After an extremely negative campaign, President-elect Donald Trump will take office with two unusual and serious issues hanging over him. For Congress, controlled by Republicans, to seriously address these concerns requires political courage from members of Trump’s party. Bangor native Bill Cohen, who served Maine in the U.S. House and Senate, provides a model for today’s politicians.
One odd but very important matter is that Trump’s global business enterprises present conflicts of interest galore. Trump owes money to the Bank of China. Brazil is investigating a Trump business for bribing bank officials to get loans that didn’t meet criteria for fiscal responsibility; now the loans may not be repaid, leading pension funds to lose workers’ money. A special envoy to the United States from the Philippines is a business partner of Trump. Turkey’s autocratic President Recep Tayyip Erdogan backed away from demanding Trump remove his name from a building after Trump said he approved of Erdogan repressing political dissidents.
Foreign nations’ special behavior toward Trump businesses that lead to money flowing to the president and his family are not only inherently unethical, but also hurt other business owners and undermine the United States’ efforts to stand against international corruption. Even more, according to the Constitution’s Emoluments Clause, presidents are prohibited from getting favors from foreign countries.
If Trump does not remove himself from these conflicts, something he doesn’t seem inclined to do, elected officials must push him to do so and determine if and how Trump is unconstitutionally making money due to foreign governments. Bribery is an impeachable act.
Legislators should investigate a second atypical issue, the involvement of a foreign power in the campaign aimed at helping Trump and undermining Hillary Clinton.
While this sounds like something out of a spy novel, Vice President-elect Mike Pence acknowledged that Russia meddled in the campaign. Admiral Michael Rogers, who heads the National Security Agency, said, “This was a conscious effort by a nation-state to attempt to achieve a specific effect.”
Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a member of the Armed Services Committee on which Maine Sen. Angus King also sits, said Congress should investigate. King and Sen. Susan Collins both sit on the Intelligence Committee, another body that could oversee a probe.
The congressional career of Cohen epitomizes the independence and courage needed to check Trump and hold him accountable.
When Cohen first arrived in Washington, D.C., in 1973 as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, he stepped into history as a member of the committee investigating Watergate.
President Richard Nixon won a true landslide in 1972, with his opponent George McGovern only winning Massachusetts and the District of Columbia. Nixon’s crimes, uncovered afterward, included targeting political opponents, bribery and obstruction of justice.
Some key information about these crimes came from recordings from a White House taping system. Nixon tried to release partial transcripts. Cohen, a fellow Republican, did not accept the transcripts as adequate. He later voted for impeachment.
As Cohen wrote of his experience with the Watergate scandal, “Each of us, by a force of circumstances beyond our desire or control, was placed on a high wire that was strung between disloyalty to party and disloyalty to principle.”
When the Reagan administration was being investigated for flouting the Congress and the Constitution in the Iran-contra scandal, then-Sen. Cohen again stood up for presidential accountability.
This principled legacy is needed again.
In the summer 1973 a young Susan Collins was an intern for Bill Cohen during the Watergate probe. Sen. Collins recently recounted, “It was an important lesson, and a similar one that Margaret Chase Smith’s example taught me, to stand tall for what you believe in, no matter what the consequences may be.”
Besides overseeing and investigating the executive branch, the Senate votes on executive branch nominations and federal judgeships. Republicans have held open many judgeships, including a Supreme Court seat, during the Obama administration. The judiciary serves as a key check on a president’s power, so Senate votes on judges are an important part of determining whether Trump can be restrained.
Collins, who did not vote for Trump and opposes a ban on Muslims, is among a small set of Senate Republicans most likely to act independently to provide a check on soon-to-be President Trump’s conflicts, nominations and policy ideas.