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Former Defense Sec. William Cohen on partisanship and impeachment evidence

Former Rep. William Cohen was among a handful of Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee in 1974 to vote for the impeachment of President Nixon. Cohen later served as secretary of defense under President Clinton, who was impeached during that time. Former Sec. Cohen joins Judy Woodruff to discuss his unique perspective on impeachment as President Trump’s Senate trial dawns.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Before we look ahead to the political stakes of the upcoming impeachment trail, we want to step back to listen to lessons of the past.

    William Cohen offers a unique perspective. He was among a handful of Republicans on the U.S. House Judiciary Committee to vote in 1974 for the impeachment of President Nixon. He went on to serve as secretary of defense for President Clinton, which turned out to be during his impeachment.

    And Secretary Cohen joins me now.

    Bill Cohen, thank you very much for being here.

  • William Cohen:

    Good to be with you.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, you have been asked this question 1,000 times.

    You're a freshman member of Congress. You're serving in the Judiciary Committee. How hard was it to go against your party and vote to impeach President Nixon?

  • William Cohen:

    Well, people tend to forget, it was very partisan back in 1974 as well.

    Tensions were high. Passions were certainly high as well. There were bomb threats, death threats, a lot going on.

    But it wasn't as deep and angry as it is today, and we didn't have social media back then, and we didn't have FOX News back then. I think the combination of FOX and social media has contributed to driving us even further apart, making us angrier than we were even in the past.

    So it's a different atmosphere. It's difficult for members of Congress to go against President Trump. He punishes anyone who criticizes him. And even his own intelligence community, his own — our institutions are being politicized on a regular basis, from looking at the intelligence community, looking at the military, looking at the Justice Department.

    You can go through all of the institutions, and anyone who disagrees with him is publicly shamed. And so it's more difficult for members today to go against him, and there aren't as many — quote — "moderates" left in the Republican Party to make a difference.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, it was — you're saying — I'm reading between the lines, but you're saying it was hard for you, but you're saying it would be harder today?

    I know it's impossible to compare exactly these cases against President Nixon, against President Clinton, and now President Trump, but how do you see the strength of these cases against each one of these presidents, President Trump compared to the others?

  • William Cohen:

    Well, if you look at President Nixon, what was he — what did he do to abuse his office? He suborned perjury, paid hush money.

    He used the CIA to interfere with the FBI. He created an enemies list. So, you look at the actions he took, they were directed toward making sure that he was going to cover up the misdeeds done by the plumbers.

    With respect to President Trump, he has also engaged in similar-type conduct, namely, to try to cover up what, in fact, he did, in the way of trying to force a foreign government to engage in activity that would help him politically.

    So he's using the political process, his power as the president of the United States, to use it for a personal goal. And that is, to me, an impeachable offense. I think the evidence is there now, but I think many of the members of the Senate want to have more evidence.

    I don't think the rules are going to be put in place or have been put in place that will allow much flexibility.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And that's what I want to ask you about, because, right now, Republicans are in the majority. They have a narrow majority, but are they going to be willing to — some of them, enough of them, do you think, to agree to witnesses, to agree to allow more evidence?

  • William Cohen:

    Well, that remains to be seen.

    I think all of those who are not in primarily red states really are in a more difficult position. I think the only advice I give to them is, do what you think is right. Listen to the evidence. If there are any questions you need to raise, call the witnesses to clarify them.

    I look at it from a — as a person who prosecuted cases and who defended cases. And, to me, the evidence is very clear. When you look at what the president did in his perfect phone call, I believe it was perfectly corrupt. I believe it was very clear what he had in mind in terms of, "I need a favor, though," having put in place his attorney and others to do all the work necessary to remove the professionals who would say, Mr. President, this is not right.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But do you believe right now that some of the Republicans we're looking at, whether it's Susan Collins, who worked for you when you were in the United States Senate, went on to succeed you in the Senate, whether it's Mitt Romney or any of the other Republicans, are going to vote, ultimately, for witnesses and potentially even to impeach?

  • William Cohen:

    I don't know.

    But I think I think they have to consider the consequences. They may say and listen to the Republicans on this saying, well, it's — number one, the evidence isn't there. We obstructed the evidence or the president obstructed the evidence, but the evidence isn't there.

    Number two, if the evidence is there, it's not an impeachable offense. Number three, we think that you have exceeded your authorities and never should have begun the investigation.

    You have all of those issues. Ultimately, if they vote, in my judgment, to say, we don't need additional witnesses, I think more evidence is going to come out. It will be quite damning and damaging. And then they will be called upon by their constituents and say, well, why didn't you go forward and ask for at least more evidence, so that you would at least be informed, so we could be informed?

    Now, they will have to deal with that, and that's up to them.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, when they swore — they were sworn an oath by the chief justice, John Roberts, who said, do you swear to deliver unpartial, impartial — I'm sorry — impartial justice, can — will they do that, in your view?

  • William Cohen:

    I don't know.

    All I know is, they have to say to themselves that, I have an obligation. I have taken this oath. I believe in the Constitution. I believe this is a constitutional issue. I believe that the president was either right or wrong. He either had innocent intent or he had corrupt intent.

    Based on his past performance — and here, I would go back — just look at the record. Whenever any official went against the president, he fired them or forced their resignation.

    And so it's clear to me that, by his actions, the intent is clear. And when you look at that phone call, and you look what Zelensky is now saying in terms of the effort made to get — I'm sorry.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    The president of Ukraine.

  • William Cohen:

    I'm sorry — the witness Parnas to say that, we need Zelensky to say this on the record, that he will initiate a public investigation, then I think it becomes very clear what the president had in mind and what he was trying to do.

    And that is to use his office to achieve a corrupt purpose, namely, taxpayers' money to enforce and reinforce his support for the reelection.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Former Defense Secretary William Cohen, thank you.

  • William Cohen:

    My pleasure.

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