Witcover: Trump era is 'worse than Watergate'

When the Watergate scandal drove Richard Nixon from the presidency 44 years ago, the Republican Party survived because its establishment leaders pushed back against his criminal behavior.

Sen. Barry Goldwater and others told him he lacked the votes to escape impeachment, and he resigned. His replacement, Vice President Gerald Ford, a decent and respected man, helped put the GOP back on course. In 1980, the party won the Oval Office again behind Ronald Reagan and then the two George Bushes, and re-established itself as part of the nation's historic framework.

But today, the old establishment has totally surrendered itself to the Party of Donald Trump, crumbling before the deliberate destruction of the ethical and moral standards of the Grand Old Party of Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Eisenhower and Reagan.

Of the 16 Republican presidential hopefuls who challenged Mr. Trump for the party nomination in 2016, only one, Gov. John Kasich of Ohio, remains a viable party national figure standing up to the president as he distorts, disrupts and lies his way to otherwise unchallenged dominance in the ranks.

This overrated and hapless group of political weaklings, from Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, Sen. Ted Cruz and former Gov. Rick Perry of Texas to former Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and former Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, were mincemeat then to Trump's steamroller of reality-TV celebrity.

Trump's most conspicuous and most humiliated victim was former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, the early frontrunner and supposed political heir of the party's family dynasty. Mr. Trump handily disposed of him as a "low-energy" coaster.

The other most prominent member of the party's establishment to sharply criticize President Trump, 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, was reduced to seeking a U.S. Senate seat from Utah and is a shadow of his former self as a governor of Massachusetts.

Mr. Trump's personally constructed takeover of the party came out of the blue, transforming it from an advocate of small government and fierce foreign policy into a powerhouse of racial division and phony populism with white supremacist tinges. Huge political rallies, in which he played on the lowest herd biases of the time, churned existing prejudices to a fever pitch.

In the general election, he parlayed general and gender hostility toward former Democratic first lady Hillary Clinton to an Electoral College victory that shocked the country and beyond. However, it fell 2.8 million votes short in the popular count, to Mr. Trump's lasting irritation.

In the process, he muscled his way to party dominance despite GOP majorities in both House and Senate that soon fell in line rather than defy his demonstrated political clout. Yet they were unable or unwilling to deliver much on his major legislative proposals in his first year in office.

Thus, the Grand Old Party, which had successfully survived the Watergate scandal that drove Nixon from the Oval Office in disgrace, finds itself now with another beleaguered president whose tenure is imperiled by various allegations of political and personal misconduct. On Tuesday, his personal lawyer and fixer, Michael Cohen, pleaded guilty to having paid for the silence of porn actress Stormy Daniels and of Playboy model Karen McDougal, both of whom Mr. Trump is alleged to have had sex with. The payments — made, according to Mr. Cohen's plea, "at the direction of the candidate" — violated campaign finance law.

Also on Tuesday, Mr. Trump's campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, was convicted of eight counts of financial fraud.

Unlike in 1974, today there seems to be no Barry Goldwater figure of sufficient political or moral stature willing or able to go to Donald Trump to tell him the jig is up. Indeed, his loud and intense base of support around the country seems sufficient at this stage of the Mueller investigation against him to give him hope of political survival in the end.

Meanwhile, the president and his defense lawyers led by former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani continue to argue there was "no collusion" by the Trump organization or administration with the Russian elections meddling, amid speculation President Trump may eventually resort to firing Mr. Mueller.

Such a step certainly would be widely seen as obstruction of justice and grounds for the impeachment Nixon in 1974 escaped only by resignation.

So the party finds itself potentially facing a re-run of that destructive episode, recovery from which might not be so easy with much of the party so hollowed out by the Trump phenomenon.

Hence the November midterm elections loom as much more important than usual, with turnout in both parties key to whether the Trump reign of chaos and mutual animosity will be halted, slowed or licensed to continue on its merry way for another two years.

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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