In his final end-of-year news conference, the president warns of a Republican Party aligned with Russia.
Republicans should realize they have a problem, President Barack Obama said over and over Friday, when they’re agreeing with the Kremlin so much.
That they don’t, shows him just how broken American politics has become, and how vulnerable the country has become after Republicans spent years demonizing him and fellow Democrats and gumming up the government.
It’s not only a vulnerability to foreign powers, according to Obama. There’s now a real risk of America abandoning the ideals and values that have bound the country together for 240 years.
Everyone should be scared about what that means and where it leads, he said.
Obama didn’t want Donald Trump to win. Though he’s ducked saying it in the weeks since the election, he meant what he said all through the campaign about being worried that the president-elect is now going to have the nuclear codes, that he and his temperament really are a threat to the republic.
Standing at the podium in the White House briefing room, with Air Force One ready to take him and the rest of the First Family away to Hawaii, Obama said that he’s worried about threats that go much deeper than even that, or an incoming administration that appears aimed at ripping up the work of his presidency.
“How can we channel what I think is the basic decency and goodness of the American people so it reflects itself in our politics as opposed to it being so polarized and so nasty that in some cases, you have voters and elected officials who have more confidence and faith in a foreign adversary than they have in their neighbors?” he said.
His proof? All those Republicans who beat him up for years for being too close to Russia and Putin, and then jumped on board with Trump even as he was promising more cooperation with Russia and praising Putin—“A guy calls me a genius and they want me to renounce him? I’m not going to renounce him,” Trump explained at a campaign stop over the summer.
As he did in an interview with NPR this week, Obama cited an Economist and YouGov poll that showed 37 percent of Republicans with a favorable view of Russian President Vladimir Putin, a leader Obama revealed that he’d personally scolded and warned against more election hacking interference during an encounter in China in September, and whom on Friday he said runs a country slowly careening around the drain. Not to mention all the blood on his hands in Syria, by Obama’s account.
“Ronald Reagan would be rolling over in his grave,” Obama said.
“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 or hurt us relative to Democrats or relative to President Obama?” he said. “And unless that changes, we’re going to continue to be vulnerable to foreign influence because we’ve lost track of what it is that we’re about and what we stand for.”
The worst part, according to Obama, is that he says everyone knew it all along and still does.
Asked repeatedly about the intelligence assessments that the Russians were behind the hack, that Putin was personally involved, that it targeted Democrats, that it was meant to take down Hillary Clinton, Obama said it was so obvious he didn’t need to say it out loud, going instead for shrugs, big sarcastic frowns, upturned hands, eyes wide open and eyebrows almost hitting his hairline: “Well, come on,” he said.
Friday morning, the president-elect continued raising his own questions about the intelligence on Twitter. Then his campaign manager and ongoing spokesperson Kellyanne Conway said Friday that if Obama and Clinton “love the country enough” to have a peaceful transition, then when faced with the intelligence assessments coming out about the Russians favoring Trump, they’d “shut this down.”
That’s absurd, Obama said, trying to attribute Trump’s responses to still not being able to leave the campaign trail behind for governing.
“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, have served in previous administrations and who are Republicans, are less trustworthy than the Russians,” Obama said, “then people should pay attention to what our intelligence agencies say.”
The slippery slope, Obama warned, is coated with Siberian ice. Trump and his supporters, he said, haven’t just embraced Russia, they’ve embraced Russian values.
“The Russians can’t change us or significantly weaken us,” Obama said. “But, they can impact us if we lose track of who we are. They can impact us if we abandon our values. Mr. Putin can weaken us, just like he’s trying to weaken Europe, if we start buying into notions that it’s okay to intimidate the press. Or lock up dissidents. Or discriminate against people because of their faith or what they look like.”
Trump, of course, regularly bashes journalists, threatened to throw Clinton in jail if he won and strip citizenship of people who burned flags, and proposed a ban on Muslims from entering the country. Many of his supporters signed on with all of these.
“You’ve started to see certain folks in the Republican Party and Republican voters suddenly finding a government and individuals who stand contrary to everything that we stand for as being okay because, ‘That’s how much we dislike Democrats,’” Obama said.
Republican political leaders should think about how responsible they are for the situation, he said. Democrats too, though they were clearly less on his mind. Members of the media had to as well, he said, as he knocked reporters for jumping at every revelation in the private email of Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta, including his risotto recipe. Average Americans and voters need to think about what they digested and stood for.
“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 that foreign propaganda will have a greater effect,” he said.
And he said he’s going to spend time thinking about his own responsibility and role—“I always feel responsible,” he said, at another point, saying that everything that’s happened abroad and at home during the last eight years has weighed on him.
At an hour and half, it was his longest press conference ever, interrupted for a stretch by a woman who fainted toward the back of the packed room. It also may very well be his last at the White House.
Toward the end, he turned back toward the moment he arrived in national politics, giving that famous keynote in Boston for the Democratic National Convention.
“I still believe what I said in 2004, which is this red state/blue thing is a construct. Now, it is a construct that’s gotten more and more powerful for a whole lot of reasons,” Obama said, ticking through them.
Maybe there’s a different way forward, he suggested.
“I still see people the way I saw them when I made that speech: full of contradictions and you know, there are some regional differences, but basically folks care about their families. They care about having meaningful work, they care about making sure their kids have more opportunity than they did. They want to be safe. They want to feel like things are fair.”
Washington and American politics under his presidency, he acknowledged, had ultimately failed in that.