WASHINGTON — As sexual assault allegations mounted against Bill Cosby last summer, President Barack Obama was asked to weigh in — in particular, on the question of whether Cosby should continue to hold the Presidential Medal of Freedom, which he received in 2002.
"There's no precedent for revoking a medal," Obama said, without weighing in on the particulars of the Cosby allegations. "We don't have that mechanism."
Some lawmakers, however, are now trying to force the issue.
Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., said Thursday he will introduce legislation this week that would have Congress weigh in on stripping Cosby of the honor President George W. Bush bestowed on him and create criminal penalties for wearing or displaying a Presidential Medal of Freedom that has been revoked.
The announcement comes a week after prosecutors in Montgomery County, Pa., charged Cosby in connection with an alleged 2004 sexual assault.
Gosar said he did not want to wait for the court process to play out, citing the multitude of allegations against Cosby — which the 78-year-old comedian has steadfastly denied — and the contents of a 2005 deposition, publicly released last year, in which Cosby admitted to giving Quaaludes to women he wanted to have sex with.
"Cosby's own admissions to drugging women in order to satisfy his sexual desires place him outside the bounds of whom we should admire in our society," Gosar said Thursday. "Revoking Bill Cosby's Medal of Freedom won't undo his actions or heal the wounds of his victims, but it will signal to the American people that we will not tolerate such lewd behavior."
The complication for Gosar and the half-dozen co-sponsors to his bill is that Congress has no ability to directly revoke a Presidential Medal of Freedom — the award was established and is bestowed under an 1963 executive order, not under a statute. The legislative branch has its own high award, the Congressional Gold Medal, that is bestowed through act of Congress (and presumably can be revoked in the same manner).
Gosar's bill would simply make it the "sense of Congress" that Obama or a future president ought to revoke Cosby's medal. It does, however, create new law allowing for fines or up to a year of jail time for those who wear or display a revoked medal "with the intent to defraud any person."
The bill has the backing of Promoting Awareness/Victim Empowerment, a nonprofit focused on combating sexual violence that has seized on Cosby's distinction as a Medal of Freedom recipient. The group pushed a White House petition over the summer that ended up with nearly 15,000 signatures — short of the 100,000 signatures necessary to prompt a formal White House response.
"This is a critically important to illustrate the crucial notion of consent," said Angela Rose, PAVE's executive director. "This medal was given to Bill Cosby under false pretenses, and his name should not be on the list. . . . Simply put, symbols matter. This indeed is an unprecedented action, but this is an unprecedented moment in time."
The prospects for Gosar's bill are uncertain, though there are indication it could gain momentum — particularly if Cosby is convicted in Pennsylvania. Two Democratic senators, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Claire McCaskill of Missouri, said over the summer they would support the revocation of Cosby's medal.
And Gosar's bill prompted the White House to weigh on yet again on the matter Thursday.
"We'll take a look at the proposal if Congress takes a vote on it, and we'll let you know if the president chooses to sign it," Press Secretary Josh Earnest said in response to a question about the bill. "I certainly wouldn't want our position on this issue to be perceived by anyone or any group as a way to condone the kind of behavior that Mr. Cosby has been accused of. At the same time, you know, these kinds of essentially symbolic commemorations are always difficult to deal with."
"You certainly wouldn't want a scenario where this kind of process could get infused with politics and you have members, you have successive Congresses in the future passing pieces of legislation to try to undo medals that have been conferred by previous presidents that happen to be in the other party," he continued. "So I think that's part of what we're mindful of here."