Witcover: Congressional defeat is another leak in the Trump bubble

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The upset victory of a Democrat over a Republican heavily backed by President Donald Trump in Pennsylvania's 18th Congressional District has pumped new optimism into voters looking to November's midterm elections to rid the country of the man in the Oval Office.

Moderate Democrat Conor Lamb held a 627-vote lead over Trump devotee Rick Saccone according to the Associated Press, in a district Mr. Trump won by 20 percentage points in 2016. The tally reinforces the possibility of a Democratic "blue wave" of anti-Trump rejection of Republican candidates across the country by next fall.


The Democrats need to pick up 24 seats to gain the majority in the House of Representatives and thus empower them to bring impeachment charges against Mr. Trump there, where the process of removing him would start.

Conor Lamb, the Democratic candidate for the March 13 special election in Pennsylvania's 18th Congressional District, center, celebrates with his supporters at his election night party in Canonsburg, Pa., early Wednesday, March 14, 2018. A razor's edge separated Lamb and Republican Rick Saccone early Wednesday in their closely watched special election in Pennsylvania, where a surprisingly strong bid by first-time candidate Lamb severely tested Donald Trump's sway in a GOP stronghold.  (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

It would depend on evidence produced in the investigation by Special Counsel Robert Mueller into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election. Many observers in the media have argued Mr. Trump and members of his campaign are susceptible to charges of obstruction of justice, collusion and conspiracy. The president has denied any personal involvement as Mr. Mueller tenaciously presses on with his inquiry.


A recount in Pennsylvania's 18th District is expected, with many absentee and provisional ballots to be examined and tabulated. Late on election night, the count gave Mr. Lamb 49.8 percent of the total to Mr. Saccone's 49.6 percent.

The Republican Party pumped $10.7 million into the Saccone campaign, more than five times what the Democrats spent for Mr. Lamb. Mr. Trump campaigned aggressively for the GOP nominee at a late, raucous rally. He spoke more than an hour, devoted almost entirely to bragging about himself, before introducing Mr. Saccone, who tied himself to the president, saying "I was Trump before Trump was Trump."

The results sorely questioned the president's ability to bring fellow Republicans across the finish line, no matter how enthusiastically they proclaim their allegiance. House Speaker Paul Ryan, continuing to tie his own fortunes to Mr. Trump, observed hopefully: "This is something you're not going to see repeated."

Meanwhile, the president can be grateful to his fellow Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee for handing him a blatant whitewash in its investigation into Russian elections meddling. Chairman Devin Nunes shut it down and declared that it had found no collusion by the Trump campaign or organization. It was a crude and transparent act taken without input from the Democrats on the committee.

The committee Republicans' swallowing Mr. Nunes' open alliance with the White House to save the president's skin is without parallel, starting with his infamous midnight ride to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. It was then that Mr. Nunes returned with certain documents he claimed questioned the FBI's objectivity toward the president.

The chairman's fingerprints were also on the dossier that supported allegations of anti-Trump sentiments by two FBI employees working on the investigation by Mr. Mueller, who promptly removed them from it.

Worse, the House Intelligence Committee declaration that no collusion was found between the rump campaign or administration and the Russians came on a strictly partisan basis. Many critical witnesses were never called to testify, nor were pertinent documents subpoenaed.

Fortunately, the Senate Intelligence Committee, under the bipartisan leadership of Republican Chairman Richard Burr of North Carolina and Democratic ranking member Mark Warner of Virginia, has pledged to take those steps, while rightly withholding judgment on alleged Russian or Trump team involvement.


On top of all this has come the not unexpected firing of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, an obvious misfit in the president's declared intention to remake his cabinet in his own unpredictable image. Mr. Trump proved it by naming as Mr. Tillerson's replacement the current CIA director, Mike Pompeo, an ultraconservative former congressman of unquestioned loyalty to the president and of a similarly impulsive nature. The prospect of Mr. Pompeo interfacing with the polished, well-informed diplomatic world does not bode well for U.S. representation abroad.

The wild and crazy ride to which Donald Trump has already committed the country at home seems now to be assured across the waters as well. A nervous European Union and the Korean Peninsula watch anxiously as this free-wheeling novice president improvises blindly and recklessly on.

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