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Is the Trump impeachment an exercise in futility?

Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON — Now that Democrats have built a very strong factual case to impeach President Trump on abuse of Congress and of presidential power, it seems certain the House of Representatives will vote to impeach him.

But then, just as certainly, the Republican-controlled Senate will acquit him in a vote a far cry from the two-thirds majority required to convict him.

So what is the point of pressing the issue, rather than leaving the decision of his fate to the voters less than a year from now, in the 2020 election, as most Republicans appear to argue?

The legitimate answer is that the founding fathers, in their wisdom, decided there should be some vehicle by which the co-equal legislative branch could rein in an irresponsible or over-reaching executive, and that is impeachment.

They specified in Article I, Section 3 of the Constitution that “Judgment in Cases of Impeachment shall not extend further than to removal from Office, and disqualification to hold and enjoy any office of honor, Trust or Profit under the United States: but the Party convicted shall nevertheless be liable and subject to Indictment, Trial, Judgment and Punishment, according to Law.”

That latter clause seems to indicate that, should the Democrats somehow persuade enough Republican senators vote to impeach Trump, he would also be barred from seeking a second term.

But such a prospect seems far-fetched now, unless within the next year the Democrats so strengthen the evidence of malfeasance against him as to break his now-firm grip on his political base.

That longshot seems to be the rationale now behind the decision of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Rep. Adam Schiff of California, the chair of the House special committee on impeachment, to press on with the investigation without going to the courts to enforce congressional subpoenas for testimony from key administration officials.

The Democrats argue they cannot afford to allow Trump and allies to slow-walk the issue through the time-consuming court system. But the notion they can mobilize the sort of outraged public opinion that might break the Republican resistance to the Trump stonewalling seems to fly in the face of reality.

Unlike the 1972-74 Watergate case that eventually brought the resignation in disgrace of President Richard Nixon, this episode has produced no “smoking gun” of obvious, tangible guilt against Trump similar to the White House tapes that captured Nixon ordering the FBI or CIA not to investigate, and his notion to buy the Watergate burglars’ silence.

Also, today’s Republican Party is a far cry from its forebear of the 1970s. Its members then acknowledged the criminality of Nixon and stepped up to their constitutional responsibility to defend the law. Where is today’s GOP Sen. Howard Baker of Tennessee, who demanded to know: “What did the President know and when did he know it?”

Also, where is today’s conservative Republican icon Sen. Barry Goldwater of Arizona, who went to the Oval Office and told Nixon he lacked the Senate votes to beat the rap in Watergate and faced certain conviction unless he resigned?

Instead, the Grand Old Party has only outlier Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah, a pariah in Trump’s eyes, and a few other meek and silent party accommodators willing to express mild discomfort with their crass and corrupt leader.

At the same time, members of the American press corps who continue to meet their own ethical responsibility to tell truth to power now bear the obligation of disavowing Trump’s indictment that they are “the enemies of the people.”

Is there any wonder remaining why the presidency of Donald Trump must be seen today as an unvarnished peril not simply to the office he holds, but also to the broader integrity of the nation’s honor and reputation on the world stage?

Jules Witcover’s latest book is “The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power,” published by Smithsonian Books. You can respond to this column at juleswitcover@comcast.net.