Special Counsel Robert Mueller's leaked letter taking exception to Attorney General William Barr's vindication of Donald Trump in the Russian meddling investigation has cast a new cloud over the presidency and Mr. Barr himself.
Democratic members of Congress are already demanding that Mr. Barr resign. They argue that he has distorted the work of the Special Counsel's Office in a transparent political rescue operation for the embattled president.
Sen. Mazie Hirono made such a demand in a contentious Senate Judiciary Committee hearing Wednesday in which she impugned his credibility. That hearing came on the heels of pressure from Democratic House committee chairmen to hear directly from both Mr. Mueller and Mr. Barr in what may turn out to be Washington's greatest political scandal since Watergate of the 1970s.
Mr. Trump's executive branch has declared war on the legislative branch in an historic constitutional fight over our basic separation of powers.
Mr. Mueller argues that Mr. Barr's four-page summary of the Mueller report did not accurately cover the Special Counsel Office's findings, including possible grounds for finding Mr. Trump guilty of obstruction of justice.
In late March, Mr. Barr pointedly wrote a voluntary four-page summary of Mr. Mueller's report, which he sent to Congress, declaring that no evidence had been found of Mr. Trump colluding with the Russian government. At the same time, Mr. Barr allowed that while Mueller's report did not conclude that Mr. Trump was culpable of such obstruction, it did not exonerate him either. Mr. Barr notably indicated he had disagreed with Mr. Mueller about that point.
Three days after Mr. Barr sent his tendentious "summary" to Congress, as Mr. Trump crowed about his supposed vindication, Mr. Mueller wrote his extraordinary rebuttal. It came to light only this week as six Democratic-led House committees are planning to issue subpoenas to Mr. Mueller and Mr. Barr to testify. The committees want to know about conversations White House aides may have had with President Trump that could be incriminating.
The president in turn has indicated he may use executive privilege to prohibit administration personnel from appearing before the committees. Democratic leaders argue that blocking them would violate Congress' constitutionally protected power of oversight over acts of presidential governance.
The clash may end up in a showdown before the Supreme Court, on which Mr. Trump's Republican Party holds a 5-4 majority, thanks to two appointments by the sitting chief executive.
The last critical time the two branches turned to the judiciary to settle such a high constitutional matter was 45 years ago. The court ruled then against President Richard Nixon, ordering release of the incriminating Nixon White House tape recordings.
The tapes revealed Nixon discussing the raising and paying of hush money to the jailed burglars of the late-night break-in of the Democratic National Committee at the Watergate office complex in downtown Washington. The tapes also captured Nixon ordering that the Central Intelligence Agency chief be told to do nothing about the DNC break-in. Together they constituted the infamous "smoking gun" that undid the Nixon presidency.
These revelations finally persuaded even some of the most stalwart conservative Republicans in the Senate, including Sen. Barry Goldwater of Arizona, that the president had to resign. They went to the White House and informed Nixon that he lacked the votes to avoid conviction of impeachment, and he stepped aside.
The developing situation now regarding Mr. Trump has not yet reached that stage, with nearly all 53 Senate Republicans holding the line for him -- more than enough to deny the two-thirds Senate vote required to convict him, should the Democratic-controlled House first vote to impeach. No president ever has been thus directly forced out of the Oval Office, and Mr. Trump does not seem disposed by temperament or pride to follow the Nixon route of exit, if it were to come to that.
So if the current test of will and presidential power between the White House and the majority Democrats in the House of Representatives should come to its constitutionally specified conclusion, the country may be in for a political fiasco.
We recuperated Watergate in part through the ascension to the presidency of a reasonable and mild Vice President Gerald Ford. As president, he first outraged many Americans by pardoning Nixon, and he probably paid for it in failing to win re-election in 1976.
But Ford presided amiably over the aftermath of what he called "our long national nightmare," and the Republicans eventually returned to power for eight years under Ronald Reagan. So any speculation on the imminent demise of the GOP under Trump may prove to be premature.