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Leon Panetta: Trump White House Has Lacked 'An Adult In The Oval Office'

A recent staff shake-up at the White House has many wondering if new chief of staff John Kelly can quiet the turmoil that has so far marked President Trump’s time in office.

Leon Panetta, who was White House chief of staff to former President Bill Clinton, joins Here & Now‘s Jeremy Hobson to weigh in. Panetta is currently chairman of the  Panetta Institute for Public Policy.

Interview Highlights

On his faith in John Kelly as Trump’s chief of staff

“John Kelly is somebody that I know well because he served as my military aide when I was secretary of defense. He is, first and foremost, a Marine, who is very dedicated to public service, and very, very committed to whoever is commander in chief. But more importantly, he’s somebody who wants to accomplish the mission. I think he’s got the right qualities necessary to be a great chief of staff. I think the fundamental question is whether or not President Trump will support the changes that he has to make if he’s going to improve White House operations.”

On the chief of staff’s role in keeping the president in check

“There’s no question that what this White House has lacked is an adult in the Oval Office who could look at the president in the eye and tell him when he’s taking a mistake, telling him when he is doing something wrong. And that is part of the role of being a good chief of staff, is the ability to look at the president and tell him when he’s wrong. Most staff are intimidated by the president, don’t want to offend him, usually are ‘yes’ people who say that whatever he does is OK, but frankly, it’s not gonna work unless you have somebody who’s able to be very honest and direct with the president of the United States. That’s needed. President Clinton and I developed that relationship. It’s not to say presidents always like being told when they’re wrong, but they also, I think, respect the fact that they have to know when they’re about to make a mistake that will cost their presidency.”


On North Korea

“There’s no question that North Korea, by virtue of what they’ve done in improving their [intercontinental ballistic missiles] and the work they’re doing on miniaturizing a nuclear weapon, that they represent a real threat to our national security, so we have to take strong military steps. I think that is important. But at the same time, you also have to take some strong diplomatic steps. These sanctions are important, but there also has to be outreach to determine whether or not there is any possibility of being able to negotiate with the North Koreans and try to resolve the situation peacefully.

“Whether or not that can happen obviously is a question that concerns everybody right now, but the fact is that there’s a reason we haven’t taken military action, it’s because of the consequences, which are unacceptable both to South Korea and to the world. We could be in a nuclear war. Nobody wants that to happen, so I think we do have to operate carefully, but we do have to operate with strength. … I do think we have to make clear to the North Koreans that we are not just going to simply stand by and allow them to test these missiles. If they start firing intercontinental ballistic missiles, I think we ought to make clear that we have the capability to be able to take those missiles down.”

On Trump’s transgender military ban, and how his administration makes policy decisions

“I think, hopefully, one of the things that John Kelly can do is to bring a policy process back in place that allows for policy decisions to be made in an orderly way, allows the Pentagon and military leaders to participate in the decision making process. That’s the way it’s supposed to work, through the National Security Council, and for the president to suddenly just tweet out a major change in policy, I think that the Pentagon took the right step in saying, ‘A tweet is not a directive.’ That has to be developed by the president in an orderly way, and my hope is that John Kelly can get his arms around this and try to put in place a policy development process that can better serve the president and better serve the country.”

On whether there’s a chance the ban won’t happen

“I think it’s possible that appropriate revisions can be made that can at the same time allow those who are serving, and want to serve their country, the opportunity to be able to do that. We’ve have to make some tough decisions — we did it when I was secretary in getting rid of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell,’ I wanted women to be able to serve in combat — it was not easy, but you can get past some of the concerns, and I think the same thing is true here. I think we are a stronger country when we allow everyone the opportunity to be able to serve their country.”

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