Barack Obama told reporters in his last days as president that he wasn’t worried about a single Donald Trump term, but was concerned about a “sustained period of political norms being undermined if he served two terms,” according to newly released documents obtained by Bloomberg News.
Obama met with reporters three days before Trump’s inauguration on Jan. 17, 2017, for an off-the-record conversation. A White House transcript of the meeting -- which was never reported under the ground rules agreed upon by the journalists -- was included in a cache of documents released by the Justice Department in response to a Freedom of Information Act request.
“I think that four years is okay,” Obama said. “Take on some water, but we can kind of bail fast enough to be okay. Eight years would be a problem. I would be concerned about a sustained period in which some of these norms have broken down and started to corrode.”
Trump has suggested he will seek a second term in 2024. His presidency sparked a wholesale change in the shape of the Republican Party, and a new cast of GOP candidates who hew to his populist policy ideas with the coarse rhetoric once unheard of in US campaigns.
Presidents occasionally hold off-the-record discussions with journalists. However, it’s rare that a transcript of such talks is released publicly.
Obama’s nearly 90-minute conversation with reporters covered topics such as his commutation of Chelsea Manning’s prison sentence for leaking classified documents, saying she didn’t deserve a 35-year sentence. He also noted that Edward Snowden’s leaks about US surveillance of private citizens “identified some problems that had to do with technology.”
But it was Obama’s comments about the Republican Party and Trump that seem almost prescient.
Obama’s post-presidential office declined to comment. A Trump spokesperson didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.
Obama said he didn’t believe Trump was particularly interested in starting any wars other than “bombing the heck out of terrorists,” an option Trump cited several times in his 2016 campaign and presidency.
“I think his basic view -- his formative view of foreign policy is shaped by his interactions with Malaysian developers and Saudi princes, and I think his view is, ‘I’m going to go around the world making deals and maybe suing people,’” Obama said. “But it’s not, ‘let me launch big wars that tie me up.’ And that’s not what his base is looking from him anyway.”
As for the GOP, Obama said he thought “the Republican Party now is ideologically completely incoherent.
“You don’t know what they stand for,” he said.
“So what’s bound them together is opposition to me, opposition to a fantastical creature called the liberal who looks down on them and just feeds all that regional resentment,” Obama said. “And there are a handful of issues, like guns, that trigger that sense of ‘these folks aren’t like us and they don’t like us and act like us.’ And there’s obviously some racial elements that get put out into that stew.”
Obama said his No. 1 concern about the incoming Trump administration was the potential politicization of law enforcement. He advised reporters at the time to pay close attention to the Justice Department.
“I would be like white on rice on the Justice Department,” Obama advised journalists, meaning to stick closely to it. “I’d be paying a lot of attention to that. And if there is even a hint of politically motivated investigations, prosecutions, et cetera, I think you guys have to really be on top of that.”
Geoffrey Berman, the former US Attorney for the Southern District of New York, recently accused Trump’s Justice Department of meddling in prosecutions and pressuring his office to launch politically motivated probes into Trump’s adversaries.
For all of Trump’s harsh criticisms about Obama, the 44th president said Trump’s public persona was radically different than in his private interactions.
“He’s very polite to me and has not stopped being so,” Obama said. “I think where he sees a vulnerability he goes after it and takes advantage of it.”
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