Missing the integrity of Bill Cohen

When Bill Cohen watches the still-emerging scandals of the Trump campaign and administration, I wonder if he thinks of something Mark Twain supposedly said: “History doesn’t repeat itself but it often rhymes.”

Cohen became a senator and then secretary of defense. But at age 33, he found himself thrust into history as a first-term member of Congress. While Margaret Chase Smith is often seen as the Maine icon for political courage, through his responses to the Watergate scandals then-Rep. Cohen more than proved his mettle and integrity.

Former Defense Secretary, Senator and Representative Bill Cohen speaks during a panel including five of Maine’s current and former U.S. senators during the Maine State Chamber of Commerce annual dinner in 2016. Micky Bedell | BDN

The Watergate scandal involved more than the break-in to the Democratic National Committee office by people hired by President Richard Nixon’s reelection campaign. It included campaign finance contributions, hush money, offers of clemency to thwart the investigation, an effort to use the CIA to stop the FBI from investigating, targeting those deemed Nixon’s political enemies, persistent lying, and the firing of the special prosecutor.

After extensive hearings and investigations, in late July 1974, the House Judiciary Committee passed articles of impeachment focused on obstruction of justice, abuse of power and contempt of Congress.

As recounted in an article from that time, after one member of the committee tried to strip language about “material information” from investigators, “Rep. William Cohen (R-Maine) promptly began rattling off evidence to show that Mr. Nixon and his top aides had withheld such information.”

Cohen’s commitment to following the evidence wasn’t easy. As he told Steve Scully of C-SPAN a few years ago, “I was distressed throughout.” Because, said Cohen, “I knew it would be the most important decision I would be called upon to make,” “I tried to be as well-prepared as I could.”

The politics seemed tough for Cohen. In recounting events to Portland Press Herald reporter Colin Woodard last year, Cohen said,“I had thousands of letters coming in and Republicans were saying that they would never support me again.” “So it seemed very clear to me that I was a one-term congressman, and I was OK with that. I said, ‘I came here to do the right thing, and so be it.’”

Ultimately Cohen was to win re-election resoundingly in 1974, but he didn’t and couldn’t have known that when he took a stand for presidential accountability and the rule of law.

Cohen willingly took on that burden. As Cohen put it in 2014, “There was no alternative. We were the elected officials of the American people and we had a duty under the Constitution to measure whether the highest officer in the country had breached his duty.”

And now we have another set of unfolding presidential scandals that aren’t the same, don’t repeat, but could rhyme.

At the time of this writing, 19 people have been indicted as a result of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s probe, charged with conspiracy against the United States, financial crimes and lying to the investigators. After months of investigation, the FBI obtained warrants allowing them to seize evidence from President Donald Trump’s lawyer and fixer Michael Cohen’s office, home and hotel room.

Probes of Trump’s business dealings and payoffs to women raise questions about where the money came from and if it was properly disclosed.

Similar to Nixon’s lying and obstruction of justice, Trump fired FBI Director James Comey, helped draft a misleading statement about a meeting in Trump Tower with top campaign operatives and Russians, tried to stop individuals from recusing themselves, and dangled pardons.

Bill Cohen’s seat is currently held by fellow Republican Bruce Poliquin. Unlike Cohen, Poliquin isn’t on a committee focused on the investigation. Rather, Poliquin sits on the committee that oversees banks and investment institutions despite the district not being a center of the financial industry.

But this does not relieve Poliquin of his duty to hold the president accountable. Poliquin’s committee could investigate the potential financial crimes swirling around the Trump family and campaign. Moreover, a president trying to stop an investigation of himself and his coterie offends the constitutional principle that no one is above the law.Yet Poliquin has said almost nothing about Trump ever, even during the 2016 campaign.

Unless we have elected officials with the integrity of Bill Cohen, our democratic system is in danger. Here’s hoping someone steps forward and makes history rhyme.

Amy Fried

About Amy Fried

Amy Fried loves Maine's sense of community and the wonderful mix of culture and outdoor recreation. She loves politics in three ways: as an analytical political scientist, a devoted political junkie and a citizen who believes politics matters for people's lives. Fried is Professor of Political Science at the University of Maine. Her views do not reflect those of her employer or any group to which she belongs.