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Panetta: Comey firing undermines investigation credibility

May 11, 2017 at 6:45 PM EDT
Former CIA Director Leon Panetta joins Judy Woodruff to discuss what President Trump’s decision to fire former Director James Comey means for the investigation into Russian election meddling, and the White House’s challenge of dealing with contradictory explanations.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: And now to what all this means for the functioning and the stability of the Trump presidency.

We turn to man who has had a front-row in the White House. Leon Panetta was chief of staff for President Bill Clinton. He then went on to serve as director of the CIA and secretary of defense in the Obama administration.

Secretary Panetta, thank you for talking with us.

So, as somebody who has had a top job, the top job at the White House as chief of staff, as we said, at the Pentagon and the CIA, how do you read how this Comey episode has unfolded?

LEON PANETTA, Former White House Chief of Staff: Well, it’s a very confusing picture, obviously, because a number of reasons have been presented as to why it’s happened.

But, you know, deep down, there’s no question that, however it happened, and for whatever reasons it happened, that this has undermined the credibility of a very vital national security investigation, and somehow that credibility has to be restored.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How has it undermined that credibility?

LEON PANETTA: It’s undermined the credibility because, obviously, the FBI was investigating the whole issue of Russian interference in our election.

And despite the various reasons that have been presented, there’s no question that the president remains concerned about that Russian investigation. And tying that concern with the fact that he fired the FBI director, and in the way he fired the FBI director, clearly undermines the credibility of the investigation.

Is the White House going to continue to try to influence the direction of that investigation? The key right now is for the Congress, for the Justice Department, for the president to make sure they take steps to restore the credibility of that investigation by appointing a new director of the FBI who is fair and objective and credible.

And I think they should also, frankly, give consideration to the appointment of a special prosecutor, because the very fact that this president continued to ask the FBI director as to whether or not he was the subject of an investigation, when a president does that, it clearly is sending a signal that the White House is concerned about that investigation.

Frankly, it has to be an independent investigation, and it cannot have or be influenced by the White House.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Are you saying, Secretary Panetta, that there’s no way the American people can have confidence in this investigation unless there is an outside, independent special counsel?

LEON PANETTA: Well, my concern is that, when the president himself has asked the question about whether or not he’s the target of an investigation, something, frankly, that, at least in my time, is unheard of, that a president would, in fact, ask if he is the target of an investigation, when the president does that, he clearly is sending a signal to what should be a very independent, fair, and objective investigation by the FBI.

And the fact that he’s raised that question tells me that whoever is going to be the next FBI director, whoever that is, will probably get the same question from the president at some point in time.

And just because of that fact alone, I just think some kind of independent prosecutor, committee, commission, whatever it would be, but something that is independent of the White House and independent of political influence, needs to take place in this matter.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How much does it matter that the president, that the White House is giving a different explanation for why this happened?

They’re saying it has to do with a fact that they say Director Comey wasn’t running the FBI well, he was — and the way they say he mishandled Hillary Clinton e-mail situation.

LEON PANETTA: Well, again — and I look back on my days as chief of staff to the president.

I think that, when a major step like that is going to be taken — and, clearly, somebody should have informed the president that, once you fire the FBI director, that there’s going to be a huge backlash because of the investigation that’s going on — that, in the very least, the reasons for why he’s firing him should have been set down, so that everybody had the same talking points.

And, clearly, that didn’t happen here. And the president again today said he had been thinking about firing Director Comey for a long period of time. So, whatever reasons have been given in these last few days has only created greater confusion about just exactly why this happened.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Secretary Panetta, finally, in just a few seconds, obviously, you’re a Democrat, but I know you talk to a lot of Republicans.

How much difficulty do you think this president is facing in his own party?

LEON PANETTA: Well, you know, I think, whether you’re a Republican or Democrat, there is an interest in conducting an investigation into this national security issue.

We have had a foreign adversary try to interfere in our election. That’s a serious matter, and it needs to be investigated. So I think the Republicans, as well as the Democrats, are interested in putting this back on a track where you have a fair and independent and objective investigation that determines what happened here, whether there was any collusion or not with the campaign, the Trump campaign, and what should be done to make sure it never happens again.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Former Secretary of Defense, former CIA Director, former White House Chief of Staff Leon Panetta, thank you very much.

LEON PANETTA: Thank you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And we will get the perspective of two conservatives on how Mr. Trump’s recent moves have divided the Republican Party a little later in the program.

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