Interviews

Leon Panetta: Too many power centers in White House staff

On 'Your World,' the former CIA director says the White House cannot operate without discipline

 

This is a rush transcript from "Your World," February 15, 2017. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

NEIL CAVUTO, HOST:  All right, as we touched on here, Andy Puzder has withdrawn his nomination as labor secretary here.  That was widely expected, as more and more Republicans were peeling off here.

But it comes a day after the whole General Flynn situation and what happened to the president's foreign policy staff and his foreign policy agenda.  

To former White House Chief of Staff to President Clinton, so much more, Leon Panetta.  

Leon, always good to have you.  Thanks for stopping by.  

LEON PANETTA, FORMER U.S. SECRETARY OF DEFENSE:  Nice to be with you, Neil.  

CAVUTO:  Let's talk a little bit about this, just getting a scattering of headlines from The Washington Post, "Chaos at the White House," The New York Times, "Everything Out of Control," USA Today, "Bedlam in the Corner Office."

All having to do with this notion that it has got a frantic feel to it in the White House.  Yet I'm thinking to myself, it's barely four weeks old, this White House.  

Are they overstating it, or what are you think of what you're seeing?  

PANETTA:  Well, you know, not being there, it's always a little hard to judge.  

But I think the problem, Neil, is that there are just too many power centers in the White House staff.  I was chief of staff.  I believe that there should be only one chief of staff who runs the staff for the president.  

I think, in this White House, there are a number of advisers.  There's a number of power centers. They still have not developed any kind of coordinated approach to decision-making for the president.  

The National Security Council obviously now doesn't even have an adviser. The National Security Council hasn't even met with the principals, and yet there are crises that we have to deal with in the world.  

So I think there's a concern that -- you know, every White House goes through a shakedown period.  But the reality is that this one seems to be much more disruptive than most.  

CAVUTO:  Now, when you came in, did President Clinton give you free rein to do what you wanted and to send and get the word out, he's going to bang heads, he's going to be the headbanger, he's going to make things right and give us some discipline?  

Because I get different vibes in different administrations with different chiefs of staffs.  But what was it like then and what did he let you do?  

PANETTA:  Well, that was the whole point, was, he said, I need you to bring order to the staff.  

And I said, if I'm going to do that, I need to have your trust and your full authority to be able to do it.  

My first responsibility, frankly, was to develop a chain of command.  My military experience was probably more valuable to me than my political experience.  

So, I developed a very strong chain of command with the chief of staff at the top.  I had two deputies.  They had assigned duties.  And, very frankly, I got rid of these general advisers and counsels, because they didn't have any specific responsibilities.  These people would wander in meetings.  They would talk.  They'd walk out of the meetings.

They didn't have any specific job to do.  And I told the president, we had to have people that had specific responsibilities.

CAVUTO:  What would you tell them to do?  Get out?  Did they have to check with you first, Leon?  

PANETTA:  Yes.  

CAVUTO:  Because I always wonder, you always hear there are these friends who have been friends of Donald Trump's for some time.  

I know we saw them in the last administration as well.  And you do have these, for want of a better word, kitchen cabinet advisers and others who sort of have their own set of rules, but maybe too many here?  What would you advise?  

PANETTA:  Well, again, I think the White House can't operate without discipline.  And it has got to be tough discipline.  And there's only got to be one chief of staff.  

And, frankly, as chief of staff, I made it very clear that I would control access to the president, not only by other members of the staff, but also by the national security adviser, because I wanted to know exactly what was going on in order to properly serve the president.  

I think they need to establish that kind of very firm discipline within the White House.  Priebus, who is chief of staff, needs to have the authority to basically run that staff.  And until you have that discipline, you're not going to be able to really coordinate the workings of the staff in order to better serve the president.  

CAVUTO:  You know, I know there are different cases, different times, different presidents and approaches.  But many of them do come out of the gate clumsily.  

I think, in Bill Clinton's case, the gays in the military thing.  You can go back to Ronald Reagan and the delay it took in getting the tax thing through and doubts about whether it was going to work.  And they would lose seats years later in the midterm elections.  

So, some of this is to be expected.  But do you think, maybe given the acrimonious nature of this press relationship with President Trump, and President Trump's ill view of them, that it's compounding matters, that it's almost like a gotcha approach on the part of the media?

Well, it's clear you don't like us, Mr. President.  Well, guess what?  We don't like you.  And that's making things worse?  

PANETTA:  Right now, you know, the White House is dealing with too many crises and too many problems.  

They have got problems obviously with their national security adviser, who just resigned.  They have got problems with the National Security Council, problems with their ability to deal with various issues in a coordinated and thoughtful way.  

And so the press is pouncing on all of that and creating even more problems for the White House.  

CAVUTO:  Yes.  

PANETTA:  It has to start with organizing the White House, doing the job the way they're supposed to do it. You're always going to have problems. You're always going to have crises to deal with.  That's understandable.  

But the chaos in the process within the White House is what is creating even that sense that somehow the White House doesn't have its act together. That has to be corrected.  

CAVUTO:  But I look at the economic side as well, maybe because I'm the nerd here at Fox and follow the markets and business.  And on that avenue, it seems to be doing very, very well. Wall Street likes what it hears and sees and is looking forward to the tax cuts or whatever.

Whatever people think of that stuff, the fact of the matter is, Wall Street likes that aspect, races to new highs, as it has since Donald Trump's election, confident that, on its economic agenda, is sound and its approach is right on.  

But you seem to be saying be careful here, because all this other stuff could stymie that, get in the way of that, right?  

PANETTA:  Well, I think what Wall Street is operating on now is the hope that the things that the president is saying will ultimately be delivered. That's understandable.  

CAVUTO:  That's right.  

PANETTA:  But, in the end, it's got to be delivered.  

And the biggest part of that is the tax reform measure that's going to implement whatever tax policies the administration wants to implement. That requires...

CAVUTO:  Do you think that is imperiled, Leon?  Do you think that could be delayed because of this, or put off, so now we're in the midterms and now it's all off, period?

PANETTA:  No, I -- you know, I think the problem right now is, he's been caught up obviously in a lot of executive orders.  I think he's issued about 26 executive orders.  A lot of those are frankly just glorified press releases.  

No president can operate just by executive order.  He is going to have to forward to the Congress the proposal of the administration on how he's going to reform the tax system.  That ought to be a recommendation that comes from the White House.  He's going to have to forward his budget. What is it that this president stands for?  What are his priorities?  

CAVUTO:  Well, we will know soon.  We will know soon.  Right?

PANETTA:  He's going to have send a budget to the Congress.  None of that -- I have seen none of that.  

CAVUTO:  All right.  

Leon, thank you very, very much.  I apologize for the slight audio delay with you, Leon Panetta, former White House chief of staff under President Clinton.

It's all about discipline on the right or the left.  He's right about that. But, again, just stepping back on team Trump, it's not even four weeks as President Trump.  

END

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