|November 07, 2019|
How a former senator and defense secretary explains Republican spinelessness
|"I think it's either fear or complicity." That is how former Maine Republican senator and secretary of defense William S. Cohen tries to explain Republicans' subservience to President Trump and willful disregard for replete evidence of corruption. "It's predominantly fear. He will target them," Cohen tells me in a phone interview Wednesday afternoon.|
He points to Trump's public declaration that four congresswomen of color should "fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came" and "go back" home. Trump, in Cohen's eyes, "put a target on their back." He also cites Marie Yovanovitch, the former ambassador to Ukraine who was told her safety was at risk when she was ordered back to the United States, and the recent conviction of a woman caught sending white powder to Cohen's former staffer, Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine). Cohen, in other words, thinks there is more than the threat of an errant tweet. The prospect of actual physical harm cannot be ignored.
Cohen also says some Republicans are happy with Trump so they bend over backward to protect him. "They may just argue that he is a disrupter," he said. He cites Trump's decision to take on China, albeit in "totally the wrong way."
Cohen has no doubt that Trump has abused his power and committed impeachable acts. He starts with Trump's public accusations and threats against lawmakers. "Certainly that's an abuse of power. There's nothing like the president basically inciting attacks." Trump does this, Cohen says, when he suggests a "civil war" would occur if he were ousted. "Now we have people walking around with AR-15s and AK-47s. What are we doing here?"
Cohen talks in terms Republicans rarely do these days. He sees the presidency as a fiduciary role, a position of trust. "We hold fiduciaries to a higher standard than we do anyone else," he explains. "Power must be entrusted to someone, but no one can be trusted with power." Hence, we have our checks and balances. For Cohen, Trump's conduct unquestionably is impeachable. "It's not a close call for me," he says.
On Ukraine and Trump's holdup of aid to extract election fodder, Cohen says, "I think it was perfectly corrupt." He suggests that this is part of a pattern we have seen ever since Trump demanded that then-FBI director James B. Comey pledge personal loyalty. "We're on the road to tyranny if people don't step up," Cohen says bluntly.
On Russia more generally, Cohen says, Russian President Vladimir Putin "wants to reconstruct the former Soviet Union under a Russian flag." Everything from Trump supporting Brexit (weakening the European Union) to his raising doubts about NATO to his "undermining the CIA" by siding with Putin serves Putin's interests. Cohen thinks the answer may lie "in those tax returns" Trump is hellbent on keeping secret.
Cohen, who still travels the world and speaks to business and government leaders, says, "We're still number one in terms of power, but our credibility and trustworthiness is called into question" when other countries see that Trump was ready to endanger Ukraine. "There is less fear of the United States, but also less admiration," he says glumly. And it's that moral authority, not just military power, that allows the United States to influence events in the world, Cohen notes.
In his mind, the impeachment process has been handled correctly, keeping witnesses from syncing up their testimony. "They have to do what the special prosecutor in Watergate did," he says, recalling the long period of private meetings and interviews before Watergate's public hearings. "I think if you took a vote now in the Senate, all but one or two ... virtually all would acquit," he surmises. "But we are still a long way to go." He thinks it is possible that upon hearing the witnesses the public's attitude may shift, and when voters shift so will some Republicans.
As for Collins, he says: "She is very methodical. She's not as liberal as people think. She's a moderate Republican. I think what she will do is go through all the evidence and do what she thinks is right." Maine is an odd state --- half rural and conservative, half urban and liberal. He concedes, "It's a no-win situation for her whatever she does."
I couldn't help but observe that there is no Republican, not a one, in the Senate who is as thoughtful, measured or informed about the world as Cohen. The Senate, he acknowledges, has lost a lot of power, in large part because it has given up power, as we've seen with Trump's evasion of confirmation for top officials. However, it has also lost power, from my vantage point, because the quality of men and women in that body has gone downhill precipitously since Cohen was there. I'm not optimistic it can regain some former luster by behaving responsibly in the impeachment process.