Witcover: 45 years after Watergate, another GOP vote of conscience looms

Congressional Republicans' sudden pushback against a carload of political and foreign policy blunders by Donald Trump finally holds the prospect that they might yield to the Democratic bid to impeach the president.

After a week of stunning self-inflicted wounds — first abandoning our Kurdish allies in Syria and then choosing his Florida golf retreat for the next G7 summit, before reversing course amid pressure — Mr. Trump has invited a breach in the GOP wall of forbearance that has endured for nearly three years.


The Syria fiasco brought a resounding House vote rejecting the shameless betrayal. It now has been followed by a flood of Republican repugnance at Mr. Trump’s naked grab for millions of dollars by attempting to host the international conference at his struggling commercial property.

Mr. Trump has not changed his position on back-stabbing the Kurds, but he has scrapped the transparent G7 obscenity in a rare surrender to critics. It could signal the beginning of the end of his hypnotic hold on the GOP that has made conviction in the Senate a long shot.


Mr. Trump and supporters to date have expected exoneration in the event he is impeached by the House. He would be only the fourth president to face expulsion from the highest office. Three sitting presidents have escaped conviction in the Senate: Andrew Johnson in 1868, Richard Nixon in 1974 and Bill Clinton in 1999. Johnson was acquitted by a single vote. Nixon resigned rather than face certain conviction via the damning White House tapes. Mr. Clinton survived when fellow Democrats in the Senate held their noses and let him off charges of lying to a grand jury and obstruction of justice in his sordid sexual liaison with a young White House intern.

Mr. Trump, if impeached and convicted, thus would be the first American president actually removed from office by a formal vote, and the House Democrats led by Speaker Nancy Pelosi have labored long and hard to achieve that goal by gathering evidence against him that would emphatically justify their action.

Ms. Pelosi had drawn criticism from impatient Democrats and other Trump critics for being slow to initiate the impeachment process, but the president’s latest political and foreign policy outrages have seemed to galvanize her while eroding Republican endurance.

Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina has voiced sharp criticism of the president's betrayal of the Kurdish allies in Syria but has not joined any call for his impeachment.

Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah, who as a former Massachusetts governor was the party’s presidential nominee in 2012, has been the most prominent Republican to sound the alarm against Mr. Trump, as has former Ohio Gov. John Kasich, briefly White House aspirant in 2016.

In the Watergate scandal that drove Nixon to resign, fellow Republican allies and friends, including Sen. Barry Goldwater and Rep. John Rhodes Jr. of Arizona, went to the Oval Office and told him he lacked the votes to beat the rap on Capitol Hill.

The incriminating tapes, made public by Supreme Court edict, revealed Nixon in a "smoking gun" calling off any federal investigation and saying he could find the money to buy the silence of the burglars of the Democratic National Committee headquarters.

This time around, the sitting president himself has handed his political opponents the ample ammunition with which to charge him, not only with obstruction of justice but also violating the basic Article II duty to "faithfully execute" his office and to "the best of my Ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution."


Ms. Pelosi could also add the G7 summit money grab — which violates the same article’s provision that the president “shall not receive” while occupying the Oval Office “any other Emolument” beyond his presidential salary from anyone — to the list of other high crimes and misdemeanors for which Mr. Trump must answer before the Senate. However, she appears to prefer to keep the focus narrowly on MR. Trump’s obstruction of Congress and abuse of power as the clearest evidence that he warrants removal from office.

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