WASHINGTON — President Obama slammed allegations of voter fraud as “fake news” and gave the bulk of credit to American society for moving forward on LGBT rights in his final press conference at the White House today.
Obama called on news outlets such as Univision and Al-Arabiya instead of the traditional big networks. He gave the last question of his presidency to Tribune’s Christi Parsons, who has covered Obama since his Illinois statehouse days.
The president began by telling the press corps that he has not “enjoyed every story that you have filed, but that’s the point of this relationship.”
“You have done it for the most part in ways that I could appreciate for fairness, even if I didn’t always agree with your conclusions. And having you in this building has made this place work better. It keeps us honest, it makes us work harder,” he told the media. “…I’m looking forward to being an active consumer of your work, rather than always the subject of it.”
What was expected to be the hot topic of the presser — Obama’s order commuting the sentence of WikiLeaker Chelsea Manning — was also the first question.
“Chelsea Manning has served a tough prison sentence, so the notion that the average person who was thinking about disclosing vital classified information would think that it goes unpunished I don’t think would get that impression from the sentence that Chelsea Manning has served,” he said. “It has been my view that given she went to trial; that due process was carried out; that she took responsibility for her crime; that the sentence that she received was very disproportionate relative to what other leakers had received; and that she had served a significant amount of time, that it made sense to commute and not pardon her sentence.”
Manning leaked hundreds of thousands of diplomatic cables in addition to Iraq and Afghanistan defense documents to WikiLeaks, was arrested in May 2010 and sentenced to 35 years in prison at a 2013 court martial.
With respect to accusing WikiLeaks of undermining national security in Russian election hacking and then commuting the sentence of the leaker who supplied WikiLeaks with one of their most significant document dumps, Obama said, “I don’t see a contradiction.”
“The conclusions of the intelligence community with respect to the Russian hacking were not conclusive as to whether WikiLeaks was witting or not in being the conduit through which we heard about the DNC e-mails that were leaked,” he added.
Obama said “at times” his conversations with President-elect Trump have “been fairly lengthy and they’ve been substantive.”
“I have offered my best advice, counsel about certain issues both foreign and domestic. And you know, my working assumption is that having won an election, opposed to a number of my initiatives and certain aspects of my vision for where the country needs to go, it is appropriate for him to go forward with his vision and his values. And I don’t expect that there’s going to be, you know, enormous overlap,” he said.
“It may be that on certain issues, once he comes into office and he looks at the complexities of how to in fact provide healthcare for everybody, something he says he wants to do, or wants to make sure that he is encouraging job creation and wage growth in this country, that may lead him to some of the same conclusions that I arrived at once I got here. But I don’t think we’ll know until he has an actual chance to get sworn in and sit behind that desk.”
Obama said he stressed to Trump the importance of having a good team around him, from senior to junior staffers, because “this is a job of such magnitude that you can’t do it by yourself.”
“If you find yourself isolated because the process breaks down or if you’re only hearing from people who agree with you on everything or if you haven’t created a process that is fact-checking and probing and asking hard questions about policies or promises that you’ve made, that’s when you start making mistakes,” the president said he told his successor. “And as I indicated in some of my previous remarks, reality has a way of biting back if you’re not paying attention to it.”
He would not comment on the decision of some congressional Democrats — more than 50 today — to boycott the inauguration, only noting that he and first lady Michelle Obama will be there.
After leaving office, Obama said, “I want to do some writing. I want to be quiet a little bit and not hear myself talk so darn much. I want to spend precious time with my girls.” But he noted he’ll speak up as a private citizen if he sees “certain issues or certain moments where I think our core values may be at stake.”
“I put in that category if I saw systematic discrimination being ratified in some fashion. I put in that category explicit or functional obstacles to people being able to vote, to exercise their franchise,” he said. “I’d put in that category institutional efforts to silence dissent or the press. And for me at least, I would put in that category efforts to roundup kids who have grown up here and for all practical purposes are American kids, and send them someplace else, when they love this country.”
Asked about how LGBT rights would rank in the accomplisments of his administration, Obama said he “could not be prouder of the transformation that’s taken place in our society just in the last decade.”
“And, I’ve said before, I think we made some useful contributions to it, but the primary heroes in this stage of our growth as a democracy and a society are all the individual activists and sons and daughters and couples who courageously said ‘this is who I am and I’m proud of it,'” he said. “And that opened people’s minds and opened their hearts. And, eventually, laws caught up.”
He credited Ellen DeGeneres, to whom he awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, with changing attitudes as “somebody that kind and likable, projecting into, you know, living rooms around the country.”
“That wasn’t easy to do for her. And that’s just one small example of what was happening in countless communities all across the country.”
Asked if there will be another African-American president, Obama replied, “I think we’re going to see people of merit rise up from every race, faith, corner of this country. Because that’s America’s strength. When we have everybody getting a chance and everybody’s on the field, we end up being better.”
“If in fact we continue to keep opportunity open to everybody, then yeah, we’re going to have a woman president. We’re going to have a Latino president. And we’ll have a Jewish president, a Hindu president. You know, who knows who we’re going to have,” he added. “I suspect we’ll have a whole bunch of mixed-up presidents at some point that nobody really knows what to call them.”
Obama said he worries about inequality, and “not just along racial lines” but “a whole bunch of folks who voted for the president-elect because they feel forgotten and disenfranchised.”
The president saved his hardest hits for the issue of voting rights, emphasizing “an ugly history to that that we should not be shy about talking about.”
“The reason that we are the only country among advanced democracies that makes it harder to vote is — it traces directly back to Jim Crow and the legacy of slavery and it became sort of acceptable to restrict the franchise. And that’s not who we are,” Obama continued.
“This whole notion of election — voting fraud, this is something that has constantly been disproved, this — this is fake news. The notion that there are a whole bunch of people out there who are going out there and are not eligible to vote and want to vote. We have the opposite problem. We have a whole bunch of people who are eligible to vote who don’t vote. And so the idea that we put in place a whole bunch of barriers to people voting doesn’t make sense.”
Things are getting better in the country on racial issues, he said, because “kids are smarter about it” than previous generations.
“They’re more tolerant. They are more inclusive by instinct than we are, and hopefully, my presidency maybe helped that along a little bit,” Obama said. “…It’s no longer a black and white issue alone. You’ve got Hispanic folks and you’ve got Asian folks; this is not just the same old battles that — we’ve got this stew that’s bubbling up from people everywhere, and we’re going to have to make sure that we in our own lives and our own families and workplaces do a better job of treating everybody with basic respect.”