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Witcover: The Republican Party on trial

Atty. Gen. William P. Barr emphasizes "no collusion" as he prepares to release Robert S. Mueller III’s report.

Attorney General William Barr, in tossing to Congress the political hot potato of impeachment of President Donald Trump, has unloaded legal responsibility by the executive branch onto the legislative.

Mr. Barr's use of the Robert Mueller report, in which 10 "episodes" provide a road map for possible conviction of the president, puts the spotlight squarely on the 53 Republicans in the Senate who hold the key to any Trump impeachment.

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The House Democratic majority likely assures his indictment if it comes to a vote there. But the GOP-held Senate has ample votes to defeat conviction, which requires a two-thirds vote in that body.

Only two presidents, Andrew Johnson in 1868 and Bill Clinton in 1998, ever were impeached by the House, and both escaped conviction in the Senate, Johnson by single vote. In 1974, Richard Nixon faced certain impeachment and conviction but he escaped by resigning when told by Republican colleagues he lacked the votes to salvage his presidency.

In Nixon's case, he was undone by the disclosure of decisively incriminating White House tapes, by order of the Supreme Court. He was heard ordering a CIA cover-up and speaking of raising hush money to buy the silence of the Watergate burglars.

But this time around, the Senate majority comprises a different breed of Republicans from those who were dismayed at Nixon's behavior and those tell-tale voice recordings. Either mesmerized or intimidated by Mr. Trump and his base of voters, the current version of the Grand Old Party in the Senate stands as a bulwark right now against impeachment.

Faced with that existing reality, congressional Democrats led by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi are counseling the downplaying of impeachment. They favor focusing first on the party's coalition of moderately liberal and more radical progressives to support its legislative agenda in the 2020 election.

However, many Democrats view the 2018 midterm elections as having been a referendum on Mr. Trump in producing 40-seat party gain in the House, and the power of subpoena with it. The outcome has been a political nightmare for the president ever since.

That hollowing out of the Republican strength can be seen in more than the sheer numbers. The death of old establishment party members such as Sen. John McCain of Arizona and the resignations of GOP House leaders John Boehner and Paul Ryan have left the party in the hands of ultraconservative firebrands like Reps. Jim Jordan of Ohio and Mark Meadows of North Carolina, both antagonistic toward any across-the-aisle cooperation.

At stake now is not only the survival of the Donald Trump presidency but also of any realistic chance of interparty comity of the sort that had a brief interlude in the Ronald Reagan years. The very future of the Party of Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Eisenhower and Reagan is jeopardized by the authoritarian and corrupt inclinations of the loose cannon in the Oval Office.

In the end, leaving the outcome of the Trump experiment to the ballot box in 2020 may be the best or only recourse for a nation that has gone desperately off track.

By that time, the voters in all corners of the land may finally have awakened to the peril that our collective folly has brought to the world's greatest democracy.

A functioning two-party system, each segment of which strives to compete with constructive plans to improve government and the lives of the people, remains at the heart of our democracy.

Legend has it that when citizens outside Philadelphia's Independence Hall in 1787 asked Benjamin Franklin what the delegates therein had wrought, he replied, "A Republic, if you can keep it." That's the question we Americans must ask ourselves anew today.

My Random House College Dictionary offers that a republic is "a state in which the supreme power rests in the body of citizens entitled to vote and is exercised by representatives chosen directly or indirectly by them ... (one) in which the head of government is an elected or nominated president, and not a monarch."

The leader we have was elected, but he functions as if he were a monarch. So can we keep the republic? The jury is out as long as King Donald reigns.

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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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