A year ago today, The New Republic published Brian Beutler’s piece: Obama Is Warning America About Trump’s Presidency. Are You Listening?. The occasion was a press conference President Obama gave two days prior, on November 14th. It’s worth revisiting both Beutler’s article and Obama’s warnings.
As Beutler pointed out, President Obama was outwardly upbeat but the subtext of what he was saying was terrifying. While Obama promised to be as helpful as possible and noted repeatedly that Trump would not face the same kind of instant calamities that he had faced at the beginning of his presidency, he clearly did not think Trump was temperamentally fit to be president and did not predict success.
One concern was proper staffing.
“The most important point I made,” Obama told reporters at the White House, referring to his conversation last week with Trump, “was that how you staff—particularly your chief of staff, your national security adviser, your White House counsel, how you set up a process and a system to surface information, generate options for a president, understanding that ultimately the president is going to be the final decision maker, that that’s something that’s going to have to be attended to right away.”
That seems prescient in retrospect, considering that Trump’s first National Security Adviser lasted only a few weeks and his first chief of staff only a little over half a year. We can go down the list from there, to include Steve Bannon, Sean Spicer, and several other important members of his initial team.
Another concern was Trump’s lack of respect for the truth.
“I think there will be certain elements of his temperament that will not serve him well unless he recognizes them and corrects them,” Obama added, “because when you’re a candidate and you say something that is inaccurate or controversial, it has less impact than it does when you’re president of the United States. Everybody around the world is paying attention, markets move. National security issues require a level of precision in order to make sure you don’t make mistakes. I think he recognizes that this is different.”
Trump has blundered on foreign policy matters from the outset, including famously his treatment of Taiwan and his refusal to commit to NATO’s Article 5 mutual defense provision. But it’s his bombast and imprecision on North Korea policy that had the Senate Foreign Relations Committee exploring ways to limit his ability to start a nuclear war earlier this week.
Obama was also clearly worried that Trump would not abide by rules, laws and norms and that this would land him in hot water:
“One of the things you discover about being president is that there are all these rules and norms and laws and you’ve got to pay attention to them,” Obama said, as if the president-elect weren’t a 70-year-old person with a fancy education. “The people who work for you are also subject to those rules and norms. And that’s a piece of advice that I gave to the incoming president.”
“We listened to the lawyers,” Obama said, “and we had a strong White House Counsel’s Office. We had a strong Ethics Office. We had people in every agency whose job it was to remind people, this is how you’re supposed to do things…. We had to just try to institutionalize this as much as we could. And that takes a lot of work. And one of my suggestions to the incoming president is, is that he take that part of the job seriously, as well.”
Trump could not possibly have taken those concerns less seriously. His violations of the Emoluments Clause are staggering, and his appointment of his daughter and son-in-law created immediate problems for him. His decision to fire James Comey is perhaps his greatest mistake, but his lack of respect for norms is seen clearly on a daily basis, from his displeasure with Jeff Sesssions’s recusal to his pressure on the Department of Justice to investigate Hillary Clinton.
Obama was restrained in what he said last year, but his warnings were clear and, unfortunately, very accurate.