A tale of two presidents

by Peter Weinberger

The COURIER has a long tradition of attending the annual California News Publishers (CNPA) conference where media executives get a chance to compare notes on everything from new revenue sources to governmental affairs. This year, I was asked to talk about the best practices in using drones for news coverage.

But that’s not the subject of this column.

Following a speaker who flies a drone around an auditorium may intimidate some, but in this case the main speaker was Leon Panetta. Mr. Panetta’s resume in public office is quite astounding, being best known as Bill Clinton’s Chief of Staff, Barack Obama’s Director of the CIA and Secretary of Defense, among other notable titles. He truly is an American statesman.

Given his experience in Washington, I was ready to hear his perspective about the current state of the Trump administration. And he did not disappoint.

You might think he would be quite critical of our current president, especially given comments he’s made in the past. But this time his mood was tempered and focused on the root causes of turmoil in Trump’s presidency, categorizing them as “A tale of two presidents.”

On one hand there are national security advisors who focus largely on international issues, while the White House staff focuses on internal management issues including domestic affairs. How President Trump utilizes these teams is as different as night and day.

Mentioning CIA Director Mike Pompeo and Secretary of Defense James Mattis, Mr. Panetta stated the administration has a strong national security team in place and it’s obvious the President listens to their advice. He noted that since taking office, Trump has pulled back from much of his hardline campaign rhetoric on China, Australia, NATO, trade, and even Islam. His current whirlwind tour shows he has confidence meeting other world leaders. America’s response to Syria’s use of chemical weapons was generally seen as timely and appropriate. The president also gives great authority to the generals commanding our armed forces.

Mr. Panetta then quickly pointed out how different the situation is at the White House. With dozens of positions unfilled, and a current staff that makes headlines for all the wrong reasons, America has suffered through one presidential blunder after another from a man who seems to be in way over his head.

Mr. Panetta added that all presidents have a learning curve once getting to office, but President Trump continues to show the American people he knows little about the rule of law, while still using time-tested bullying techniques from his days as a New York real estate developer. He is so paranoid about leaks to the press he trusts no one except his own family, who have offices near the Oval Office.

Unlike the national security team, providing any feedback to the president has proved difficult, meaning so far, no one can save him from himself. Reince Priebus is the current chief of staff, but seems unable to give good advice the president will listen to. That’s why the travel ban to Muslim countries was issued without instructions on implementation. No informed chief of staff would let that happen.

It’s hard to forget Trump’s leaking of sensitive intelligence to Russia or the handling of Comey’s firing, issues that may have been avoided if an experienced chief of staff had input into the president’s decisions.

Mr. Panetta added that, although Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump can give the president personal support, they are not experienced in areas desperately needed to manage the government. And in this case, America still needs a White House staff that can say “no” to the president.

Mr. Panetta was asked about the first thing he would change if he was President Trump’s chief of staff. He did not hesitate in saying, “I’d get rid of his Twitter account.”

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