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Former defense secretary urges top brass to resign or resist questionable Trump orders

All 10 living former secretaries of defense signed a column published in The Washington Post on Sunday that urged the Trump administration to allow a peaceful transition of power and to keep the Pentagon out of it. One of the signatories was William Cohen, a former Republican senator who served as secretary of defense under President Bill Clinton. He joins Judy Woodruff to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    As if there weren't enough going on, all 10 living secretary — former secretaries of defense signed a column published in The Washington Post on Sunday that urged the Trump administration to allow a peaceful transition of power and to keep the Pentagon out of it.

    Among other points, it said that, if the military is involved, it would — quote — "take us into dangerous, unlawful and unconstitutional territory."

    The bipartisan group was responding to news reports that President Trump might employ the military to remain in power.

    One of the signatories, former secretary of Defense and former Senator William Cohen, joins me now.

    Senator William Cohen, Bill Cohen, thank you so much for being here.

    What made you decide this is something that you needed to do, to sign?

  • Sen. William Cohen:

    Well, as I have mentioned, each of us have our own reasons why we signed that letter, but the consensus was, there were enough signs worrying us that we felt compelled to put that letter out.

    For me, it was a culmination of things that the president has done. I have — he has, in my judgment at least, abused the military by using them for political purposes. The march through Lafayette Square was one of them, where he used the chairman of the Joint Chiefs and the secretary of defense to walk with him in his parade over to the church front, where he held up a Bible.

    There have been other instances, the use of paramilitary forces, undeclared U.S. government employees to shoot rubber bullets at the heads of protesters in Seattle, the call for the militias to stand down, but stand by, and then, basically, a call coming from Joe Biden — not a call personally to me, but a public declaration that Joe Biden and his administration, to-be administration, were not giving — getting sufficient information, that information was being withheld from them.

    And then you had the surfacing, at least, of an allegation about martial law being floated in the White House, and then Lieutenant General Flynn talking about it publicly. All of those certainly influenced my judgment that it was time for us to coalesce and say something about the duty of those in the Pentagon to make sure that they are not either used or abused in a way that would involve our military in our political system.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    I know that, among other things, there is concern about whether the president might invoke something called the Insurrection Act.

    Tell us very briefly what that is and what it would mean if the president did invoke it.

  • William Cohen:

    Well, it would mean that there was sufficient turmoil on our streets in the United States that were beyond the control of local officials, police and other state officials in each given state, and that it was important to call upon the military to help repress or suppress the violence.

    The danger here is that the president, on the political side, is saying, people are angry out there, people think fraud has been committed.

    Why? It's because the president of the United States is putting out a fraudulent statement, a false statement to make people angry, and then he can cite the anger as a reason why the vote should be challenged.

    The same thing applies here as far as the danger that the president might encourage people to commit violence in our street, and then use the violence as a reason to invoke the Insurrection Act.

    So, this is something we have to be very careful about watching what he does, what he's capable of. And we have seen there is no level too low to which he will stoop in order to stay in power.

    So, he's been to the people. The people have rejected him. He has been to the courts. The courts have rejected him. He's been to the governors. They have rejected him. And now he's going to Congress.

    And I think it's a very dangerous period of time for us, because we know, in the transition phase of our transition of power, it's very dangerous, where other countries try to take advantage of it.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Are our military leaders obligated to follow an order from the president, if he were to order them to step in somehow to help him hold on to power?

  • William Cohen:

    Those in the military are obligated to follow the orders of the commander in chief if they are legal, if they are ethical, and if they're constitutional.

    They have the right to walk away and say, Mr. President, we can't carry out this order, because they can be relieved of duty or be fired. But they are able to make that judgment, based upon their own assessment of the situation. They are highly educated, highly trained. They know what the intelligence is telling them what's on our streets and what's taking place in foreign capitals and elsewhere.

    So, they have the obligation to carry out a legitimate, authorized, legal order, but they also have the responsibility to make a judgment, saying, this is totally antithetical to my personal beliefs. I cannot carry this out in good conscience.

    Ordinarily, they would carry out the order, but it depends upon what the circumstances dictate.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    I'm asking in part because, today, the commander of U.S. nuclear weapons was asked if he would obey an order from the president to strike Iran's nuclear program. And he said he would follow any legal order he was given.

    So, trying — we're trying to understand what that means. I mean, this is Iran. It's a different move. But we are now in the waning days of this presidency and trying to understand what the military would be obligated to do.

  • William Cohen:

    Well, if the president gave a command to attack Iran, ordinarily, the officer in charge, from the secretary of defense through the commander, CENTCOM commander, would be obligated to carry that out.

    But that, again, requires those in the chain of command to make an assessment: Is this done for legitimate reasons? Is this something that's done for purely political opportunity? They could then refuse to carry out that order.

    You may recall back during the impeachment period with Richard Nixon. Secretary of Defense Jim Schlesinger put out the word that do not follow any order that involves using nuclear weapons until you check with me or Secretary Kissinger.

    And I would expect the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, who is not in the chain of command, I would expect the acting secretary of defense to do something quite similar to that.

    If the circumstances warrant, if Iran is doing something, attacking our forces in the region, obviously, the commander in chief is going to order a response to that, and a very serious one.

    So, I'm hoping that Iran doesn't do anything that is clearly stupid and give President Trump an opportunity, an opportunity he's looking forward to, to inflict damage upon Iran.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, finally, as a Republican, Secretary Cohen, in just a sentence, what is your reaction to the Republican senators who tomorrow will be challenging the electoral vote count?

  • William Cohen:

    Disappointed. That's the mildest word I could use.

    But I think they're not living up to their obligation, much as Vice President Pence is now being tortured, at least psychologically, on whether he's going to support President Trump or he's going to support the Constitution.

    There should be no question, his obligation to the Constitution. And I say that to the members of the Senate who are now trying to come up with this fraudulent allegation of — or allegation of fraudulent voting. I think that it's simply political in nature. I think they're taking a pass, knowing it's not going pass, so they can say, oh, we supported President Trump, and, therefore, we're the heirs of Trumpism going forward in 2024, if the president decides not to run.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Former Secretary of Defense, former Senator Bill Cohen, William Cohen, thank you very much for being with us.

  • William Cohen:

    Thank you, Judy.

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