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Leon Panetta Says Comey Firing 'Undermined Credibility' In Russia Investigation


There are still a lot of unanswered questions about exactly why and when President Trump lost confidence in former FBI Director James Comey. Was it really how Comey handled the investigation into Hillary Clinton's emails? Did it have anything to do with the FBI investigation into possible cooperation between the Trump campaign and Russia?

We're going to hear now from a man who has served in all kinds of leadership roles in Washington, D.C. - Leon Panetta. He is a former member of Congress. And he served Democratic presidents as White House chief of staff. He directed the CIA, and he was the secretary of defense. Panetta says there's no doubt the president has the authority to dismiss an FBI director.

LEON PANETTA: I think the bigger questions here are the credibility of what's involved because the fact is by virtue of doing that, that firing has undermined credibility in a very vital national security investigation.

MARTIN: Well, I want to ask you about that because Democrats in particular are outraged over this. They likewise are worried that the investigation into Russian meddling in our election could be slowed or just called off. And I want to play you a little bit of tape. This is a clip from Republican Congressman Blake Farenthold. And here's what he told us on this program yesterday.


BLAKE FARENTHOLD: People elected Donald Trump because he acts decisively. He fired Comey. He didn't fire the entire FBI. If there's something there, the FBI is going to continue to investigate it.

MARTIN: So you don't buy that? You think that because the leadership at the FBI has changed, that it does call the investigations into question?

PANETTA: Well, you know, there's no question that there is an ongoing investigation, but, you know, my experience is that the director of the FBI is particularly important to just how aggressive an investigation will be into an issue. And once you remove that director, it creates a vacuum at the top. And the fundamental issue will be whether or not there is support at the highest levels within the FBI to continue to conduct that investigation. That's going to be the question mark.

MARTIN: May I just ask you, do you think the administration's argument holds water, that they are taking this action against James Comey because of how he handled Hillary Clinton's emails?

PANETTA: Well, you know, it really - it seems to be a stretch to make that argument now only because during the campaign the president obviously commended Comey for how he was conducting the investigation into the email situation. And I think this is a little bit of a game of looking for reasons to probably dismiss the FBI director because that's what the president wanted to do.

MARTIN: As I noted, you served as White House chief of staff under President Bill Clinton, which was an administration under fire on all kinds of counts - Travelgate, Whitewater, Monica Lewinsky. You had to find your way to govern throughout all of that. What is your advice to President Trump's chief of staff, Reince Priebus, in this moment?

PANETTA: I think my best advice would be to separate the president of the United States from whatever investigation is being conducted by the FBI. I mean, there is something to be said, frankly, about the need for the appointment of an independent prosecutor because the American people are entitled to have a full review of what happened as a result of what the Russians did during our election.

It is important that the White House fully cooperate with that investigation, but I also think it's extremely important that the president himself indicate that he too wants to discover the full truth behind what the Russians did.

MARTIN: There have been a lot of questions about institutions. There's a lot of distrust by the American public in institutions whether it's Congress or the media or government. Do you see this as a test of those institutions? And do you see them being strong enough to weather this moment?

PANETTA: We have throughout our history been tested when it comes to the institutions of our democracy. And thank God our forefathers were smart enough to establish a government of checks and balances to make sure that power cannot be centralized in any one branch of government. And those institutions have proven themselves.

I have tremendous confidence in the ability of those institutions and the American people to do what is right to make sure that our democracy stays on the right track.

MARTIN: Leon Panetta. After a long career in Washington, he now heads The Panetta Institute for Public Policy in Monterey, Calif. Secretary Panetta, thank you so much for your time.

PANETTA: Thank you very much, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.