Preet Bharara’s new podcast, “Stay Tuned with Preet” on CAFE, is now live. Listen here on Apple Podcasts.
Episode 1: That Time President Trump Fired Me (with Leon Panetta)
Preet Bharara: Mr. Secretary, thank you so much for agreeing to be on the show.
Leon Panetta: Great to be with you.
Preet Bharara: Thank you. So, as you may have read, I was fired by the President of the United States.
Leon Panetta: Yes, I did.
Preet Bharara: And you have had a lot of great jobs working for presidents, including Barack Obama and President Clinton, and people talk about that. But people may not appreciate as much that you also were once fired –
Leon Panetta: That’s right.
Preet Bharara: By a president when you were a young Republican in 1970, working for the Nixon administration as head of the Civil Rights Division at what was then Health, Education, and Welfare. You were fired, were you not?
Leon Panetta: Absolutely, yes.
Preet Bharara: Why were you fired?
Leon Panetta: Well, you know, what had happened was that Richard Nixon, when he was running for president, in order to make sure that he could win at the convention, he cut a deal with Strom Thurmond and other Southerners, in which he basically made a commitment that if he was elected, he would back off of tough civil rights enforcement.
Preet Bharara: And did you know that at the time you took this job?
Leon Panetta: Well, you know, there were a lot of rumors that there had been the so-called Southern strategy. But, you know, I thought, nobody is gonna want to retreat from what Brown vs. Board of Education . . .
Preet Bharara: But you were wrong.
Leon Panetta: Well, what happened was that he had cut this deal. And I became director of the Office for Civil Rights, began to enforce our provisions, which basically meant going to school districts, largely in the Deep South, who had been divided, black children from white children, by law for almost 200 years, and tried to go to those school districts and tried to desegregate those districts and break down the racial barriers, which was not easy. It was a tough job. I began to get pressure from the White House to back off of that kind of enforcement. And I said, well, that’s the law.
Preet Bharara: And you gave an interview that I came across in 2007 at the Nixon Library about how you went about thinking about this issue. Now, let me just read it to you, because it’s been ringing in my ears for a couple of days. You said, “I guess there was a point where I myself had to ask the question, what do I do here? And I guess everybody who’s in a job in the government that’s sensitive has to sometimes face that crossroads where you have to make a decision. Do I sell out? Do I basically do what the political pressures want to do and kind of protect myself politically, or do I stand up for what I think is right, no matter what the consequences may be?” How hard was that for you?
I’m a believer that you do keep fighting. You have to keep fighting.
Leon Panetta: Preet, I think in all honesty, you have to admit it’s one of the toughest decisions a person can make. I was 27. I was about 27, 28. And I faced this decision between whether I should do what I think is right in my conscience, and what I felt was right from all of the work I had done in supporting civil rights laws. Or I could advance my political career. But I figured that the politics would ultimately have to cave in to the substance of what was right for this country. So, I felt in some ways that continuing to do the right thing, even though it was risky, and I knew that. I’d been told that. At the same time, I thought it would be worthwhile.
Preet Bharara: And you could look at yourself in the mirror the next morning.
Leon Panetta: Exactly.
Preet Bharara: Let me take you into the modern era now, because it seems a lot of what people are talking about is precisely this question. You’ve taken a job in the White House, and you support maybe some of President Trump’s policies, maybe not others. And maybe you don’t like some of the things he’s saying. And there’s a lot of discussion about whether or not people who were like you back in the Nixon administration, what’s the standard for whether or not they should resign, and do you have advice for them?
Leon Panetta: I’m a believer that you do keep fighting. You have to keep fighting.
Preet Bharara: But from within or without?
Leon Panetta: Well, I think you keep fighting from within. And you try to push it as long as you can to try to move things in what you think is the right direction.
Preet Bharara: So, speaking of the White House, let’s set the scene. You have an undisciplined president in some ways. He’s fighting with Congress. He’s fighting with members of his own party. He brings in a new Chief of Staff to replace the prior Chief of Staff, whose job is in some ways to restrict the flow of information to the president to make sure that free-floating advisors are not coming into the Oval Office willy-nilly, to limit access. That’s not President Trump. That’s you in 1994, after 17 months of the Clinton administration, as the new Chief of Staff.
Leon Panetta: Well, there’s a lot of similarities. And soon after he was announced, John Kelly called me, because I know John. He was my military aide –
Preet Bharara: What did he ask you?
Leon Panetta: At the Department of Defense. He said, “How do you deal with this? What do I have to do to be effective in the job of Chief of Staff?”And I shared with him a lot of the lessons that I had learned when I became Chief of Staff, because there wasn’t any kind of chain of command that was operating there. I mean, I’d go into a meeting with Bill Clinton, there’d be 50 people there in the Oval Office, everyone talking, nobody having any responsibility once that meeting was concluded. There was no question there was a lot of chaos. I remember going to my predecessor, Mack McClarty, and saying, “Do you have an organization chart for the White House?” And he looked at me, and he said, “You know, I don’t believe I have one of those.” And I thought, oh.
Preet Bharara: And this is 17 months in.
Leon Panetta: I thought, my god. So, I have to do basics here. I mean, frankly, I fell back on my Army experience. You develop a chain of command. You do little boxes. Here’s the Chief of Staff. Here are the deputies. Here’s who’s responsible to who. You establish discipline with regards to who goes into the Oval Office. You establish an organized way to come to decisions so that they can be presented to the President, and he can make the ultimate decision.
Preet Bharara: If you had to compare based on your knowledge of the inside of the Clinton White House and your knowledge from the outside of the Trump White House, on a scale of one to ten, how chaotic was Clinton’s, and how chaotic do you think Donald Trump’s is?
Leon Panetta: Well, there’s a fundamental difference here. Bill Clinton, he was really dedicated to wanting to be a good president for the United States. He had a bright mind. He was very inquisitive. He loved to talk to a lot of people. He was very political, loved to deal with people. But he had very little discipline in that process. So, Bill Clinton came to the point where he said, “I need you to become Chief of Staff in order to make sure that we establish that discipline.” I remember telling him, because I was OMB director. I said, “Mr. President, I think I’m much more valuable to you as OMB director, because we’ve just passed the budget. We’re on a great path here. I’m doing appropriations bills for you. I think you really need me there.” And he said to me, “Leon, you can be the greatest OMB director in the history of America. But if the White House is falling apart, nobody’s gonna remember you.”
Preet Bharara: Right.
Leon Panetta: So, the difference is that you had a president who wanted to be disciplined, wanted to have the White House to operate in an orderly process, and was willing to accept the disciplines that I put in place because he knew that that was the most effective way for him to operate. I’m not sure that Donald Trump wants that to happen.
Preet Bharara: How worried are you about how the decisions are being made in those rooms? Not just the Oval Office, but at the Pentagon and at the CIA and at other places that determine the future of our democracy and also determine the future of our safety?
Leon Panetta: I think – well, I think it’s very important that the sense of right and wrong be present, and that you make decisions based on what you think is morally right for the nation, and that you make the decision based on what you think will give our children that better life. I don’t think that those are the values that are at play in a lot of the decisions that are being made now. And that concerns me.
Preet Bharara: Is there any specific decision or issue on which you think the values of right and wrong are not getting proper hearing?
Leon Panetta: I think for me, the President crossed a threshold when he refused to criticize what happened in Charlottesville, to denounce the neo-Nazis and the white supremacists and what they were doing. For me, that’s a clear moral decision in which the President of the United States has to stand up and speak to what America is really about. And for some reason, he failed at that.
Preet Bharara: Let me ask you a further question about leadership, then, because you know, anybody who runs any organization, even an office like the U.S. Attorney’s Office, you think about all the time –
Leon Panetta: That’s right.
Preet Bharara: The way in which you get the best out of people; the way in which you increase morale and have them be loyal to the institution, if not to the leader of the institution. And I know that you, as Secretary of Defense, used to keep on your wall a picture of former president Eisenhower. He once said, “You don’t lead people by beating them on the head. That’s assault, not leadership.”
Leon Panetta: I think he’s right in the sense that what you need to do is you do need to establish discipline. As a military officer, he knows basic discipline that operates in the military ranks. But it isn’t just discipline that’s gonna get the job done. It’s also inspiring people to do what needs to be done, and to be able to recognize that even in a disciplined operation, you are dealing with human beings, and you’ve got to be able to relate to human beings. You’ve got to make them feel like they are part of a team. You’ve got to make them feel like the role that they’re playing is important. You’ve got to be able to show them that the mission that we are all involved with is the right mission.
I don’t think we can ever kid ourselves about the fact that Russia is an adversary.
Preet Bharara: So, speaking of teams, we first met because we were on a team of sorts together. And it was the early part of 2010, or the middle part of 2010, and I was in a room at the FBI headquarters with you, Bob Mueller – not sure what became of that guy – the head of the National Security Division. And we were discussing the operational procedure of rounding up and arresting ten or more Russian spies. That’s the famous case with Anna Chapman and others that I was overseeing the prosecution of. And obviously, as director of the CIA, you had a large role in figuring out what we were gonna do. And there’s a lot that happened in that room that we can’t talk about on open mic, because it was classified and remains so. But how important do you think it was for us to be arresting and prosecuting those spies?
Leon Panetta: It was, as I think you believe, a hell of a big deal. And particularly in light of what’s going on today with this whole Russian investigation, what the Russians are doing and how they’re trying to impact on our country. I don’t think we can ever kid ourselves about the fact that Russia is an adversary. And the proof of that was in that situation where they had planted ten people in this country as ordinary citizens to locate themselves in communities, become a part of those communities, and then ultimately move into sensitive positions so they could spy for Russia. I mean, this is just longtime KGB tactics that have gone on. Fortunately, we were ahead of the game. And I remember a moment in the White House before this happened. We were at the National Security Council. And we said that we’ve got to arrest these people. And at the time, the President was meeting with Medvedev.
Preet Bharara: Yeah.
Leon Panetta: And –
Preet Bharara: This was in June of 2010.
Leon Panetta: That’s right. And the feeling in the White House was, oh, well, wait a minute. We can’t go out and arrest all these people. The President’s meeting with Medvedev.
Preet Bharara: But why not?
Leon Panetta: And – well, that was –
Preet Bharara: That was my view.
Leon Panetta: That was my question too. And so, we debated this. And there were people saying, no, no, no, we’ve got to hold off. We’ve got to hold off. And I looked at them at that point, and I said – I remember saying to the National Security advisor, I said, “You know,” I said, “you really ought to think long and hard about the decision here. And think about the possibility of a Washington Post headline that says when we had the chance to arrest ten Russian spies, we hesitated.”
Preet Bharara: It’s unfortunate that you had to use the prospect of a bad press story, right? Because –
Leon Panetta: That’s right.
Preet Bharara: To my mind – look, I’m a law and order guy. You’re a law and order guy. God knows Bob Mueller’s a law and order guy. And I remember being in that room, and I think everyone was pretty adamant that we had to arrest and prosecute.
Leon Panetta: Absolutely.
Preet Bharara: But then, the decision was made after arresting them, and they all pled guilty summarily in a court where I attended in front of Judge Kimba Wood at the time. And it was a surreal experience, where literally these Russians were asked to plead guilty. And during the course of the proceeding, Judge Wood had to ask each of them to state their name. And the first one was asked to state his name, and he had to respond, saying “Do you mean my real name or my American name?” And she said, “Well, no, your real name.” And he gave a Russian name. But the decision was made to swap them for other spies.
Leon Panetta: Yeah.
Preet Bharara: And I will tell you frankly that, you know, as a law and order person and a prosecutor and not a diplomat – I would never be accused of being a diplomat – I wasn’t sure if that was the right thing in the interest of justice.
Leon Panetta: Yeah, I can understand that. If I were in your shoes, I’d feel the same way.
Preet Bharara: Right. And there was a lot of discussion. But I was a lowly United States attorney.
Leon Panetta: Yeah.
Preet Bharara: And part of the reason that happened was you had a close relationship with your counterpart as the SPR (ph.), Mikhail Fradkov.
Leon Panetta: Yeah.
Preet Bharara: Do you think it was the right thing to do to swap those prisoners, and how did you think about that decision?
Leon Panetta: When I talked to Fradkov, and basically I said – and I didn’t expect him to say this. I thought he would deny that these people were spies. “Look,” I said, “we have your people. We just arrested them.” And he said, “You’re right, they are my people.” And at the time, we talked it through and looked at the possibility that we would have a number of trials, and that this would all go on for a long period of time, and looked at the fact that there were three or four key people that had been in Soviet prison who had been spies, and whether or not this was solved more speedily through an exchange of prisoners. And when I suggested it to him, by the way – is it possible we could work out some kind of exchange here? The first thing he said – it was very interesting. And Medvedev (ph.) was president. He says, “I have to talk to Putin.” And Putin wasn’t in really any official position at this time.
Preet Bharara: But he didn’t need to be in an official position.
Leon Panetta: That’s right. But yeah, they had to talk to Putin. And I have to tell you, that moment in Vienna when one plane landed and the other – the Russians were there, and they exchanged prisoners, it was like a scene from a Hollywood movie like The Third Man. All that was missing was a zither, right, playing in the background.
Preet Bharara: No, it was an amazing time and a complicated set of questions. But it raises the specter of what our relationship should be with Russia. You have said more than once that Russia is our adversary, not our friend. And I just want to take us back a few years to the 2012 era, when Barack Obama, in a presidential debate with Mitt Romney, made fun of Mitt Romney for saying that Russia is our number one geopolitical foe. And I think Obama said, “The 1980s is asking for its foreign policy back.” Given what has happened in recent times with the intervention with our election and the hacking and everything else, is the 1980s still calling for its foreign policy back?
It is our own citizens basically engaging in an act of treason that undermines our system of justice.
Leon Panetta: I don’t think there’s any question that Russia remains one of the principle adversaries to the United States. When I first went to the CIA, there was this sense – the Wall had come down, the Soviet Union had come down – that Russia was not – did not represent the kind of threat that it had represented in the past. And I remember I had a group of people who had been working on Russia in the CIA. And these guys were like Cold War warriors who basically said, don’t for a minute think that the Russians are gonna suddenly change and become our buddies.
Preet Bharara: And you agree with them.
Leon Panetta: Absolutely. Absolutely.
Preet Bharara: Do you think that we underestimated the Russians, though, as a nation a few years ago?
Leon Panetta: I think we underestimated our ability to be able to develop the kind of relationship with Russia that would be similar to the relationship with other allies in the world. That just was never gonna happen.
Preet Bharara: If you could have one question answered by special counsel Mueller’s investigation, what would it be?
Leon Panetta: I think . . . I think Bob Mueller, who is a friend and somebody I have a great deal of respect for, has a huge challenge to deal with. But I think for the sake of this country, it is incredibly important to find out, knowing now what we know, that Russia deliberately interfered in our election process, I think it is very important to find out whether the things they did did involve any collusion with members of the Trump campaign. If in fact that happened, I think it is in many ways not just the Russians undermining our political process. It is our own citizens basically engaging in an act of treason that undermines our system of justice.
Preet Bharara: And so, if Special Counsel Mueller finds there was collusion with members of the Trump campaign, what should happen then?
Leon Panetta: I think then the question then is expanded as to what was the role of the President in this process, as to whether there’s culpability.
Preet Bharara: If Donald Trump had some knowledge about this, do you think it reaches the level of that word that people like to use overly casually, I think, of impeachment?
Leon Panetta: You know, obviously, as you know, being a prosecutor, you hate to jump to conclusions without seeing all the evidence and without seeing all of the pieces put together, because this is a big step. In addition to what we just talked about, another issue involving interference or obstruction with justice that may have occurred as well.
Preet Bharara: If obstruction is found on the part of anyone, what do you think should happen? Do you think there should be prosecutions?
Leon Panetta: If there is obstruction by those – not the President of the United States, but by others around him, obviously there should be prosecution. If it involves the President of the United States, I think that’s an impeachable offense.
Preet Bharara: Right. Final question. What do you think America looks like at the end of President Trump’s first term?
Leon Panetta: You know, I want to believe this country is stronger than any one president, and that our forefathers were very smart in creating a system of checks and balances. I think that what I sense now is that system of checks and balances, whether it’s the Congress or whether it’s the courts, or whether it’s just people in the country who are resisting certain things that are happening, I think that tells me that we’re gonna be able to get through this without undermining the basic institutions of our democracy. I want to believe that. And I guess the reason I want to believe that is because this country for over 200 years has faced all kinds of crisis, whether it was recessions, or depressions, or World Wars, or a civil war, or natural disasters. And somehow, we’ve always risen to the occasion. Because I think the real strength of this country isn’t here in Washington. I think it’s in the spirit and resilience and courage and moral faith of the American people.
Preet Bharara: Secretary Panetta, thank you so much. I really appreciate it.
Leon Panetta: Thanks, Preet. Good to be with you.
Preet Bharara: Good to see you.
[End of Audio]
Preet Bharara’s new podcast, “Stay Tuned with Preet” on CAFE, is now live. Listen here on Apple Podcasts.