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It's time for Congress to step up, reclaim its constitutional authority and exercise its duty to place country over party or president or political gain, former Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel said Monday.

"I think the Congress has forfeited its powers in many ways, allowing the president to be the dominant branch of government," Nebraska's former two-term Republican senator said in a telephone interview from suburban Washington.

And that's even more dangerous when "this president, probably more than any we've ever had, is less informed, more arrogant, bullying people, really ignorant about our government and the consequences of his actions," Hagel said.

"I think the role of the Congress is really in play today," he said.

Hagel said he believes there is a welcome sign of independence emerging among some Republican members of the Senate who appeared willing to confront President Donald Trump over the new trade tariffs that he had threatened to impose on Mexico last week before the issue was resolved.

"People are so intimidated by the party and the power of money in politics and the threats," Hagel said. "It's a powerful dynamic and I recognize how that works. I was part of that Senate once and I understand it."

But it's time to "follow that north star and do what's right for the country, not for the president or party," he said. 

"We've never had a White House or a president completely disregard the constitutional powers and responsibilities of Congress as this guy is doing in telling people to disregard congressional subpoenas" to appear before House committees to testify about issues related to the Mueller probe of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, Hagel said.

"This may lead to an impeachment inquiry and that's very likely. The president would be wiser to just cooperate."

Despite White House efforts to confuse the findings of the Department of Justice investigation led by special counsel Robert Mueller, the report "did not absolve the president of any wrongdoing when it came to obstruction of justice," Hagel said.  

"I think this is going to get messier," he said. "The country is in for a tough year and a half. It is going to get more brutal, more divisive, more dysfunctional.

"But we'll get through it," Hagel said. "I just hope on the other side of the election that we can start governing again.  

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"We can't continue the way we're going; this country will not survive."

Looming ahead are huge economic challenges that will arise with the accumulation of enormous public and private debt, Hagel said, and a landscape of fractured U.S. alliances and wounded trade relations. 

"NATO is the most important institution we've created for our security since World War II," Hagel said.  

Trade relationships have been abandoned or disrupted, he said, and tariffs have been weaponized with "devastating results" for U.S. farmers and ranchers.

"In foreign policy and trade, Congress is going to have to start to play a role," Hagel said. "Your oath is to the country you serve."

Reach the writer at 402-473-7248 or dwalton@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSDon.

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Political reporter

Don Walton, a Husker and Yankee fan, is a longtime Journal Star political and government reporter.

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