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Panetta: Senior officials undermining the president ‘puts the country at risk’

Former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, who also served as White House chief of staff, says that it’s not tenable for the United States as a country if the president’s staff is working around him and trying to thwart parts of his agenda. Panetta joins John Yang to offer his reaction to an anonymous letter published in The New York Times and suggests that Congress should take action.

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  • John Yang:

    And now we continue our look at this issue with Leon Panetta. He's the former chief of staff to President Clinton, and served both as secretary of defense and CIA director under President Obama.

    Mr. Panetta, welcome. Thanks for joining us.

    You not only served under President Obama and President Clinton. You also serve briefly for President Nixon early in his administration.

    From your standpoint, is the person who wrote this essay protecting the United States, as he says in his essay — as he or she says in the essay, or a gutless coward, as the White House says?

  • Leon Panetta:

    Well, it's hard to come down with a definition here, because on one hand, if that person is describing the situation that's real in the White House, and a president who is not very effective and doesn't have either the moral or intellectual capability to be president of the United States, and this person is identifying that and the efforts of the staff to restrain it, then, obviously, that person is performing an important role here.

    On the other hand, if that individual is not willing at some point to come forward and really inform the people in the Congress and in the country about what's really going on, then, obviously, that person is in part of coward as well.

    So I think it's probably a little bit of both at this point.

  • John Yang:

    But as someone who ran the staff in the White House and someone who was a top senior official in the White House, is this a rational response or a reasonable response to someone who has questions about a president, or should this person resign?

  • Leon Panetta:

    Well, let's look at the bottom line here, John.

    The bottom line is that the presidency cannot operate this way. We have a president who in some ways is at war with his own staff, both pointed out in the Woodward book, as well as this op-ed, as well as by others.

    And we elect one president in the United States to be president of the United States, to discharge the duties and powers that the president has under the Constitution. And here the indication is that the staff is working to try to contain this president and make sure that he doesn't make some of the decisions that he wants to make.

    You cannot have that in this country. We need to have one president. Whether you're for or against Donald Trump, the fact is, you need to have one president, and somehow that is not the case today.

  • John Yang:

    So are you saying that the staff shouldn't be trying to thwart him, that by trying to thwart — unelected staff trying to thwart an elected president of the United States is not the right thing to do?

  • Leon Panetta:

    This country is at risk.

    When you have a president in the United States elected by the people, and at the same time have a staff who believe that this president, for whatever reason, is not exercising the right kind of judgment, that situation cannot exist.

    And, frankly, under our Constitution, it cannot exist. The issue here, the fundamental issue, is, can this president discharge his duties and powers of the office of the presidency? Is he able to do that? And, obviously, there are members of the staff who believe that's not the case. And, obviously, there are members who support the president who believe that is the case.

    That is an issue that, very frankly, I believe the leadership in the Congress has a responsibility to look at and determine what is happening, because we cannot allow that situation to continue. It puts the country at risk.

  • John Yang:

    How would they do that, hearings, or how would they look at that?

  • Leon Panetta:

    I think the first thing that should be done is, the leadership — and I would assume that the best step would be the Republican leadership, Mitch McConnell and Speaker Ryan and whoever they want to accompany them — ought to go down and talk to the president and the chief of staff to discuss the situation and determine whether or not there is this war going on within the White House.

    It seems to be the case. Senator Corker also mentioned that situation, as have others. So, how is — how is the president and the chief of staff addressing the situation in order to make sure that this kind of conflict doesn't continue?

    Because, if it does, we don't know, ultimately, who's making the decisions here. Is it the president of the United States, or is it those staff members who are trying to do the right thing for the country? Even though they may be operating under the best of intentions, that is simply no way for the presidency of the United States to operate.

  • John Yang:

    We have had cases in history, at the end of the Nixon administration, when Secretary of Defense Schlesinger issued an order that any nuclear command from the president should be cleared through him first.

    I have also heard White House chiefs of staff talking about slow-walking decisions they felt were wrong or may have been quickly, too quickly made, and hoping to give the president a chance to rethink it.

    Is — what's the difference between those things and what's going on now?

  • Leon Panetta:

    Well, look, in a — in a normal White House, there are always going to have to be those kinds of relationships between the president, chief of staff and others within the administration.

    But, normally, this is worked out within the White House through a process of policy-making, of discussions, of being able to convey your views to the president, and being able to determine ultimately what the president will — is going to decide, because, in the end, this has to be about the president of United States making the decision on policy.

    But, in the past, there has always been this tension in personal relationships. But it always has worked out in a way that I think serves the presidency of the United States. Today, what I see is a situation where, for whatever reason, the president is not able to have the staff be able to look at him in the eye and say, we have real concerns with the decisions that you're making.

    That's normally the way the process would take place. Instead, the staff is going around him to try to impose their particular will in certain situations. And while I understand that they do it out of the best of intentions for the sake of the country, the fact is, it undermines the presidency of the United States. And it takes away from the fact that the United States elected one president.

    They didn't elect the staff to serve as president of the United States.

  • John Yang:

    Former White House Chief of Staff Leon Panetta, thanks so much for being with us.

  • Leon Panetta:

    You bet.

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