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“Fears and suspicions” about how far former President Trump would have gone to remain in power are still alive, says former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta. New revelations that Pentagon leaders were concerned Trump might try to use the armed forces to support his effort to stay in office leave the former defense official concerned about what could come next. Panetta speaks with Judy Woodruff.
And now for more on all this, we turn to Leon Panetta, who served as secretary of defense and director of the CIA during the Obama administration.
Leon Panetta, listening to all this from what's coming from this reporting, what do you make of it?
Leon Panetta, Former U.S. Secretary of Defense: Well, I think it just confirms that the events of January 6 brought us very close to endangering our democracy itself, and that we are now in a process of looking at all of the concerns and suspicions that had been raised about just exactly what President Trump was up to in the events following the election and leading up to January 6 itself.
Those fears and suspicions are still very much alive.
And when you — and the reporting about General Milley, again, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, someone, a position — as secretary of defense, you certainly worked very closely with the Joint Chiefs chairman at the time you were in office.
I mean, this speaks volumes about the concern at the very top about what the president of the United States might do.
Yes, there's no question that General Milley was very concerned about what exactly the president was up to, and I think for good cause.
I mean, after all, let's just look at the evidence that we have almost from the president himself. He refused to accept the results of the election. He has — he refused to concede and allow for a peaceful transfer of power. He also was clear that he was going to promote this big lie that somehow the election was stolen.
He told the vice president to basically ignore his constitutional responsibility and send the issues back to the states. And then he spoke to a crowd and clearly incited that mob to march on the Capitol of the United States.
And so we had — we have a president who clearly was not willing to abide by the Constitution. And I think the fear that General Milley had was that, if this president doesn't want to follow the Constitution of the United States and his oath to office, then what else is he up to? And what else could he do that might endanger the country?
And that's when I believe that concern that the president might, in fact, empower the military to somehow determine the results of the election, it's something that, frankly, concerned not just Secretary Esper and General Milley. It concerned 10 former secretaries of defense, who were concerned about just exactly what the president would do in using the military.
And you were reminding us today of the letter that you and the other former secretaries of defense sent around that period warning about your concerns.
You said a moment ago that you think the danger is still there. What do you mean by that?
I think that if our democracy is so fragile that the president of the United States could virtually ignore the Constitution when it came to an election, and who continues to believe that somehow he won that election, against all of the evidence to the contrary, that the fact that this president continues to take that same position, I think, raises a real concern that he is — by no means has he ended his effort to try to regain the presidency one way or the other.
And I think that's the concern. That's the danger, is that he will continue to try to somehow sway his followers that what happened on January 6 was something that perhaps could happen again. And that's what — that's what really concerns me, is that that danger is still very real.
And how confident are you, Leon Panetta, that our system is strong enough to withstand something like what General Milley feared after the election?
Well, there's no question, Judy, that our system of government has been severely tested over these last four years. And, somehow, we have been able to survive. And I believe — I believe we will survive.
But it depends on people like General Milley, very frankly, who have to reflect the courage to do what is right. And the fact that he said this that — whatever his concerns and fears about what this president would do, would never succeed tells me that General Milley understood and I think others understood that their first oath of allegiance is to the Constitution of the United States, not to an individual.
Well, we certainly benefit from the wisdom of your experience.
And we thank you very much for joining us, former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta. Thank you.
Good to be with you, Judy.
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