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Former Chief Of Staff Leon Panetta Discusses Managing The White House


Here are two notable quotes of the day for those of you tracking the Rob Porter story closely. Porter is the White House staff secretary forced out last week amid allegations of domestic violence. Well, Vice President Mike Pence weighed in today, saying, quote, "the White House could have handled this better." The second quote comes courtesy of today's Washington Post, which cites a White House official calling the White House chief of staff, quote, "a big, fat liar."

Well, let's bring the voice of a former White House chief of staff. Leon Panetta held the job under Bill Clinton before going on to run the CIA and the Pentagon. Secretary Panetta, good to speak with you.

LEON PANETTA: Nice to be on.

KELLY: So this White House official calling chief of staff John Kelly a big fat liar - if you are John Kelly, can you continue in your role functioning as chief of staff if voices like that are coming out of the White House you're supposed to be running?

PANETTA: Well, the fact is that the primary relationship here is between the chief of staff and the president of the United States. And if there is a relationship of trust between the president and the chief of staff and that trust still remains, then obviously it's up to the president to decide whether the chief of staff stays or goes. You're going to have a nitpicking up and down the staff on - when these things happen. But they are not the ones that determine the fate of the chief of staff.

KELLY: No. You've spoken in the past and said that the most important thing about a White House chief of staff is that they should not become the headline. What risks does it pose for John Kelly now that he has very much become the headline?

PANETTA: Well, it's obviously one of those things that chiefs of staff have to be careful of because, you know, the chief of staff is just that, chief of staff. He's not the president. And he should run and manage the staff and try to make sure that nothing happens that creates a headline that embarrasses or impacts on the president. That's the nature of the job.

So clearly by virtue of this now being in the headline, I don't think there's any question but that it wasn't handled effectively. And they've got to take steps now not only to improve the way they do that. But certainly with regards to these interim clearances, there seems to be a real breakdown in the process in dealing with those. Those should have been resolved a long time ago, and they still remain an issue for this White House. That's something that the chief of staff ought to clearly get his arms around.

KELLY: I think you've just given me item number one on the list I was going to ask you for. If you were back in the West Wing right now, back in that chief of staff office, what would be the first order you would give?

PANETTA: Well, look; I think the first thing that a chief of staff has to do - because chiefs of staff have to deal with crises almost every day of one kind or another, and the first responsibility is to find the truth, find the facts, what happened, what took place here in terms of the timelines and not - you know, not go out and say everything's great or, you know, we handled it properly or express support for somebody when you know that that can be undermined by the truth. And so...

KELLY: Leon Panetta...

PANETTA: ...That's the danger.

KELLY: ...Thank you so much. That's Bill Clinton's White House chief of staff Leon Panetta. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.