Former Vice President Cheney talks about Trump, Putin and politics at UPJ

November 13, 2018

Former Vice President Dick Cheney said Monday that it is possible for politicians to reach beyond party lines in order to govern.

Cheney, a Republican who served as former President George W. Bush’s No. 2, referenced his time working with former Democratic U.S. Reps. Leon Panetta and John Murtha in the House years ago. Murtha, a Democrat, had represented what was the 12th Congressional District, which included parts of Somerset County, before recent redistricting. He died in 2010.

Cheney acknowledged, however, that the political climate has changed since that time.

“If it were easy to solve, it would have been solved,” he said, adding that partisanship is driven by leadership. “It is a difficult, difficult task.”

Cheney and former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta were interviewed at the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown by political science professor Ray Wrabley during a public forum at the Pasquerilla Performing Arts Center. Panetta, who served in President Barack Obama’s administration, joined electronically from California. He was unable to attend because of the wildfires in California.

Hundreds of students and community members packed the auditorium.

“I’ve seen Washington work. The reason it worked is because of trust,” Panetta said during the forum. “The problem today is that there is little trust between the parties.

“It’s much more partisan that it ever was.”

Panetta blamed some of the divide on media, including social media.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and his country’s involvement in the 2016 U.S. presidential election was part of the conversation. Cheney said that Putin’s willingness to interfere in the election is dangerous for America.

“I think he’s deadly serious about his aspirations,” he said.

Panetta said that if the U.S. wants to combat Putin, lines need to be drawn that cannot be crossed.

“We have got to draw those lines,” he said, adding that if we don’t, Putin will be a “serious threat.” “We are in a new chapter of the Cold War.

“It’s tough to come to that recognition but it’s true.”

Other topics discussed included climate change, Cheney’s decision-making on invading Iraq and the men’s relationship with Murtha.

Cheney briefly took questions from reporters before the event at the John P. Murtha Center for Public Service and National Competitiveness.

Cheney was asked questions about President Donald Trump’s relationship with the intelligence community, concerns about U.S. relations with Russia, North Korea and Saudi Arabia, his relationship with Murtha and concerns over defense spending.

On intelligence, Cheney said he has not had access to classified information for years and that he only knows about how Trump handles sensitive matters by what he sees in the press.

“Based on news accounts, it would appear that the president is not operating, shall we say, in a traditional fashion where intelligence is concerned,” he said, adding that press reports indicate the president hasn’t been greatly influenced by intel on Russia and President Vladimir Putin. “I think it’s a problem, and I think the president of the United States needs to be aware, no matter what he may think about his own background and experience. There’s just a wealth of information that you need to know as president that you won’t get any way unless you talk to the intel community and listen to what they’ve got to say.”

He said that Putin is different from Soviet leaders that he dealt with in the 1980s and early ’90s like Mikhail Gorbachev, and that Putin seems to act more radically.

He added that the Russians have a “weak economy” but continue to invest in “robust military capability.”

In the wake of the apparent murder of a journalist associated with The Washington Post in Turkey, Cheney said that the Saudis still serve as an important ally in the Middle East.

Saying that he always called him Jack, Cheney described Murtha as a political “giant.”

“I always thought of him as a close friend, colleague. He was a Democrat, I was a Republican,” he said. “The important thing to know about Mr. Murtha was that he was a Marine. Once a Marine always a Marine.”

He added that while he served as secretary of defense under George H.W. Bush, Murtha was the “go-to guy” for defense funding.

“I think that was one of the most important relationships I had while I was secretary of defense,” he said.

On current defense funding, Cheney said he is concerned about budget cuts.

“President Trump ran on the basis that we were going to rebuild the military, which is one of the main reasons I supported him,” he said. “The difficulty is that now President Trump has apparently reversed course. In the last few weeks he has indicated he wants to make some cuts in the budget and that includes the defense budget.

“I think he really doesn’t understand the consequences that is going to have for the force or he’s got some concept that I don’t understand.”

Former U.S. Ambassador to India Richard Verma, a Johnstown native, also took questions from the press.

Students interviewed after the public forum seemed to have a positive response to the event.

Junior Edward Conn said that the event “seemed nice.”

“They seemed like two old, white men with experience agreeing on the subject that is political discourse,” Conn said.

Senior James Saporito said he thought the event was “great.”

“It’s interesting to hear about different perspectives,” Saporito said.

Senior and Student Government Association President Sam Miller said he thought the forum was “amazing.”

“I really loved how these speakers came out and talked to our students,” Miller said. “I learned their perspectives for their political era.”

But not all were happy to see the former vice president come to town. A group of protesters gathered outside the center as the crowd started arriving.

Larry Blalock blamed Cheney for the Iraq War and the cost that it took on the taxpayers.

“We thought it was important to remind the public that Dick Cheney lied us into a war that cost trillions of dollars,” Blalock said. “It’s going to be the poor and working people footing the bill.”

He said that poorer people will lose out because of the cost through cuts in social programs.

Hope Koss said that as a veteran, she feels that funding an “illegal war” is wrong.

Catherine-Anne McCloskey went a step further, comparing Cheney to a high-ranking World War II Nazi officer.

“This is like (Heinrich) Himmler speaking at your alma mater,” the ’78 UPJ graduate said.

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