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Politics & Government

Kelly Will Need Trump's Trust To Succeed In His New Job, Panetta Says


President Trump holds a rally in West Virginia tonight, where he's likely to push a new proposal to cut legal immigration to the U.S. by half. Curbing immigration is a campaign promise President Trump now hopes to be able to turn into a policy win. And that's something the Trump administration hopes to do more of now that it has a new chief of staff, General John Kelly. He started on Monday.

The challenge of achieving policy wins is something Leon Panetta understands quite well. He served as chief of staff to President Bill Clinton at a time when that president was criticized for sending mixed messages on policy issues. We reached out to Panetta to get his take on John Kelly's challenges. Kelly was Panetta's senior military assistant at the Pentagon.

So you know General Kelly very well. He worked under you when you were secretary of defense. What is it about Kelly's politics that very much fall in line with President Trump's?

LEON PANETTA: Well, you know, you have to understand that he is, first and foremost, a Marine. And he is very much dedicated to public service and to responding to whoever is commander in chief.

CHANG: But do you think there is some political overlap there between the two men?

PANETTA: In terms of caring about the country and caring about where the country's going, I think that's probably true. On the other hand, I think with regards to kind of some of the ways that the president may behave, I don't think that's very much in line with where John Kelly's coming from because he's a believer in discipline. He's a believer in a strong chain of command. He hates chaos. And he likes to have a process for developing policy. Those are kind of the standards that John Kelly has. So I'm sure that that will be tested in these next few months.

CHANG: What do you know about Kelly that suggests he can succeed where Reince Priebus, the former chief of staff, didn't?

PANETTA: Look, the key to being a good chief of staff - and having been there, I know this - first and foremost, you need the trust of the president. And you both have to have a relationship of honesty with one another. There has to be one chief of staff. There can't be competing centers of power in the White House. And I think Priebus allowed that to happen.

There has to be a strong chain of command. You cannot just have staff members all wandering around the White House and walking into the Oval Office. You've got to have people that have specific responsibilities and that are being supervised. And you have to have a process for developing policy. It can't just be done by tweets.

And so I think those were some of the weaknesses, obviously, that Priebus had that hopefully Kelly, because of his being a Marine and because of the standards that he's kind of lived by - the real challenge is going to be whether or not he can deal with those issues as the next chief of staff.

CHANG: Speaking of those tweets, how do you think Kelly will respond if or when the president tweets something ill-advised about, say, the Russia investigation, or if he calls his political opponents names? I mean, what does Kelly do in that situation?

PANETTA: When it comes to tweets, I think the president and his chief of staff have to have an understanding that tweets can't just go out there dealing with major policy, that there's got to be a process for developing policy, coming to a conclusion. And then if the president wants to tweak that policy, that's fine. But there's got to be some thought given to the policy that's being developed. And I think John Kelly, hopefully, can put that process in place.

CHANG: You were made chief of staff in the Clinton White House, in large part because there was a perception that you would bring order to some of the disorganization in that administration. So there are some parallels between your role then and Kelly's role now. Right?

PANETTA: Yeah, no - there's no question I faced some of the same issues. You know, lack of discipline, lack of a strong chain of command, a lack of focus on policy and priorities and messaging - all of those were challenges that I had to face. But the one thing I had - and it's a key to your ability to get the job done - was that I had a president who understood those problems that he had and was willing to make changes in order to improve how the White House operated.

I could not have done this without the support of the president. No chief of staff can get this done without the support of the president. And that's going to be the question, obviously, that John Kelly's going to face. And we'll know the answer to that, I think, within these next few weeks.

CHANG: Leon Panetta - he was White House chief of staff under President Bill Clinton. Thank you very much for joining us.

PANETTA: Good to be with you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.