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William S. Cohen and William H. Webster: The reckless rage of the lawless

The Justice Department’s decision to execute a search warrant of former president Donald Trump’s Florida home was unprecedented in our nation’s history.

Prominent Republicans reacted with predictable fury and heated threats of retaliation against the attorney general – unprecedented acts of vitriol based on the belief that the FBI’s conduct was politically motivated rather than legally necessary.

In doing so, they recklessly and knowingly undermined respect for a “law and order” institution and the men and women who risk their lives to protect us.

We are confident that Attorney General Merrick Garland and FBI Director Christopher Wray, both honest and honorable men, gave careful consideration before authorizing a search of Trump’s residence, knowing the historical significance and potential for political backlash.

The controversy, while significant in its legal implications, should not be allowed to overshadow the far larger issues surrounding the conduct of the former president.

The House Select Committee investigating Jan. 6, 2021, has produced compelling evidence that Trump and his supporters engaged in an orchestrated six-step plan to prevent the peaceful transfer of power, culminating with the assault on our Capitol.

We share disgust and deep disappointment that the Republican Party’s decency and respect for the rule of law has been defined down to a cultish devotion to a demonstrably unprincipled man of greed and blind ambition.

Sadly, the task of rescuing the banner of conservatism has been left to Republican Reps. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, Adam Kinzinger of Illinois, Peter Meijer of Michigan and others who have been willing to fulfill their Pledge of Allegiance to our flag and Constitution. They have been noble exceptions to those who clutch their titles and sacrifice their honor; these heroes will likely be replaced with sycophants rather than serious legislators.

While the House committee’s focus is necessarily directed to recommending legislative measures to help preserve our democratic republic, we should not ignore what is at stake for America’s role in international affairs.

In November 2021, nearly 100 former national security officials, both civilians and military officers of both parties, signed a letter decrying the threats that the Trump presidency created for the United States internationally. “The insurrection on January 6th,” the letter stated, “has left other countries to wonder if the American Experiment is failing and if American democracy is the best path forward.”

Our allies are rightly worried about the possibility of a resurgence of Trump and his hyper-nationalist methods of governance. Foreign adversaries who believe that we are in a state of moral and social decline see the deepening racial, ethnic and cultural divisions in our society as target-rich opportunities for exploitation in an age of cyber and social media propaganda.

They recognize Abraham Lincoln’s insight that “a house divided against itself cannot stand” and are working to turn those sage words into our reality.

In her book, “How Civil Wars Start: And How to Stop Them,” political scientist Barbara F. Walter raises valid concerns about the United States slipping into a place where civil war is possible. She writes about a netherworld of anocracy – between democracy and autocracy – a breeding ground for political violence, where the grievances and resentments of a large White underclass have greatly increased the potential for civil war.

These predictions once sounded like the fever dreams of far-right lunatics who would welcome such a bloody conflict; today, such predictions are coming from responsible voices such as Walter and others who have carefully studied this phenomenon around the world.

Not long ago, we thought that with the collapse of the Soviet empire, the march of freedom and democracy was in unstoppable ascendancy.

Today, the tide is moving in the opposite direction. Autocracies are surfacing even among members of NATO, such as Hungary and Turkey. Similar anti-democratic forces are gaining strength in France and Italy. Without America’s sustainable pro-democratic leadership, this trend is bound to accelerate.

Garland’s actions upholding the principle that no one is above the law reaches well beyond our borders. Surely, he is not eager to be the first person to initiate criminal proceedings against a former president. To do so will establish a woeful, even if justified, precedent and possibly will set off a level of civil strife we have not witnessed in more than 150 years.

But our nation’s senior law enforcer, a man who has an impeccable record of fairness and impartiality as a distinguished jurist, cannot tailor his judgment to accommodate the rage of the lawless.

William S. Cohen is a former secretary of defense and former Republican senator from Maine. William H. Webster is a former director of the FBI and the CIA and a retired judge of the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit.

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