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Witcover: A republic, if we can keep it

Why is President Trump praising autocrats, despots and dictators? (May 3, 2017) (Sign up for our free video newsletter here http://bit.ly/2n6VKPR)

In 1787, when Benjamin Franklin was famously asked what had been created at Constitution Hall in Philadelphia, his reply — “a republic, if you can keep it” — was a prophesy never more appropriate than it is today.

Keeping our republican form of government — of, by and for the people — has not been more challenged in peacetime than it is now under the corrupt and dictatorial regime of Donald Trump.

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The dilemma is defined in his broad and brazen confrontation with prime tenets of the Constitution drawn by the Founding Fathers. Among them is the separation of co-equal powers among our three governing branches: the executive, legislative and judicial.

This president has triggered what legitimately is being called a constitutional crisis. He is defying Congress in its stipulated function of overseeing the executive's use of its power to run that government.

No fewer than six Democratic-controlled House committees have issued or planned to issue legal subpoenas to current or former Trump administration and private business officials for information on the president's conduct. He in turn has ordered them to ignore or defy the legislative branch's directives.

Trump lawyers in or out of the Justice Department under his aegis are mobilizing their legal forces, arguing that such committees must prove a legitimate legislative function in their quest. They strive to trivialize the demands for testimony under oath as merely politically motivated hunting parties for damaging material against Trump.

As the 2020 presidential election approaches and the president is expected to seek a second term, such a likelihood undeniably also drives the Democrats' quest. But institutionally all House members, Democratic or Republican, might reasonably be expected to rally to the defense of Congress's co-equal status.

Yet in the real-world context of the national election only 18 months from now, the 53 current Republicans clinging to their majority in the Senate know they constitute the main barrier to the possible impeachment of Trump.

The Democratic majority in the House has the power to impeach the president, whereas the Senate would try the president on the charges against him. Unless a breach develops within the GOP wall of defense in the upper chamber, a conviction of Trump — which requires a two-thirds majority vote — remains only a remote possibility.

That is the obvious rationale behind Speaker Nancy Pelosi's argument some months ago that her party would be better served by focusing on its broader progressive agenda of social issues and look to the ballot box to oust Trump in 2020.

For Democrats generally, removing Trump from office remains their strongest rallying cry for 2020. Former Vice President Joe Biden has openly seized it, claiming he is the party's best bet to beat Trump by directly attacking him as corrupt and ill suited for the office.

The 20 other declared Democratic hopefuls are being obliged to join the chorus. Ms. Pelosi for her part has retreated from advising against focusing on impeachment, to the point of now saying Trump is engaging in his own "self-impeachment."

She cites his continued serial lying, his attempt to usurp Congress' power of the purse and his defiance of subpoenas against administration and business associates.

Taken together, Trump finds himself bucking not only the opposition party but also the co-equal legislative branch, with the judicial branch yet to be heard from.

He seems bent on slow-walking the deliberative process on the constitutional issues, counting ultimately on the Supreme Court where Republicans hold a 5-4 majority. It includes two men appointed by Trump to rescue him from his own malfeasance and disregard of how our republic of, by and for the people is supposed to work.

At stake now is whether the legislative and judicial branches with public support will step up, in Franklin's words, and keep the republic that has survived for more than two centuries. Or will they just stand by as this wrecking ball of a president continues to dismantle it?

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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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