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A Former Defense Secretary Reflects On The Resignation Of The Incumbent


Another week in which any number of stories could begin this hour - the partial shutdown of the U.S. government, the averted sentencing of a former national security adviser, the tanking stock market. We'll get to all of them, but let's begin with the resignation of General James Mattis, the secretary of defense. It's caused an uproar at the Pentagon and on both sides of the aisle in Congress.

Former Secretary of Defense William Cohen joins us now. Secretary Cohen, thanks so much for being with us.

WILLIAM COHEN: Good morning. Nice to be with you, Scott.

SIMON: And I know that you are close with Secretary Mattis. May we ask, have you spoken with him? Could you give us any insight into his thinking?

COHEN: I spoke with him the night before his - he offered his resignation. We did not talk about resignation. I had called him - in fact, it was the first time I've called him in two years. I have - we have a good friendship, but I made it a policy not to try - in any way have a long-standing line of communication with him directly.

So anyway, I did call him the night before his resignation. I asked him whether or not it was true - what I had just heard - that the president had ordered the immediate withdrawal of our forces out of Syria. And during that time, he expressed to me that he was really upset, that this was a policy in disarray. There was no consultation with our allies. There was no forewarning. And basically, the president just decided to make it on an impromptu basis.

Now, it's not inconsistent with what the president had promised, but the manner in which it was done and the timing is certainly what's curious.

SIMON: Secretary Mattis says the president deserves a secretary of defense who is aligned with him. Having been in so many different positions in government, do you agree with that, or is there something to be said for having a secretary of defense who can bring dissident views to the table?

COHEN: In this particular case - basically, when you serve in the president's cabinet, you want to have some, certainly, philosophical alignment with the president. Your position is not there to counteract him on each and every decision or on every major decision, so there should be a compatibility of philosophy. I know when I served with President Clinton, we had a couple of meetings, and we sat down and simply explored our respective philosophies about the role of the United States in the world. And so that - he felt comfortable with me, and I shared a view that seemed to be sympathetic with his, and it was a good relationship.

But by the same token, as secretary of defense, my job was to represent the department and to challenge the president on issues privately - on issues that I might disagree with him. They were very few and far between, and we had a wonderful relationship.

But the point is the president is in charge. He was elected. The secretary of defense is not. It comes a point when your views so diverge dramatically that you can no longer carry out your responsibility to serve the president. You say, Mr. President, I've got to resign.

And so I think he is right. Secretary Mattis was absolutely right to say that the president was entitled to someone who had a compatible worldview. And it's clear that Secretary Mattis did not have the same view and share the same view of disengaging from world affairs and bringing everybody back home - in this particular case, those in Syria.

SIMON: Secretary Cohen, I have to ask you. Before you were a senator, you were a freshman on the House Judiciary Committee that voted to impeach President Nixon. Let me put you on the spot. Do you see any cause in any of the recent revelations about the president paying hush money or personal finances or alleged ties to Russia to warrant that kind of action now?

COHEN: Well, I think once the Mueller report comes out, it'll lay out all of the facts in a very systematic way. But I would say that obstruction of justice is something that will be high on the list, as far as I'm concerned. The notion that the president would fire an attorney general and the FBI director for failing to close a case - an investigation into the national security adviser. There were a series of steps that were taken that, I think, violate the law. And I think that those should be laid out, and they will be laid out.

Whether there's sufficient votes in the Senate's another matter. But I think that the American people deserve to hear the full story of whether or not there is, in fact, corruption, whether or not the Russians have undue influence with the president.

And I think until such time, as it's clear what the president's business interests are and have been and what the Russian connection to them is and why - the failure of the president to criticize in any way after we've been attacked by the Russians - I think all of that needs to be laid out and then the decision be made as to whether it amounts to high crimes or misdemeanors.

SIMON: William Cohen, thanks very much for being with us.

COHEN: Sure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.