US president Barack Obama held his final press conference of 2016, and what will likely be the final news conference of his two terms in the White House, today (Dec. 16). He opened with observations about the improvement in the US economy over the past eight years, and the accomplishments of his administration in providing health insurance to millions of Americans who were previously uninsured. And he spoke about the escalating emergency in Aleppo, squarely pinning responsibility for the conflict and human suffering there on the Syrian regime and its Russian and Iranian allies. “This blood and these atrocities is on their hands,” he said.
In the Q&A portion of the briefing, the discussion quickly turned to other matters, including US intelligence reports about Russia’s interference in the US election; the president’s argument that the current political climate makes America vulnerable to foreign influence; the new tension in the US-China relationship; and the handoff to US president-elect Donald Trump.
Here are some highlights:
Obama downplayed the notion that the revelations, and the Trump transition team’s dismissal of them, have poisoned relations between the outgoing administration and the incoming one. “I think they would be the first to acknowledge that we have done everything we can to make sure that they will be successful,” the president said. “There hasn’t been a lot of squabbling; what we’ve simply said are the facts, which is that based on uniform intelligence assessments, the Russians were … hacking the DNC, and that as a consequence it is important for us to review all elements of that and make sure that we are preventing interference” in the future.
“My hope is that the president-elect is going to similarly be concerned with making sure that we don’t have potential foreign influence in our election process,” he said. “That shouldn’t be the source of an argument.”
“I think it is very important for us to distinguish between the politics of the election and the need for us as a country … to make sure that we don’t create a political football here.”
After being alerted this summer to the hacking of the DNC, the Obama administration ordered briefings for the committee and for Congressional leadership. “And once we had clarity and certainty around what had happened, we publicly announced that in fact Russia had hacked into the DNC,” the president said.
The press, through its own investigations, offered interpretations of the motives behind the hack. But the administration itself did not formally make a public disclosure about the reasons for the attacks. “We did not, and the reason we did not is that in this hyper-partisan atmosphere … I wanted to make sure everybody understood that we were playing this thing straight, that we weren’t trying to advantage one side or the other” in the election, Obama said. Another consideration, he added, was to preserve the integrity of, and trust in, the electoral process.
“And that’s exactly as we should have handled it,” he added. “Imagine if we had done the opposite. It would have become almost immediately one more political scrum.”
“I can assure the public that there was not the kind of tampering with the voting process that was a concern,” Obama said. Similarly, he said, he could affirm “that the votes that were cast were counted, they were counted appropriately. We have not seen evidence of machines being tampered with—so that assurance I can provide.”
Obama walked a fine line between suggesting partisanship made the US vulnerable to foreign influence and suggesting Trump’s victory was, ultimately, the will of the people.
A sample: “[The DNC hacking] was an obsession that dominated the news coverage. So I do think it’s worth us reflecting how it is that a presidential election of such importance, of such moment, with so many big issues at stake, and such a contrast between the candidates, came to be dominated by a bunch of these leaks,” Obama said. “What is it about our political system that made us vulnerable to these kinds of potential manipulations?”
Obama answered his own question by referencing a recent survey suggesting that 37% of Republicans have a positive opinion of Russian president Vladimir Putin.
“Over a third of Republican voters approve of Vladimir Putin, the former head of the KGB,” he said with incredulousness. “Ronald Reagan would roll over in his grave. And how did that happen? It happened in part because for too long, everything that happens in this town, everything that’s said, is seen through the lens of ‘Does this help us or hurt us relative to Democrats, or relative to Obama.’ Until that changes, we’re going to continue to be vulnerable to foreign interests because we’ve lost track of what we’re about and what we stand for.”
Later, he summed it up thusly: “Our vulnerability to Russia or any other foreign power is directly related to how divided, partisan, dysfunctional our political process is. That’s the thing that makes us vulnerable.”
As he has been doing since the days before the Nov. 8 election, Obama offered some thoughts on why fake news frequently travels so well on the internet.
“If fake news that’s being released by some foreign government is almost identical to reports that are being issued through partisan news venues, then it’s not surprising that the foreign propaganda will have a greater effect—because it doesn’t seem that far-fetched from what folks are hearing from domestic propagandists,” he said.
“To the extent that our political dialogue is such that everything’s under suspicion, everyone’s corrupt… and all of our institutions are full of malevolent actors … if that’s the story line that’s being put out there by whatever party’s out of power, then when a foreign government introduces that same argument with facts that are made up, then folks who’ve been listening to that stuff for years … they’re going to believe it. So if we want to really reduce foreign influence on our elections, then we’d better make sure we think about how our political process, our political dialogue, [can be] stronger than it’s been.”
“Part of why the Russians have been effective on this is because they don’t go around announcing what they’re doing. … So the idea that somehow public shaming is going to be effective, I think, doesn’t read the thought process in Russia very well,” he said.
“We will provide evidence that we can safely provide, that does not compromise sources and methods. But I’ll be honest with you, when you’re talking about cybersecurity, a lot of it is classified and … if we’re going to monitor this stuff effectively going forward, we don’t want them to know that we know.”
“So this is one of those situations where unless the American people genuinely think that the professionals in the CIA, the FBI, our entire intelligence infrastructure—many of whom, by the way, served in previous administrations and are Republicans—are less trustworthy than the Russians, then people should pay attention to what our intelligence agencies say.”
“The thing we have to spend the most time on, because it’s the thing we have the most control over, is how do we make sure we are showing up where … people feel as if they’re not being heard, and where Democrats are characterized as coastal, liberal, latte-sipping, politically correct, out-of-touch folks. We have to be in those communities. And I have seen that when we are in those communities, it makes a difference. It’s how I became president.”
Though he would have had several examples to choose from, Obama never singled out the behaviors displayed by Trump that deviate from the expectations for decorum shown by a president-in-waiting. But he suggested the topic has come up in some of the phone calls they have shared since election day.
Obama said he has approached the calls with the idea that “regardless of our obvious disagreements about policy, maybe I can transmit some thoughts about maintaining the effectiveness, integrity, cohesion of the office, [and of] our various democratic institutions. And he has listened. I can’t say that he will end up implementing them. But the conversations themselves have been cordial as opposed to defensive in any way, and I will always make myself available to him, just as other presidents have made themselves available to me, as issues come up.”
On the responsibility he feels, as US president, for tragedies that have unfolded around the world, and specifically in Aleppo, Syria:
“I always feel responsible,” he said. “I felt responsible when kids were being shot by snipers, I felt responsible when millions of people were displaced. I feel responsible for murder and slaughter that’s taken place in South Sudan,” which he pointed to as an under-reported conflict. “There are places around the world where horrible things are happening and because of my office, because I’m president of the United States, I feel responsible.”
He continued: “There’s not a moment during the course of this presidency where I haven’t felt some responsibility. That’s true, by the way, for our own country. When I came into office and people were losing their jobs and losing their homes and losing their pensions, I felt responsible.”
“There’s probably no bilateral relationship that carries more significance and where there’s also the potential—if that relationship breaks down or goes into a full conflict mode—that everybody’s worse off.”
Until recently, one might have thought the main risk in US-China relations would be over trade. But a new, potentially even thornier issue emerged when Trump took a phone call from the president of Taiwan.
Obama noted that there has been a “longstanding agreement, essentially, between China, the US, and to some degree the Taiwanese—which is to not change the status quo: Taiwan operates differently than mainland China does, China views Taiwan as part of China but recognizes that it has to approach Taiwan as an entity that has its own ways of doing things, [and] the Taiwanese have agreed that as long as they’re able to continue to function with some degree of autonomy that they won’t charge forward and declare independence.”
“And that status quo, while not completely satisfactory to all the parties involved, has kept the peace and given the Taiwanese an economy of people who have some degree of self-determination. But understand that with China, the issue of Taiwan is as important as anything on their docket. The idea of One China is at the heart of their conception as a nation. And so if you are going to upend this understanding, you have to have thought through what the consequences are, because the Chinese will not treat that the way they will treat some other issues. This goes to the core of how they see themselves, and their reaction on this issue could end up being very significant.”
“That doesn’t mean you have to adhere to everything that’s been done in the past,” Obama added. “It does mean that you have to think it through.”
Referencing US policy toward Taiwan, and Trump’s recent phone call with Taiwan’s president, Obama said he thinks “it’s fine for him to take a look at it. What I’ve advised the president-elect is that across the board on foreign policy, you want to make sure you’re doing it in a systematic, deliberate, intentional way. And since there’s only one president at a time, my advice to him has been before he [goes beyond the customary post-election calls and starts carrying out policy], he should want to have his full team in place, he should want his team to be fully briefed on what’s gone on in the past and where the potential pitfalls may be, where the opportunities are.” That way, he said, even if the new president chooses to take policy in a different direction,” he has the information to make good decisions.”