Is this in fact the last lecture or will he be back for one more press conference/national scolding next month, to let us all know how much we’ve let him down on his way out the door? I think he’s got one more in him. This is the year-end press conference, it seems.
I’m surprised he decided to go through with it under the circumstances. It’s a fraught moment: The left’s in a frenzy over the CIA’s accusation against Russia, Trump is spinning for Putin by questioning who did the hacking, Hillary’s suddenly pointing fingers at Russia and the FBI for sinking her presidential bid, and the electoral college is set to vote in 72 hours. Whatever your opinion on what Russia’s secret motive was, their operation was obviously a smash success — Trump won and we have chaos within two deeply embittered partisan factions. Obama will need to choose his words carefully today, especially if he’s still hoping to maintain good relations with Trump in hopes of lobbying him on policy:
Even as President Barack Obama seeks to maintain an amicable relationship with Trump in an attempt to influence his successor’s agenda, the public spat between aides over Russia’s hacking has turned into the type of bitter back-and-forth the White House initially sought to avoid in the days immediately following the election…
The President-elect’s dismissal of US intelligence pinning Russia to the hacking was “materially different” from Trump’s other bombastic statements, according to one White House official who spoke anonymously to describe internal thinking. It motivated the White House to alter its approach.
If Obama’s given up on trying to lobby him, then he’s freer to say or do what he wants. But what could he say or do to try to box Trump in on Russia? One option is to call for new sanctions on Russia, just as Lindsey Graham wants, and insist on trying to pass them during the current lame-duck session. Trump could undo them next year but if the Republican-controlled Congress backed Obama on them now, it’d at least send a message to Trump from his own party if/when he acts that he’s not doing so with a united GOP behind him. (Remember, although Republican opinion of Putin has improved considerably over the past four months, it’s still negative on balance.) And if McConnell and Ryan won’t act on new sanctions now on the theory that Trump should start his presidency without any new last-minute obligations added to his plate, that’s useful to Democrats too. Then they can argue that the congressional GOP is as weak on Russia as Trump himself is. That’s good midterm motivation for the left, if nothing else.
Whatever Obama might say about Trump today, expect him to take a shot at Republicans generally for their Strange New Respect for Moscow. Here’s what he told NPR yesterday:
“The irony of all this, of course, is that for most of my presidency, there’s been a pretty sizable wing of the Republican Party that has consistently criticized me for not being tough enough on Russia,” he said. “Some of those folks during the campaign endorsed Donald Trump, despite the fact that a central tenet of his foreign policy was we shouldn’t be so tough on Russia. And that kind of inconsistency I think makes it appear, at least, that their particular position on Russia on any given day depends on what’s politically expedient.”…
“This is somebody, the former head of the KGB, who is responsible for crushing democracy in Russia, muzzling the press, throwing political dissidents in jail, countering American efforts to expand freedom at every turn; is currently making decisions that’s leading to a slaughter in Syria. And a big chunk of the Republican Party, which prided itself during the Reagan era and for decades that followed as being the bulwark against Russian influence, now suddenly is embracing him.”
That scolding would mean more coming from a guy who wasn’t pantsed by Putin on every major point of conflict with the United States over the last four years and who openly mocked Mitt Romney in 2012 for believing that Russia is an enemy of the United States. But he’s got a point, damaged messenger or not.
Two things to watch for at the presser. One: Obama’s destined to be asked whether the electoral college should consider this Russia business in deciding whether to stick to the outcome in their home states. Some Democrats, including John Podesta, have called for the college to receive an intelligence briefing before it votes; others want the electors to withhold their votes from Trump, briefing or no, to punish Putin. Any hint by O that the electoral college should consider ignoring the result in their individual states will be explosive — and for that reason, I assume he’ll stay far away from it. We’ll get some version of “no comment,” but how Obama dodges will be interesting in its own right. Two: Word on the street is that the administration might try to embarrass the kleptocrat Putin before O leaves office by revealing its intelligence on just how vast his wealth is. I’m … not sure what the point of that would be, as Russians understand that the regime is corrupt. Supposedly it might shame some western bankers into refusing to do business with Putin, but that’s dubious too. The 2014 sanctions on Russia were also supposed to shame western businesses into limiting their dealings with Russia, yet there Rex Tillerson was that same year, choosing to attend a major petroleum conference in Moscow. How’d that work out for him? Does he seem shamed?
The presser’s set to begin at 2:15 ET, which, adjusting for Obama’s usual protocol, means you should expect an actual start time of around 2:45.