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White House Turmoil Limits U.S. Ability To Respond To Crises, Panetta Says


We spoke earlier about the turbulent week here in Washington - the firings, the Cabinet reshuffling, the rumors about who's next - so we decided to talk more about this with someone who's worked in Washington at many levels - Leon Panetta. He led the CIA. He served as secretary of defense and was White House chief of staff to President Clinton.

Secretary Panetta, thanks so much for speaking with us.

LEON PANETTA: Good to be with you.

MARTIN: Now, you've seen turmoil, you know, before. But what's going on here?

PANETTA: (Laughter) Well, it's hard to say. It's tough enough when you have a stable staff at the White House, but it's almost impossible when you have an unstable staff, not knowing whether they're going to be there the next day, to be able to handle a number of crises that have to be dealt with by the president.

MARTIN: Well, the president seemed to say that this was kind of just his getting closer to the Cabinet that he envisioned. In fact, he said that - after he announced Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's departure - that he was, quote, "getting close to having the Cabinet and other things that I want," unquote.

Does that sound right to you? I mean, is that something that happens in other administrations where - particularly somebody who doesn't have a lot of experience at this level - that they get actually to the White House, and what they think they need in a particular position is different from what they first envisioned? So could this be something that we're used to seeing except perhaps on steroids?

PANETTA: Well, you know, in my 50 years of public life, I've served in some capacity under nine presidents, going back to my time as a military officer - five Democrats and four Republicans. And despite their political differences, they all believed in an organized process for developing policy. They all brought on personnel who were experienced and qualified and maintained some degree of stability. Yes, there were changes, but overall, there was stability in the staff operations. And they all abided by the rules and traditions of the office of the presidency, which provides some degree of predictability.

With this president, frankly, all of that has gone out the window. He largely governs by chaos. He likes to do that - doesn't follow a process, keeps the staff in his Cabinet in disruption. So we're operating under a very different process here with this president, who is trying to apply, I think, an approach that he used in the private sector to the presidency. And, very frankly, it doesn't work.

MARTIN: Yesterday, Axios reported on an off-the-record meeting where the White House Chief of Staff John Kelly said that the president is adding to the chaos by speculating about staff shakeups to people outside of the White House. Now, you've been in Kelly's position. In fact, he even worked for you as a senior military aide when you were defense secretary. Is there a way that the chief of staff could bring more order to this? Is there something that he could be doing?

PANETTA: Well, the chief of staff is only as good as the relationship between that chief of staff and the president. If there's a relationship of trust, and they are willing to work together closely, then it works well. In this situation, every position is strained in some way, and that includes the chief of staff's position. John Kelly doesn't know whether he's going to be there tomorrow. And so when he speaks to the staff, I'm sure the staff is asking the question - is John Kelly going to be there? And that makes for a lot of disruption.

If you don't know whether the people you're working with are going to be there and are going to be able to speak with some degree of authority, then there is nothing but total confusion. It makes the presidency something where our allies and our friends and our enemies simply do not know what the United States of America is going to stand for.

MARTIN: I'm wondering what the broader implications of this might be. For example, the White House has committed to direct talks with North Korea, something which would be historic. So what might be the implications for this as the U.S. moves to have those talks?

PANETTA: Well, you know, under the best of circumstances, we are living in a dangerous world right now with probably more flashpoints than what we've seen since World War II. And the problem is that if there is a disruption within the White House staff, and particularly with the national security adviser, who's responsible, obviously, for dealing with these crises, and there's a big question about whether he's going to be there, then how can the United States of America effectively deal with these crises when there is no strategy and there's no chance of establishing a strategy?

So when it comes to North Korea, the big question is, you know, if there's going to be a meeting, is there going to be the preparation to establish the basis on which that kind of summit can take place so that it will be effective? Right now, I think that's a real question mark.

MARTIN: That's former CIA Director, former Defense Secretary, former White House Chief of Staff Leon Panetta. Mr. Panetta, thanks so much for speaking with us.

PANETTA: Good to talk to you, Michel.

(SOUNDBITE OF EDGAR PENG'S "OHIO WOW") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.