

Trump finally settled on “a very beautiful mosaic.”

More than 40 minutes into his speech, the President at last began discussing the substance of the trade deal he was ostensibly in the room to sign. But he didn’t offer much beyond what was already known, leaving the details to others.

“This is the biggest deal anyone has ever seen,” he said in summation.

Watching awkwardly

Through it all, China’s vice premier Liu He stood on stage nearby, mostly stone-faced. Not for the first time, Trump left his foreign visitor to watch awkwardly as he riffed on all manner of grievances and recollections.

For the visiting Chinese delegation, it would be fair to leave wondering where Trump ranks his dealings with Beijing among the myriad other topics he raised during the event. The trade deal hardly resolves all of the United States’ disputes, least of all concerns over human rights abuses against Muslims and a crackdown on protesters in Hong Kong.

Trump announced he would travel in short order to China, though he did not say when, to begin discussions about the next phase of the trade agreement. But he offered little on how the new trade peace would alter the larger dynamic between the world’s two largest economies, which still seem set on this century’s major geopolitical collision course.

When it was his turn to speak, Liu seemed more attuned to those issues, though did not raise them explicitly. He spoke formally, reading from notes, and did not seem inspired by Trump to inject any ad-libs.

Reading a letter from Chinese President Xi Jinping, he said the completed trade deal showed “our two countries have the ability to act on the basis of equality and mutual respect” and that “through dialogue and consultation” issues could be handled and resolved.

Trump did not seem particularly eager to jump back into talks, at least not immediately.

“I’d like you to just relax a little while, take it easy, go out, see a movie,” he told the vice premier. “Tell President Xi, I said President, go out, have a round of golf.”

Since he came to power, Xi’s government has shut down scores of golf courses across China and effectively banned the 88 million members of the ruling Communist Party from playing.

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