Since leaving office in January 2017, America’s favorite president has been remarkably diplomatic when speaking about the orange monster who took his place after losing the 2016 popular vote but gaming the Electoral College. A living embodiment of the “if you can’t say nothin’ nice, don’t say nothin’ at all” rule, Barack Obama’s previous public critiques of Donald Trump have been works of art, crafted with the good manners, dry wit, and great word choice we’ve come to expect from the cherished.
His private comments, on the other hand, are something entirely different.
In a private call with former staffers Friday night, Obama pulled no punches. In addition to blasting Trump’s continued failures in the federal response to the COVID-19 crisis, which he called “an absolute chaotic disaster,” Obama also tackled the cultural shifts that have surfaced during Trump’s first term, noting dangerous trends toward selfishness and tribalism. But there’s more.
A recording of the call was first obtained by Yahoo! News; CNN later confirmed the details with three former members of the Obama administration. The 30-minute conversation with the Obama Alumni Association was not a mere Trump-bashing party of course; as CNN notes, the former president was entreating his former staffers to get behind Joe Biden, his Vice President for both terms, and the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee. Obama endorsed Biden on April 14.
“This election that’s coming up—on every level—is so important because what we’re going to be battling is not just a particular individual or a political party,” he told his alumni. “What we’re fighting against is these long-term trends in which being selfish, being tribal, being divided, and seeing others as an enemy—that has become a stronger impulse in American life.”
That’s when, with typical Obama smoothness, he took on Trump, without ever saying his name.
“And by the way, we’re seeing that internationally as well. It’s part of the reason why the response to this global crisis has been so anemic and spotty. It would have been bad even with the best of governments. It has been an absolute chaotic disaster when that mindset — of ‘what’s in it for me’ and ‘to heck with everybody else’ — when that mindset is operationalized in our government. That’s why, I, by the way, am going to be spending as much time as necessary and campaigning as hard as I can for Joe Biden,” he declared.
Obama also acknowledged that “most important election” rhetoric is familiar, but particularly accurate in 2020. “I am hoping that all of you feel the same sense of urgency that I do,” the retired chief executive said, adding that “Whenever I campaign, I’ve always said, ‘Ah, this is the most important election.’ Especially obviously when I was on the ballot, that always feels like it’s the most important election. This one—I’m not on the ballot—but I am pretty darn invested. We got to make this happen.”
The nation’s first Black president held up the Trump administration’s recent corruption surrounding the Michael Flynn case as a prime imperative to join the fight to elect Biden, as “the rule of law is at risk.”
“The news over the last 24 hours I think has been somewhat downplayed — about the Justice Department dropping charges against Michael Flynn,” Obama said. “(T)he fact that there is no precedent that anybody can find for someone who has been charged with perjury just getting off scot-free. That’s the kind of stuff where you begin to get worried that basic—not just institutional norms—but our basic understanding of rule of law is at risk. And when you start moving in those directions, it can accelerate pretty quickly as we’ve seen in other places.”
Note: Obama misstated the charge to which Flynn pleaded guilty; he was charged with lying to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), rather than perjury. But the point holds up, despite the error.
When asked for comment Saturday, former Never Trumper and current White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany ignored Obama’s critique of the DOJ’s Flynn shenanigans entirely, instead leaning on her usual formula of praising Trump with a vague word salad that really says nothing at all.
“President Trump’s coronavirus response has been unprecedented and saved American lives,” McEnany said in a statement to CNN. Remarkably, Trump himself has yet to directly respond to Obama’s comments via his preferred platform for shouting at people.