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Panetta on how White House can reassure Americans in ‘vulnerable moment’

How does President Trump’s coronavirus diagnosis affect the executive branch -- and American national security? Leon Panetta was White House chief of staff to President Clinton as well as CIA director and secretary of defense during the Obama administration. He joins Judy Woodruff to discuss the risks and how the federal government can help reassure the public at this "very vulnerable moment."

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    And now, for a look at how the president's diagnosis affects the executive branch, what it means for the country's national security, we're joined by Leon Panetta. He served as White House chief off staff to President Clinton and then director of the CIA and director — rather, secretary of defense, in the Obama administration.

    Leon Panetta, what does this moment mean for the country?

  • Leon Panetta:

    Well, it's a serious moment that I think raises a lot of national security implications, because this involves the president of the United States and whether or not he is able to fulfill the duties of the presidency.

    And in a very dangerous world, with a number of crises that we're facing here at home and abroad, there are concerns about whether or not the United States of America can, in fact, provide the governing that is necessary in order for our democracy to be able to survive in this difficult moment.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Why do you say that, when the White House says everything is functioning normally? They haven't transferred power to the vice president yet, but they say things are functioning, they're moving forward.

    What gives you concern?

  • Leon Panetta:

    I think the concern is that there are some important steps that need to be taken here.

    First of all, is the president able to fulfill the duties of the presidency? And if he's now being moved to a hospital, is he able to complete those duties? Is the chief of staff and the vice president in a position where they can implement their responsibilities?

    Secondly, are they presenting to the public full information about the situation with the president? I think this is a particularly serious time, when the public needs to know, what is the status of the president and how are they dealing with the concerns that we have about his health?

    Thirdly, are they fulfilling the job of doing the business of the nation, the issues related to COVID, the issues related to stimulus, the issues related to our economy? Are they continuing to deal with those issues?

    All of that, I think, is in question right now.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, let me ask you about national security.

    I mean, what are the exact concerns? Is this a moment — and I don't want to go beyond — you know, we're all speculating at this point. To what extent is it a concern that a foreign government, a bad actor, international actor, could take advantage of this situation?

  • Leon Panetta:

    Well, we always have great concern about whether or not our adversaries are acting to undermine the strength of our democracy.

    We know what the Russians are doing, in terms of trying to undermine our election process. We know that China is doing the same thing. We know that Iran and North Korea have conducted those kinds of operations as well.

    So, the United States is in a very vulnerable moment. Talked about dealing with the pandemic. Talked about dealing with an economic recession. Talked about the situation in trying to make sure that we have an election process that is fair and that doesn't involve violence of some sort.

    All of these issues are at play right now. And adversaries now see a president who is ill from the pandemic. They are going to be tempted to take advantage of that situation. And that's why it's critical that our national security team be on alert, because this is a moment where our national security is at risk.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    What steps should the White House be taking right now to reassure the American people?

  • Leon Panetta:

    I think the most important thing, frankly, is that the vice president or the chief of staff have to speak to the American people about the steps that they are taking to assure that this country is being governed, and that the duties of the presidency are being fulfilled.

    A lot of questions right now, obviously, about what's taking place. What kind of health problems does the president face?

    I think the key to trying to deal with this situation is an honest presentation to the American people about what is happening. Number one, the duties of the presidency are being fulfilled. We are taking every step to make sure that's happening. Number two, this is the situation with regards to his health, and be very honest in presenting that situation to the American people, that it's under control and that we are dealing with it.

    And, thirdly, we are going to continue to deal with the business of the nation. We are continuing to negotiate on a stimulus bill. We are continuing to try to deal with the COVID crisis. We are continuing to deal with economic issues within our country.

    Those are the clear signals that have to be set to be sent to the people in order to make clear that, in this crisis, the United States of America is still being governed.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And how confident are you, Leon Panetta, that this White House will be direct and will be transparent on that — on these points that you say are absolutely sessional?

  • Leon Panetta:

    Well, the record, as we all know, it's not very good.

    And there's just a — there's an awful lot of distrust about what comes out of the White House in terms of the news and what they say and whether or not they are being fully honest with the American people about what's happening. There are questions about that.

    It doesn't mean that this can't be a moment where someone in the White House steps forward and very directly and honestly says, this is the situation, this is what we're dealing with, and we do have the situation under control, and try to restore some of that trust with the American people.

    But, right now, the trust of the American people, not only in the White House, but in the Congress and in the other institutions of our democracy, I think, is at risk. And for that reason, this is a moment when you have to restore that relationship with the American people, so that our democracy has confidence that our institutions of government can function.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Former Defense Secretary, former White House Chief of Staff Leon Panetta, we thank you so much.

  • Leon Panetta:

    Thank you, Judy.

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