William S. Cohen: In this time of stress, we must cling to our American principles and virtues

In a column for The Maine Monitor, the former senator and defense secretary says, “We cannot accept the proposition that a president of the United States cannot be charged with a crime while he is in or out of office.”
A U.S. flag waves in the wind
Photo by Noah Wulf/Wikimedia Commons.

Fifty years ago, the Watergate scandal engulfed President Richard Nixon and then forced him to resign in disgrace or risk being convicted of impeachable offenses. Congressional investigations discovered that Nixon, in the effort to conceal what was first described as a “third-rate burglary,” paid “hush money” to the burglars to purchase their silence; suborned the perjury of witnesses before federal officials; planned to use the IRS to target those on his enemies list; and attempted to use the CIA to interfere with the FBI’s investigation. In sum, he had obstructed justice and abused the power of his high office.

There was then (as there is now) deep political divisions in the country. Bomb threats were made to shut down congressional hearings and some members received death threats. Many who constituted Nixon’s core supporters insisted he was the victim of a partisan witch hunt orchestrated by a biased national media. They claimed that Nixon was, “our president, right or wrong.” Fortunately, those appeals were rejected by leaders who placed loyalty to the Constitution and the rule of law above partisan allegiance.

Fast forward to today. The Jan. 6 Select Committee has produced compelling evidence that former President Donald Trump participated in a multilayered corrupt effort to overturn the election he lost, culminating in inspiring (possibly conspiring with) a mob of armed insurrectionists to march to the United States Capitol to prevent the certification of the votes cast in the 2020 presidential election.

According to sworn testimony given to the Committee, Trump remained in the White House’s private dining room for nearly three hours, watching the attack on television and refusing to call off his supporters or send in help to defend the Capitol. As a result of the violent attack, several police officers died, and hundreds of others were wounded and traumatized. The world watched with alarm that the lamp of liberty was possibly on the verge of being snuffed out.

Unlike Republican leaders during the Watergate years, few have been willing to criticize the former president for his actions and his decision not to act at a time of great need. Even more stunning was the revelation that some of those willing to denounce Trump’s words and deeds announced they will vote for him again should he be the Republican Party’s nominee for the presidency.

Admittedly, powerful forces of change and disruption in recent years have altered the current political environment, causing fear, anxiety and social confusion among the American people. The 9/11 terrorist attacks, two foreign wars, financial crises, pandemics, climate change, the surge of racism and anti-Semitism have shaken our confidence in our ability to control our destiny.

But it is precisely in times of national and personal stress that we need to cling to the principles and virtues that have made America that “shining city on a hill.” We need to remain a land of law led by leaders who swear their allegiance to the Constitution, and who refuse to yield to those who traffic in hate, sow mad hatter conspiracies, or seek to gain and hold onto power at the end of a gun barrel or a bomb.

And we need to hold accountable those to whom we entrust our liberties and lives, including presidents of the United States and other officials when they breach our faith.

The Justice Department is now proceeding with an investigation into the possible criminality of those who attempted to prevent the peaceful transfer of presidential power, the very hallmark of a democratic nation.

Unlike his predecessor, President Biden has made it clear that he will not interfere with the independence of the Justice Department. This is as it should be, lest Biden be seen as engaging in a punitive or preemptive strike against a former political opponent who now appears eager for a rematch.

Attorney General Merrick Garland is not eager to be the first Justice Department leader to consider holding a former president criminally accountable for his actions in attempting to subvert the Constitution. It might have been wiser for Garland to have appointed an Independent Counsel from the beginning of his tenure to remove any doubt that he will act on anything but powerful and persuasive factual evidence. As a former jurist, he established a reputation for absolute impartiality and fairness, and to date he has chosen to rest on his laurels.

Just as there were Republicans during the Watergate scandal who insisted that party loyalty was more important than the rule of law, there are now those who warn that proceeding against the former president “will tear this country apart.”

There is, indeed, a risk that civil strife and violence such as that we witnessed on Jan. 6 will be unleashed on a broader scale. But that is a risk that the attorney general, and we, must be willing to take if the facts leave no reasonable doubt as to guilt. We cannot accept the proposition that a president of the United States cannot be charged with a crime while he is in or out of office.

Yielding to the fear of a political backlash has a consequence far greater than facing it.



William S. Cohen

William S. Cohen is a former U.S. Senator and Secretary of Defense. Secretary Cohen, who represented Maine in the U.S. House and Senate, was a member of the House Judiciary Committee in the early 1970s, and was one of the first Republicans to break with his party and vote for the impeachment of President Richard Nixon.
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