Former Defense Secretary William Cohen On How Trump's Push To Overturn The Election Threatens Democracy

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U.S. President Donald Trump arrives at a Republican National Committee Victory Rally at Dalton Regional Airport January 4, 2021 in Dalton, Georgia. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)
U.S. President Donald Trump arrives at a Republican National Committee Victory Rally at Dalton Regional Airport January 4, 2021 in Dalton, Georgia. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

President Donald Trump is attempting to subvert the will of the voters and overturn his election loss. But is he considering using the military to do so? We have an extended conversation with former defense secretary William Cohen about the presidency, military and how to strengthen American democracy.  


William Cohen, former U.S. Secretary of Defense. Former senator from Maine (1979-1997).

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Chuck Hagel, former U.S. Secretary of Defense. Former senator from Nebraska (1997 to 2009).

Full Show Transcript

Chuck Hagel served as secretary of defense from 2013 to 2015. He was the Republican senator from Nebraska from 1997 to 2009. We spoke with him yesterday and he had this message for the men and women of the United States military.

HAGEL: “You know who you are. You know the difference between right and wrong. You know why you're there. You have made a commitment and a decision to give your life, your career to the defense of this country. That is as noble a thing as any human being can do, that I know of.”

As President Trump continues his efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 election, there has been growing concern among senior officials in Washington that Trump could, quote “invoke the Insurrection Act to mobilize the military.”

That's according to reporting from the Washington Post's David Ignatius, who adds, quote “the Pentagon would be the locus of any such action. And some unusual recent moves suggest pro-Trump officials might be mobilizing to secure levers of power.”

Well, a few days after Ignatius put out that report, all ten living former secretaries of defense took the highly unusual step of publishing a joint op-ed in the Washington Post. They write, “efforts to involve the U.S. armed forces in resolving election disputes would take us into dangerous, unlawful and unconstitutional territory.”

Well, we spoke with Hagel yesterday, and he said to those serving:

HAGEL: “You cannot allow yourself to be degraded in any way by partisanship or politics. You've got to stay above it all because you're better than that. You must stay above it.”

Well, today we are going to hear at length from another former defense secretary. William Cohen joins us. He led the Department of Defense from 1997 to 2001. Before that, he served as Republican senator of Maine from 1979 to 1997. And served three terms in the U.S. House of Representatives prior to his Senate service.

MEGHNA: Secretary Cohen, welcome to On Point.

COHEN: It's good to be with you.

MEGHNA: First of all, what would you add to what Secretary Hagel said there in his message to members of the United States military?

COHEN: Well, there's very little to add. Chuck Hagel said everything that needed to be said. He and the others who signed that open letter to those at the Pentagon primarily, was to remind them of their constitutional duty. And that was, that is to serve and protect the American people by serving and protecting the Constitution. Their loyalty lies to the Constitution and not to any one person who happens to occupy the Oval Office.

It was necessary, in our judgment, to send that message out because we were getting more and more reports, in addition to David Ignatius. There were reports about a number of B-52 flights. There were at least two involving two B-52s. So four aircrafts over a period of three weeks flying over into the region, the Arabian Gulf and such. That would be a sign of deterrence. And that's not to be diminished at all based on what was going on in intelligence in the region, that the Iranians might be doing something that would put our forces in jeopardy. So that was the signal. Then there was the surfacing that we had two aircraft carriers in the region, plus a U.S. sub, plus an Israeli sub.

So it looked as if a lot of firepower was being assembled in the region as a possibility to launch an attack against Iran should Iran take any untoward action. That in itself was, you know, not worrisome, but it was of concern to say, ‘What are we planning?’ And coupling that was the suggestion coming out of president-elect Biden that he was not, he and his team were not getting enough intelligence to be able to be in a position to know our force posture, the intelligence that was being gathered, what were the plans under way or held as a contingency. You have only, at that point, two weeks or less to go. And he needed to be in a position to take the baton, as I’ve used a relay race as a metaphor, he needed to take that baton on the last run of that relay and be running at the time that's passed to him.

And what was happening is that he wasn’t getting the information. So he called out vocally to say, 'We're missing some things here and that's going to put me in a very different and potentially dangerous position.' So it was a coupling of that and then the floating of the notion of martial law. According to reports in the Washington Post, the discussion of martial law surfaced somewhere in the White House and then- Lieutenant General Flynn talked about it openly, saying that the martial law could be invoked to deploy troops to those states, which were the so-called swing states, and they could have a recount under the supervision of our military. So the combination of all of those factors certainly got our attention and called upon, it was Dick Cheney, former vice president, former secretary of defense, who initiated the letter. And I think all of us were surprised that so many were eager to sign on to that letter as quickly as possible.

So all of us having been in that position, knowing the awesome power of the United States. Knowing that we have a person in the White House who is material, is impetuous, takes actions without thinking through the consequences, and is said to be transactional as opposed to strategic. So it has been just a combination of watching how he has either used or abused the military. And I say abusive when he called upon the chairman of the Joint Chiefs and the secretary of defense to be in his entourage as he plowed through peaceful protesters in Washington at Lafayette Park, and just for the purpose of holding up a Bible in front of a church. That was a clear abuse of the military, in my judgment, in which the chairman of the Joint Chiefs and the secretary of defense apologized.

MEGHNA: Right. Well, Secretary Cohen, if I might step in here, forgive me, there's a lot that you've laid out for us that I'd like to sort of start looking at piece by piece. So, first of all, I think it's worth just mentioning the names of the former secretaries that signed on to this article in the Post. I mean, obviously, there's you, Secretary Hagel, James Mattis, Leon Panetta, William Perry, Donald Rumsfeld, Ashton Carter, Dick Cheney and Mark Esper, who served under President Trump.

COHEN: And Jim Mattis served under Trump.

MEGHNA: Indeed. Both.

COHEN: Yes, both of them.

MEGHNA: So can you tell me, for example, the deployments that you outlined a couple of minutes ago. Much of that information was publicly reported. Had you been hearing anything that wasn't publicly reported that further inflamed your concern?

COHEN: No, I had not been hearing things that were not publicly reported. I had talked to a number of people who had served in the Trump administration about the activities going on behind the scenes and basically saying, 'What you're seeing publicly is in no way compared to what's going on behind the scenes.' And all of them that I have talked to have talked about the personal conduct of the president that was irrational at times. He was fulminating.

He was raging at times. And all of that certainly gave me pause. As you may or may not know, I openly opposed his presidency and opposed him for the president because I saw how he treated John McCain, a hero of mine, someone I was very close to over the years. I was best man at his wedding and a pallbearer at his funeral. And he said John McCain was no hero because he got captured. Well, that was one heck of a signal to send to all the people serving that you know, if you don't get captured, you're a hero.

If you do, you're not. And he ridiculed a reporter who had a disability and made fun of him over and over. And then he embarrassed a Gold Star family publicly. And I thought very clearly those characteristics or those character flaws that were so public and so much I had heard about him and his private life that I said he wasn't fit to be commander in chief. And everything, almost everything he's done since being in office the past four years reinforce that to me.

MEGHNA: So one of my goals for this hour in talking with you, Secretary Cohen, is to really understand your view of what's at stake on multiple dimensions here, what's at stake this week even for this country. So we've got about two minutes left before we have to take our first break. Let me ask you the first sort of slice of that. What is at stake for the United States military right now?

COHEN: Well, the military is under the command structure that the President of the United States is the commander in chief, and that structure runs through the secretary of defense. The chain of command goes to the president, to the secretary of defense, to the commanders in the field. CENTCOM, by way of example if we're talking about the Middle East. And so they are duty bound to follow and carry out the orders that come through that chain of command, provided they are legal, ethical and constitutional.

That means those individuals in that chain of command have to make judgments in terms of what the command is. Is it legal, is it proper, is it moral or is it so antithetical to their conscience that they could not carry it out? Those are the thoughts that have to go through that chain of command. But ordinarily, they salute smartly and say … yes, sir, can do and will do. So to have a president who has a limited capacity in terms of understanding the consequences of what his actions are and approach it simply on an ad hoc, tactical or transactional basis. It means that we could take action in one instance and without taking into account the consequences of what might put us in greater danger. Well, that’s a long way of explaining the situation of what's happening with the military.

MEGHNA: This hour, we are talking with former Secretary of Defense William Cohen. He served as Secretary of Defense from 1997 to 2001, and he and nine other living secretaries of defense, all of the ten men who currently are alive, who served as the top in the Pentagon, recently wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post warning against President Trump's desires or even possible attempts to use the military to stay in power.

Now, Secretary Cohen, as you pointed out in the previous segment, there has been quite a bit of bubbling concern for many months, in fact, regarding what the president might consider doing with the military. And I wanted to just play two quick moments here to undergird the reasons for that concern. So, first of all, we've had Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson on the show several times.

He served for 30 years in the military, also as chief of staff to Colin Powell. And one of the times he was on the show was in late July. And at that time, at the end of the show, he spontaneously turned essentially to members of the military and expressed his concern about what the president might do to have an impact on the November vote. And here is what Colonel Wilkerson said.

WILKERSON: “Let me say this to all my military friends out there. As we used to say in the chairman's office, the military needs to stay in barracks. Simply stated, that means the military has no business taking any side in either part of this election. And I remember in 1989 when Cory Aquino in the Philippines telephoned us, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and said, 'I have a company that's about to take over my government. Can you help me?' And we essentially made sure that companies stayed in barracks. So we don't need the military interfering in any way, fashion or form with these elections. I know that's dire. I know that's too serious maybe, but I've read the history books.”

MEGHNA: Colonel Larry Wilkerson on this program on July 28th. Now, Secretary Cohen, you also mentioned what happened over the summer when President Trump took General Mark Milley with him, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, across Lafayette Square, after the square had been cleared of peaceful protesters, cleared by federal officials using tear gas ... for that photo op in front of the church. And General Milley later issued an apology because he was photographed walking across the square with the president. And here is a little of General Milley's apology.

MILLEY: “Many of you saw the result of the photograph of me at Lafayette Square last week that sparked a national debate about the role of the military in civil society. I should not have been there. My presence in that moment and in that environment created a perception of the military involved in domestic politics. As a commissioned uniformed officer, it was a mistake that I've learned from. And I sincerely hope we all can learn from it.”

MEGHNA: General Mark Milley. Now, Secretary Cohen, at the time, some people suggested that he should have resigned. But let's ground this in the here and now. Do you think that top members of the Pentagon should be willing to offer their resignations? Should the president advance any one of the ideas that you talked about before?

COHEN: Oh, absolutely. If the president were to give any order which smacked of being politically motivated or with a political objective, they should go to the president and say, 'Mr. President, I can't follow that order and I hereby resign.' Now, what you have to take into account is we've had four secretaries of defense in the last four years. We just had 10 secretaries that go back to the mid ‘90s that have served in that capacity. And yet President Trump has had four secretaries of defense. It tells you something about the instability.

It tells you something about how quickly the president can turn on anyone who doesn't support his every action. And I think General Milley was brave enough to come out and say, 'I made a mistake.' That's not something that's allowed in the Trump administration. His modus of operation is to deny any mistake, commit that he committed any error, that he was wrong in any way, and just to keep perpetuating what he has said.

So for someone to say, 'I made a mistake in following the commander in chief,' that was a signal that individuals possibly on the way out of office — certainly happened with Mark Esper, who also apologized for his being there and said he would not invoke, he would not participate in the invoking or the invocation of the Insurrection Act. So it was clear once he said that, that he was on the way out.

As a cabinet member, as a secretary of defense, your obligation is you're serving the president of the United States. You serve at his pleasure, but you serve at his pleasure in order to provide sound, prudent constitutional information and guidance. And you're duty bound to carry out his instructions provided they're legal, ethical, constitutional, or they don't violate your own sense of right and wrong. So every secretary of defense is under that same obligation.

But here was clearly something that should not have been done. And I would add that there were a lot of protests taking place in Seattle, Washington. And suddenly we saw ninja-clad federal agents without any more demarcation of which agency they were from firing rubber bullets into the heads of protesters. Arresting people off the streets, throwing them into unmarked cars and taking them down to the police station without charging them with any crime. That's not the mark of a democracy.

That's something much more something that we condemn in dictatorial states, banana republics, not in the United States. So to see the president of the United States authorize the deployment of those federal agents without considering whether or not that was a violation of the rule of law or took into account the right of the people to protest, it was just another sign that the president feels ... there are no boundaries to what he can do. That his power is absolute, as absolute as commander in chief, as absolute as the head of the Justice Department, as absolute as far as ... intelligence. Any of the [agencies] involved, he feels that his power is unbounded. That's something we haven't seen, at least during my lifetime and long before.

MEGHNA: We also saw that in Portland, Oregon, as well, exactly what you described. So Secretary Cohen, how much danger is American democracy in right now?

COHEN: Well, I think this is one of the most dangerous periods, because every time there's a transition of power, a peaceful transition of power, we like to say the danger level goes up because our adversaries are looking for any weakness, any link in the chain of our security that might be exploited. And especially when you're delaying giving information to the incoming administration. That puts that administration in a inferior position as being able to act on reliable information.

So we've always known that the threat level should be going up during that transition period. And especially with the president, who is acting in a manner that he is seeking to overthrow the election by making calls to the secretary of state of Georgia or the governor and acting like Don Gotti, not John Gotti, but Don Gotti and a Joe Pesci phone conversation.

Those are, I think, pretty astounding, astonishing things to have taken place. And yet he still has the support of some 74 million people in America who approve of that kind of action. And certainly today and tomorrow, he has allies on the Hill who are questioning the legitimacy of the election itself. So it's a dangerous period for us. Other countries are looking at us bewildered, embarrassed, I think for us. That we have such a great country that looks as if it's so deeply divided that it will not be able to function effectively as a, quote, United States of America going into the future.

MEGHNA: Well, you talked about what's going on today in Congress and the support that the president is getting from certain members of the Republican Party to subvert the will of the voters. We also have the gathering of the president's supporters in Washington, D.C., and the president doing nothing to, you know, try to to tamp down the possibility of violence there.

In fact, some analysts wonder if the president even hopes for violence so that he could invoke the Insurrection Act. Does this all sum to the fact that the greatest adversary, you spoke of adversaries inside the house, the house being our house of the United States of America? I mean, is what's happening, would you call it an attempted coup?

COHEN: Yes, I would say it really is quite amazing to watch. The president and his congressional supporters are saying, 'Well, we have to object to the certifications because the people are angry.' Well, why are the people angry? The people are angry because the president of the United States is telling them to be angry. He’s telling them that fraud was committed even though it wasn't. So they're angry over an allegation which is completely false and fraudulent, issued from the mouth of the president of the United States.

And so it's a circular reasoning here. Well, they're angry. So therefore, we have to undo the election, even though those of us who really understand this know that it's false. So he's stirring it. I believe he's absolutely calling for some sort of violence in the streets when he says to the Proud Boys or to the Boogaloo Boys, ‘Stand back and stand by.' Or, 'Come to Washington. It's going to be wild.’ All initial caps on wild.

That's basically sending a signal, come here and make things rough for those who were up on Capitol Hill. And you may recall what happened out in the state of Michigan where he called for the liberation of Virginia, Michigan, I guess Wisconsin and one other state. And those right-wing militias went up to the Capitol in Michigan. They stormed the Capitol, AK-47s, they shut down the Capitol and then a plot was revealed that a small group were planning to kidnap the governor and then to execute her on television.

And the president could always say, ‘Well, why don't I get credit for the FBI uncovering this.’ When in fact, he's encouraging this type of violence against the members of the press, those governors and mayors who don't support him, members of the press are declared enemies of the people. Well, if they’re enemies of the people, they're traitors, and therefore the American people look upon them as traitors. And so there's anger directed toward members of the media. So he is not above encouraging violence and then using the violence as a justification to say that, 'Only I can save you now. I'm going to call out the military to suppress the violence, and thereby suppress your freedoms in the process.'

MEGHNA: What should members of the United States military do right now to clearly communicate to the president that they will not violate their oath to the Constitution of the United States?

COHEN: Well, it's up to the secretary of defense and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs is not in the chain of command. He’s a principal military advisor to the president. It is up to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs on behalf of the Joint Chiefs to communicate that message to the president saying, '... I will not give that order.'

And that's why Mark Esper was no longer secretary of defense. He indicated he would not do so. That would be something that under only extreme circumstances that were justified would he ever do that. And by saying that the president decided to get rid of him. So that's the penalty you pay if you're honest, if you do your duty and the president doesn't agree with it or you don't pay fealty to him, then you're gone. And they should be gone on their own accord if they're receiving an illegal order. They should say, Mr. President, I'm sorry, this is unconstitutional. It's illegal, it's unethical. And I won’t carry it out.

MEGHNA: I mean, to your point, it is a penalty worth paying if the outcome is the preservation of American democracy and preventing the perversion of the United States military. So if I may underscore, Secretary Cohen, I mean, you spent your political life also as a member of the Republican Party. This isn't just about the president. The Republican Party as a whole is playing a key role here in advancing the brittleness of American democracy right now.

Let me just read to you briefly a quote that was recently reported in the Washington Post. They quoted Josh Holmes, who's an outside advisor to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. And Holmes said this. He said, quote, 'The divide in the party is whether it's appropriate to pull the pin on an electoral college grenade, hoping that there are enough responsible people standing around who can shove it back in before they detonate American democracy.' Do you think the GOP, right now, Secretary Cohen, is a party that believes in democratic governance?

COHEN: I believe that there are those within the Republican Party who are leaning in and supporting an autocratic form of government. There are still very staunch patriots, strong Republicans, strong conservatives who are principled. When you think of the ten members who supported this letter, it was initiated by Dick Cheney. Dick Cheney is a principled conservative who believes in the rule of law. I believe Donald Rumsfeld also believes in the rule of law.

You go down, Chuck Hagel, also a conservative from Nebraska who believes in the rule of law, who served in the military. And you go down the list and see the philosophical spectrum represented by those 10 people. And you say that they're Republicans. There are Democrats there. But we all believe in the fundamental rule of law that is the center of us as a country.

As far as the Republican Party is concerned, I have suggested that perhaps there needs to be another party. Because there are those on the Hill right now, Ben Sasse, I can point to other young members of Congress, in the Senate who believe in the rule of law. Who are conservatives, but believe in the conservative principles. And the conservative principles mean ... abiding by the rule-of-law. And not seeking to evade it, to bend it, to twist it, to even violate it in order to achieve a goal. That notion that 'by all means necessary' should not be part of the Republican philosophy. To the extent that it becomes so, it is no longer a Republican Party, but the Trump Party, a cult more than a party.

MEGHNA: Today, we are speaking with former Secretary of Defense William Cohen. He served as the head of the Pentagon from 1997 to 2001. Prior to that, he was Republican senator from Maine from 1979 to 1997 and served several terms, many terms as a congressman from Maine's 2nd District before his Senate service as well. And we are talking to him about the president, about the United States military and about the future of American democracy.

And Secretary Cohen, for a moment, if you might, just listen with me to a question that listener Jackie, from Rockport, Connecticut, called with. She actually had a specific question for Secretary Hagel, who we heard from earlier in the show. And Jackie's stepfather, uncles and several friends have served in the U.S. military. She herself is not. But she was wondering about the growing prevalence, what she thinks is the growing prevalence of far right and extreme views in the lower ranks of the military.

JACKIE: “This ties very closely into the message and supporters of Donald Trump. So I'd like to know Secretary Hagel's views on the fact that the military has changed over the last 30 years and how that change can possibly impact their supporting Donald Trump and if he asks for them to get involved in the election.”

MEGHNA: And yesterday when we spoke with Chuck Hagel, here's how he answered that.

HAGEL: “Our military, these great men and women who dedicate their lives to our country, the security of our country, are no different in one way than all Americans. They look to their leaders for direction. And when you have leaders trying to politicize every element of our government, of everything, including dismantling our civil service process and our civil service system to take politics out of a government career, government employees, the military will not be untouched by that.”

MEGHNA: Now, Secretary Cohen. The reason why I thought it was important to touch on that is our conversation thus far has sort of been dwelling within the realm of Pentagon leadership. What would you say to Jackie’s question about sort of the rank and file in the military?

COHEN: Well, I think that Chuck Hagel was addressing that question. People in the military come from us and they bring all of their history, their experience and their philosophy to the military. What the military seeks to do is to break down the notion of individuality and focus upon the support of your unit, your company, your division, et cetera. Part of the military is to make you understand that you are part of a larger team.

So in the process of that, you hope that you develop the core values that make a great soldier and one who follows orders to be sure, who is intelligent, adaptable, adaptive to a situation that he or she may be confronted with but are loyal to the Constitution, notwithstanding whatever philosophical differences they may have with the political structure. There are many members in the military who are Republicans and support the president as a Republican. There are also many who are Republicans who don't. So it really depends upon what Chuck Hagel is saying.

It depends upon leadership coming from the top. And when you have a man like Donald Trump who sent the signal out that Barack Obama was not to be trusted or followed because he was not born in the United States, and he promoted the notion of birtherism, once again calling into question the legitimacy of the president of the United States. And he has continued that in his own policies, most of it focused on what Obama did rather than what he is doing. And trying to dismantle everything Obama did because Obama was not legitimate. And so he started out by saying that, ‘I am going to take and dismantle everything this man did because he was illegal.’

Now, he took the position in 2016, ‘If I don't win, the election was rigged.’ And he said the same thing for 2020. ‘If I don't win, it's rigged.’ So he's constantly putting that out there. And there are those in the military, I think they're a relatively small number who come to that same conclusion, ‘My God, the thing is being rigged against us here. We are fighting and willing to die for our country, but we have an illegitimate process.’ That's very dangerous. I don't think it is at all widespread, but it's something that other militaries are now encountering. In Germany, for example, they're finding far-right neo-Nazis coming back into their military. So it does start at the top. And when the signal is at the top that the elections are rigged, that's going to have a very negative impact upon those in our general society, not to mention those in the military.

MEGHNA: Well, we have about ten minutes left to go, Secretary Cohen. And I want to use that time to have you reflect with us on American history and how it should help us understand where this nation is right now. But first of all, and briefly, just to be clear, I mean, a few days ago on CNN, I believe you said that the United States is standing on the abyss of the destruction of our democracy. Is that what you think?

COHEN: Indeed. I think to the extent that we have a president who has the support of 74 million voters who abide by every wish, whim and material statement that he makes and is now dragging us through this process where he went to the voters and the voters rejected him, he went to the courts and the courts rejected them. He went to the governors and the secretaries of state of those states that they rejected him.

He's now going at the last minute to the members of Congress who are trying to do whatever they can to open up and reelect, have another reelection. And then there's the threat of the military. And if we continue to proceed down this path of giving autocratic power to the president and he believes he has autocratic power, he believes that there are no rules that he is bound by. It wasn't impeach[able.]. He can't be charged with a crime.

He's the head of the Justice Department, the military, the head of our intelligence, the head of the State Department, and he believes that his power is unencumbered by any rules. That takes us down a path toward a dictatorship or an autocracy in which one person rules. And if we ever forgo abiding by the rule of law, we're then under the law of rule and we have individuals in power who will arrest their political enemies and pardon their political friends. And we've seen that take place with this president in pardoning individuals who have not admitted any wrongdoing and paid no penalty. And yet ordering his attorney general to charge individuals with crimes for political purposes. That takes you pretty close to a non-democratic society, an autocratic one.

MEGHNA: Well, you mentioned the 74 million Americans who voted for Donald Trump in November, and you just said that they abide by his every whim. I would actually add more texture to that. I would say that despite those whims, those autocratic whims of the president, they support him nevertheless, or at least cast their vote for him. That's an important subtlety, which deserves a lot more time to explore, which unfortunately we don't have.

Because there's something else that I wanted to get to with you, Secretary Cohen. And that's the fact that I just wonder how strong the echoes of history are ringing in your ears right now, because in 1974, you were serving as a Republican congressman for the second district of Maine in the House of Representatives. And this was, of course, during the impeachment hearings of President Richard Nixon. And you were one of the few Republicans to buck the party and ultimately voted to impeach Nixon. And so I just wanted to play a part of your opening statement at the Judiciary Committee hearing on July 29, 1974.

COHEN archival tape: “That, ladies and gentlemen of this committee is not only contrary to the spirit of our Constitution, it's also contrary to the law, as stated in the cases of the [U.S. vs. Colson]: A man cannot set attack dogs loose with general instructions to stop and destroy leaks at any cost and then say that he is not responsible when the constitutional rights of citizens are shredded in the process.”

MEGHNA: That's William Cohen as a congressman on July 29th, 1974.

COHEN: Well, I sounded like a young boy there.

MEGHNA: And you were. But how resonant is that time today? How would you compare that to Watergate and what you're talking about now?

COHEN: This is much worse than Watergate. Richard Nixon, in the final analysis, he believed in our institutions. And when the Supreme Court ruled that he had to turn over the tapes, he did. And when members of his party, from Barry Goldwater to Hugh Scott and others, John Rhodes, went to him and said, ‘Mr. President, you're going to be impeached in the House and you'll be convicted in the Senate.’ He stepped down. And so Nixon, whatever his faults, and there were many, understood that he had broken the law, he is now being exposed for it and he had an obligation to leave. With President Trump — he recognizes no wrongdoing. He has no intention of leaving. It may take the jaws of life to pry him out of the White House, but he does not feel he has done anything wrong.

And I've raised this issue, it really is troubling to think that people say, 'Well, he made these calls, but he believes that the election has been fraudulent.' Despite all of the evidence, the court rulings, the certification of all the votes, the most secure voting system we've had in recent memory. Despite all that, he believes that it's been fraudulent. Well, that tells you something if a person believes the unreality or the falsity of the statements, that tells you that something is wrong with him, that he is not qualified to serve as president.

If he's living in a different world where fiction is taking precedence over fact, then we're living in a world in which the United States doesn't recognize the truth from falsity. And so to me, it would require him to be removed from the president and invoke the 25th Amendment. Long past time for that now. But anyone who functions in a different universe in terms of fact and fiction doesn't belong in the White House. And being the most powerful man in the world, with the military capability and power that we have.

MEGHNA: Well, there could be other things that could be done, though. I mean, and again, looking to the Watergate era, if I understand correctly, James Schlesinger, who was Nixon's own secretary of defense at the time, didn't he put out an advisory near the end of Watergate that any order to use nuclear weapons from Nixon would have to be first checked with Schlesinger?

COHEN: Yes, he did. And that could be done here as well. Then you go down the list and say, 'Well, Schlesinger could have been removed from office.' He wasn't, because Nixon would not go that far. But, you know, the president can remove the acting secretary tomorrow. If acting secretary Miller would say, 'I'm sorry, I can't abide by that order.' The president could say, 'OK, you're out.' And then we get somebody else who will fill that position, go down the line to get somebody to say OK. Now, I don't think that's going to happen, but that's the power of the president of the United States.

And that's why we have to really take care when we elect and vote to elect a president, we look carefully at his character and his competence. At his past record, his past behavior, to say, is this the responsible person to have in his hands or her hands? This power to bring about destruction or to bring about improvement in our lives? It's really important that we make a clear judgment, a clear assessment of the character because character counts. Character, as John McCain reflected on so many occasions, it really does matter. And what John McCain did while he was a senator mattered, what Howard Baker did as a senator mattered. These are people who ran for the presidency. They didn't make it, but certainly their character was on display during that time.

MEGHNA: Yeah. You know, it occurs to me that among the many differences between Watergate and now is, you know, in hearing the young William Cohen speak out, I don't imagine that — did you have any fear of being virtually excommunicated from the Republican Party when you spoke then? Because there are endless numbers of Republicans now who will speak off the record about their concerns but won't do it on the record because of that exact fear.

COHEN: Well, I was trained as a lawyer. And my goal in going to Congress as a young congressman was to make life better for the people I represented, and I had spent half my time as a lawyer prosecuting cases and have defended cases. And so the rule of law was really important to me. And I had no concern about what that might mean for my future. And I was basically excommunicated from the party leadership as such. A young congressman or senator wants to move up in seniority and have more influence.

And I was pretty much told that my future was limited and that was OK. That was OK with me, because I had spent all of those weeks and months listening to the tapes, reviewing the Watergate hearings, knowing the evidence as if I were prosecuting the case. And so I felt comfortable that I knew what was right and what was wrong. And I knew that the president had violated his oath. I knew he had abused his power and obstructed justice. And I had no qualms about casting that vote. I had been threatened. My life, my family had been threatened, but I was determined to do the right thing.

This transcript has been edited in parts for clarity.

From The Reading List

Washington Post: "All 10 living former defense secretaries: Involving the military in election disputes would cross into dangerous territory" — "As former secretaries of defense, we hold a common view of the solemn obligations of the U.S. armed forces and the Defense Department. Each of us swore an oath to support and defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic. We did not swear it to an individual or a party."

New York Times: "When It Comes to Republican Defectors, Current Crisis Is No Watergate" — "When William S. Cohen, a young Republican House member from Maine, broke with his party over Watergate and joined Democrats in demanding the Nixon White House tapes in 1973, he figured his fledgling political career was dead."

CNN: "Ex-Defense Secretary Cohen says 'we are standing on the abyss of the destruction of our democracy'" — "The US is 'standing on the abyss of the destruction of our democracy,' former Defense Secretary William Cohen said Monday night, as President Donald Trump and his allies in Congress try to overturn the results of a free and fair election."

Politico: "Trump pressures Pence to throw out election results — even though he can't" — "President Donald Trump pressured Vice President Mike Pence publicly on Tuesday to reject the results of the Electoral College when they come before Congress on Wednesday, part of Trump's doomed-to-fail, last-ditch effort to overturn President-elect Joe Biden's victory."

USA Today: "Trump courts 'bloodshed, riots' with inflammatory rhetoric, former Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel says" — "Former Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel warned of 'bloodshed and riots' after President Donald Trump's latest attempt to overturn the election."

New York Times: "Republicans, Fearing Trump’s Wrath, Splinter Over Bid to Overturn Election" — "Republican divisions deepened on Monday over an effort to overturn President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s victory, as lawmakers weighed their fear of alienating President Trump and his supporters against the consequences of voting to reject a democratic election."

This program aired on January 6, 2021.


Headshot of Dorey Scheimer

Dorey Scheimer Senior Editor, On Point
Dorey Scheimer is a senior editor at On Point.


Headshot of Meghna Chakrabarti

Meghna Chakrabarti Host, On Point
Meghna Chakrabarti is the host of On Point.



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