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America has been here before. The president respectfully stepped down then, too

In this Nov. 17, 1973 file photo, President Richard Nixon speaks near Orlando, Fla. to the Associated Press Managing Editors annual meeting.
Associated Press

President-elect Joe Biden’s win may be razor thin and his electoral college advantage among the smallest in history, but in truth his victory tells a story of repudiation far beyond narrow vote margins. Consider what has just happened.

President Trump lost despite Republican victories all the way down the ballot. Republicans are on track to remain in control of the Senate, pick up at least six seats in the House of Representatives and retain the same three-fifths majority it previously held in statehouses nationwide.

Even with the advantages of incumbency, including his use of the White House as a political stage set, Mr. Trump lost to a challenger who spent much of the campaign giving boring speeches from a teleprompter in the basement of his Wilmington, Delaware home and whose minuscule rallies were like drive-in movies with honks for cheers.

Against this backdrop, Mr. Biden’s narrow victory counts as a rebuke of Mr. Trump and the four years of his presidency.

For now, Mr. Trump refuses to go quietly. There is nothing wrong with pursuing valid legal claims supported by competent evidence as a means to ensure the integrity of the electoral process. But ongoing, pointless litigation or more extreme tactics, such as tampering with the electoral college vote in hopes of throwing the election to the House of Representatives, would further traumatize a nation already in the throes of a deadly pandemic.

There is a way to outright preempt such possibilities and at the same time jump-start a new era of bipartisanship in Congress. It might be time for senior Republican leaders in Congress to give President Trump a push, as their counterparts did in August of 1974, when a similar crisis loomed as President Richard Nixon stubbornly refused to consider resigning his office.

This episode was recounted in an Aug. 12, 1974 article in The New York Times entitled “Nixon Slide from Power: Backers Gave Final Push.” On the evening of Aug. 6 of that year “six senior Republican members of Congress were holding a series of urgent conferences to try to devise a means of persuading Nixon to resign.” This group of six included my boss at the time, Utah’s Sen. Wallace F. Bennett.

The group ultimately arranged a meeting with Nixon at the White House the following day, Aug. 7. At this meeting they drove home the point that support for the president was crumbling in both chambers of Congress, making his conviction on articles of impeachment a certainty.

According to the Times, Sen. Hugh Scott of Pennsylvania told Nixon the situation was “gloomy.” The president replied, “It sounds damn gloomy.” “Hopeless,” added Sen. Barry Goldwater of Arizona. As the meeting concluded, Nixon said, “I just wanted to hear it from you,” indicating that he understood there was only one option left for him. The next day, Aug. 8, he resigned.

I vividly recall Sen. Bennett returning from a separate meeting at the White House with Nixon and about 40 of his most loyal supporters the night before he resigned. As the staff gathered in the senator’s office after that meeting, he told us in somber tones about the president’s historic decision. I remember feeling a sense of profound relief that Nixon had chosen to do the right thing and the nation had avoided a potential constitutional crisis.

Now may be the time for a group of senior Republicans in Congress to likewise confront a similarly recalcitrant president with the reality of his untenable position, convince him of the inevitability of his defeat, and persuade him to accept the only option realistically left to him, that is, to follow his better lights, which deep down even Mr. Trump must possess, and concede to Mr. Biden.

Courageous action by a “group of six” today would not only prevent a potential constitutional crisis; with Mr. Trump gone, it would also signal a retreat from the tribal warfare that paralyzes Congress, open the door to greater bipartisanship and begin restoring public confidence in the nation’s political institutions. Is there a greater gift could they give to a nation desperately in need of healing?

Brent Ward is a practicing attorney in Salt Lake City, a former United States Attorney for the state of Utah, and a lifelong registered member of the Republican Party.