Former SecDefs Call for Trump to 'Speak Out' or 'Step Down'

Former Secretary of Defense William Cohen speaks
Former Secretary of Defense William Cohen speaks prior to the lecture at the Collins Center in Bangor, Maine, Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2019. (Natalie Williams/The Bangor Daily News via AP)

As a mob infiltrated the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday, former Defense Secretary William Cohen, a Republican who served under President Bill Clinton, said President Donald Trump's Cabinet should remove him from office under the 25th Amendment.

During an interview with CNBC, Cohen excoriated the president, saying he has been "stoking this kind of violent action for four years at every one of [his] rallies" and should "step up or step down."

"He has been calling the mainstream press the 'enemies of the people.' Well, he has become an enemy of the people by calling upon them to go wild in Washington," Cohen told Shepard Smith in a telephone interview.

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"This man has abandoned hundreds of thousands of people dying on the battlefield of this disease, COVID-19. ... He was missing in action, AWOL and out playing golf ... without even uttering a word of compassion," Cohen said.

On Sunday, Cohen and the nine other living former defense secretaries penned an opinion piece in The Washington Post, saying the military had no role in supporting Trump's efforts to overturn the election.

Several former SecDefs made appearances this week on radio and television news to discuss the opinion piece, but on Wednesday, as chaos unfolded at the Capitol and protesters swarmed security to infiltrate the building, their words were even sharper.

"It's the most disturbing day in my life, to see the Capitol under siege," said Leon Panetta, who served as defense secretary under President Barack Obama, in an interview with CNBC. "The president needs to go to a microphone and speak not just to the American people but to those protesters and ask them to stand down. ... This is unacceptable behavior in our democracy."

Jim Mattis, who served as Trump's first defense secretary, released a statement Wednesday night saying the president had fomented the mob that had carried out a "violent assault" on the Capitol. The words were his sternest rebuke of the president to date.

"His use of the Presidency to destroy trust in our election and to poison our respect for fellow citizens has been enabled by pseudo political leaders whose names will live in infamy as profiles in cowardice," Mattis said.

The 25th Amendment outlines how a president can be removed from office by the vice president and the Cabinet if he or she is determined to be unable to carry out their duties.

Both Cohen and Panetta said the president encouraged the violence, including at a rally held earlier in the day when he urged supporters to walk to Congress, where the House and Senate had met to begin confirming the Electoral College results -- the final step in the election process that will hand the presidency to President-elect Joe Biden.

"I can think of no greater failure by a commander in chief than to allow this kind of disturbance to continue and not try to stop it," Panetta said.

In their op-ed, the former Pentagon chiefs said the election was conducted fairly and the results have survived numerous court challenges alleging voter fraud.

"As senior Defense Department leaders have noted, 'There's no role for the U.S. military in determining the outcome of a U.S. election,'" the piece said, a likely reference to statements by Joint Chiefs Chairman Army Gen. Mark Milley that service members take an oath to the Constitution, not an individual.

"The time for questioning the results has passed; the time for the formal counting of the Electoral College votes, as prescribed in the Constitution and statute, has arrived," they wrote.

In a statement released Wednesday afternoon, Acting Secretary of Defense Christopher C. Miller did not mention the president when discussing the situation at the Capitol and a request from the city of Washington, D.C., to call up the National Guard.

"Chairman Milley and I just spoke separately with the Vice President and with Speaker [Nancy] Pelosi, Leader [Mitch] McConnell, Senator [Chuck] Schumer and Representative [Steny] Hoyer about the situation at the U.S. Capitol," Miller said. "We have fully activated the D.C. National Guard to assist federal and local law enforcement as they work to peacefully address the situation. We are prepared to provide additional support as necessary and appropriate as requested by local authorities. Our people are sworn to defend the Constitution and our democratic form of government, and they will act accordingly."

In addition to Panetta, Cohen and Mattis, the Post op-ed was authored by former secretaries Mark Esper, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Chuck Hagel, Robert Gates, William Perry and Ashton Carter.

During a radio interview Tuesday with WBUR's On Point in Boston, Hagel, a Republican who served as defense secretary from 2013 to 2015, urged military personnel to "stay above it all."

"You cannot allow yourself to be degraded in any way by partisanship and politics," he said. "Because you're better than that."

In a rare public statement, former President George W. Bush decried what he called the "insurrection at the Capitol" and chided the "reckless behavior of some political leaders."

"This is how election results are disputed in a banana republic -- not our democratic republic. ... The violent assault on the Capitol -- and disruption of a Constitutionally-mandated meeting of Congress -- was undertaken by people whose passions have been inflamed by falsehoods and false hopes," Bush said.

Trump released a video Wednesday afternoon urging his followers to "go home," yet he continued to maintain in the video that the election was "stolen" from him and he did, in fact, win.

As night fell and a curfew was instituted across Washington, D.C., and its suburbs, calls continued to grow to remove Trump from office.

"Tonight, I am asking Vice President Pence to invoke the 25th Amendment and begin the process of removing President Trump from office," said Rep. Lucy McBath, D-Ga. "The eyes of the world are upon us, and the President's incitement of violence, his inducement of chaos, and his inability to faithfully 'discharge the powers and duties of his office' make it clear. The President has refused to protect our democracy and must be removed."

Perry -- through a spokeswoman -- declined to comment for this story; the remaining secretaries did not respond by publication.

-- Patricia Kime can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @patriciakime

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