Witcover: The rule of law, and of sanity, in Trumpland

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With our executive branch in the hands of Donald Trump and the Republican-controlled legislative branch now essentially subservient to him, the judicial branch and the Justice Department now remain the principal defenders of the rule of law in this country.

Many federal and state judges have rebuked President Trump on issues ranging from religious bans in immigration policy to abortion rights. But in Congress, the Republican-majority House Intelligence Committee has unabashedly carried water for Mr. Trump in whitewashing the Mueller investigation, even as the Senate Intelligence Committee presses on with its inquiry.


At the same time in the Senate, GOP Majority Leader Mitch McConnell vows to block bipartisan legislation to protect Mr. Mueller from being fired amid reports of imminent discharge by Mr. Trump, despite his unconvincing denials that he may do so.

In foreign policy, this president who ignominiously fired his first secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, via Twitter has sent his prospective replacement, CIA Director Mike Pompeo, to North Korea to discuss possible nuclear negotiations with Kim Jong Un. He has done so without Mr. Pompeo having been confirmed by the Senate in his new role.


Critics astonished by that breach of the normal order can be consoled by the thought that at least Mr. Trump did not send his new national security adviser, John Bolton, the Dr. Strangelove of international diplomacy, to handle that delicate chore.

The president has sought to calm nervous waters by saying in a joint news conference with visiting Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe that unless those talks with Mr. Kim are "fruitful" he may just get up and walk out. He will do so, he says, "respectfully," adding that "we'll continue what we're doing or whatever it is that we'll continue, but something will happen."

Such a seat-of-the-pants approach to a potentially critical summit between two world leaders, each with his finger on a nuclear button, is hardly reassuring, not only for the chances of peace or avoiding a nuclear holocaust, but also for the stability if not the sanity of each of them.

With Mr. Trump's campaign pledge to "drain the swamp" in Washington, he has proceeded to throw numerous babies out with the bathwater in ignoring the regular order of domestic and foreign policy. Republican Sen. John McCain's plea for the restoration of that order during this year's bitter fight over Obamacare is more imperative now than ever before.

Of course, Donald Trump has never paid much attention to Mr. McCain, especially after the way the Arizona conservative, now back home fighting brain cancer, cast that deciding vote to kill off one of candidate Trump's primary 2016 pledges. "The regular order" is contrary to all Mr. Trump is and stands for, including traditional Republican reverence for the rule of law of which no man supposedly is above.

In terms of legitimate grounds for impeachment of a president, none should be more persuasive to an informed electorate than Mr. Trump's concerted efforts to undermine the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the whole Justice Department under which it operates.

As those Republicans in and out of Congress who believe it is their obligation and duty to join Mr. Trump in this effort buy into his self-serving campaign to survive as president, they are, unwittingly or otherwise, risking the very survival of their party.

The Grand Old Party was born out of the Southern secession of 1861 and the Civil War, and survived through the costly and messy restoration of the Union thereafter. Now the GOP is in the hands of a duly elected president who obviously cares not a whit about its principles, traditions, reputation or future, except in terms of his own political survival.


For these reasons more than for the Trump presidency and even for the Republican Party, the approaching midterm congressional elections loom as more significant than most previous such public engagements in self-government. At stake is whether the rule of law, as guarded by our hallowed institutions of self-policing embodied in our Justice Department, will prevail through this most threatening period.

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