Witcover: As Mueller investigation closes in, Senate checks Trump

Anxiety is rising in the White House over Special Counsel Robert Mueller's forming of a grand jury to investigate possible coordination between the Donald Trump presidential campaign and the Russian government — allegations that President Trump continues to label "a witch hunt."

Mr. Mueller's broadening inquiry may provide new fuel for the ultimate impeachment of Mr. Trump, as subpoenas are expected not only to involve Russia's election intrusion but also the Trump family's connections with Russian business operatives.

At a political rally in West Virginia Thursday, the president continued to lash out at Mr. Mueller's investigation, calling the allegations "a total fabrication." He reiterated his contention that it was merely a smokescreen to cloud his surprise victory over Hillary Clinton.

"It's just an excuse for the greatest loss in the history of American politics," he thundered, as loyal supporters shouted "Lock her up!" as many had done in carrying the state for him last November.

Mr. Trump's sustained assault on the Russian investigation, and its implications of political peril for him, has fed critics' concerns that he might fire Mr. Mueller. The president's anger at Attorney General Jeff Sessions for recusing himself from the inquiry, leaving its oversight to the deputy AG, Rod Rosenstein, has complicated the matter, to the point that Mr. Trump might have to fire him as well to get still another AG in the office to do his bidding.

According to the Associated Press, White House Chief of Staff John Kelly has informed Mr. Sessions he will not be fired. At the same time, Trump private lawyer Jay Sekulow told Fox News that "the president is not thinking of firing Robert Mueller." Nevertheless, two bipartisan sets of senators have offered legislation barring any such presidential action.

Republican Sen. Thom Tillis of North Carolina and Democratic Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware, and separately Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Democratic Sen. Corey Booker of New Jersey, have done so, the latter two calling on a three-judge federal panel to certify the prohibition.

In addition, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles Grassley of Iowa has said he will not hold any confirmation hearing for an interim appointment of an attorney general if Mr. Trump should fire Mr. Sessions. Such is the gathering congressional resistance to any attempt by the embattled president to derail the Mueller investigation.

There is, of course, no assurance that Mr. Mueller's fact-gathering will in the end provide material that Trump critics hope will eventually lead to the president's impeachment for obstruction of justice or other cause. The Constitution stipulates only that a president can be removed from office for "Treason, Bribery and other high Crimes and Misdemeanors."

A Senate Judiciary Committee report in 1974 after the Watergate scandal that forced Richard Nixon from office — he was never impeached — concluded that impeachment "is predicated only upon conduct seriously incompatible with either the constitutional form and principles of our government or the proper performance of constitutional duties of the presidential office."

That supposed refinement only offered the words "seriously incompatible" and was no more helpful than the comment of some observers that grounds for impeachment are "whatever Congress says they are." In 1974, Nixon resigned after lengthy hearings followed by Republican leaders like Sen. Barry Goldwater and Rep. John Rhodes of Arizona personally confronting him that he lacked the votes to avoid impeachment.

The question today is, who are the Republican leaders who would go to the White House and give Donald Trump the same message, if it came to that? So far the party's leaders like Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in the Senate and Speaker Paul Ryan in the House have lacked the fortitude to stand up to him even on significant legislative matters.

Not even Gen. Douglas MacArthur got away with saying "no" to Harry Truman over the Korean War. It has taken a tough old soldier like retired Marine General John Kelly as Mr. Trump's new chief of staff to provide some semblance of order to this White House. Can he now rein him in on his words and reckless behavior before he self-destructs?

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power" (Smithsonian Books). His email is juleswitcover@comcast.net.

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