US is ‘strongest country… we’re going to be OK’: Obama's last White House news conference
The first question was about his decision to commute much of whistleblower Chelsea Manning’s sentence.
Manning’s sentence ‘disproportionate’
Convicted whistleblower Chelsea Manning "has served a tough prison sentence,” Obama said, noting the 35-year prison term imposed by the military court.
“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 she received was very disproportionate relative to what other leakers have received, and that she had served a significant amount of time, it made sense to commute – not pardon – part of her sentence,” he said. Commutation sent a message that whistleblowers “need to work through established channels,” he added.
Asked if the commutation sent a mixed signal about WikiLeaks, which published Manning’s revelations in 2010 – and was accused of being agents of the Kremlin in 2016, for publishing Democrats’ purloined correspondence – Obama said: “I don’t see a contradiction.”
In the internet age, the US needs to embrace transparency, but there are “bad actors out there who wish to use that same openness and transparency in order to hurt us,” the outgoing president said.
Obama said he desired a “constructive relationship” with Russia when he got into office, and blamed Russian President Vladimir Putin and his “escalating anti-American rhetoric" for the "return to an adversarial spirit" between two nations unseen since the Cold War.
Washington must ensure that “big countries don’t go around and invade and bully small countries,” he said, repeating a line from his September 2014 speech in Tallinn, Estonia.
US sanctions against Russia were solely due to Moscow’s actions in Ukraine, Obama said, holding that up as an example of the US role in upholding norms and rules in the world.
“In every multilateral setting, the US typically has been on the right side of these issues, and it’s important for us to stay on the right side of these issues. Because if we – the largest, strongest country and democracy in the world – don’t stand up for these values, certainly others like China or Russia won’t,” Obama told reporters on Wednesday.
Israel and Palestine
Obama said that he's significantly worried about "the Israeli-Palestinian issue,” describing the current situation as “unsustainable, dangerous for Israel, bad for Palestinians, bad for the region and bad for US national security.”
The two-state solution was the only way of guaranteeing that Israel would remain both a Jewish state and a democracy, Obama said, justifying his administration’s decision to abstain from a UN Security Council vote on Resolution 2334.
Trump and his team will have a new policy, Obama noted. “We’ll see how their approach plays itself out,” he said, warning against any sudden, unilateral moves – such as relocating the US embassy to Jerusalem, an issue championed by the president-elect.
“The actions that we take have enormous consequences and ramifications. We’re the biggest kid on the block,” Obama said. “It is right and appropriate for the new president to test old assumptions… but if you’re going to make big shifts in policy, make sure you’ve thought it through.”
Why Trump won
When asked if he would try to preserve his legacy while Trump is in office, Obama replied that, after Trump won an election running against his vision and that he doesn’t expect much overlap. However, he noted when Trump comes into office and sees the complexities of certain issues, “that may lead him to some of the same conclusions that I arrived at, once I got here.”
Explaining why Trump won the election, Obama said: “Many people voted for [Trump] because they feel forgotten and disenfranchised… You don’t want to have an America in which a very small sliver of people are doing really well, and everyone else is fighting for scraps.”
Asked how he would explain the election outcome to his daughters, Obama waxed maudlin. “There is a core decency to this country. They’ve got to be a part of lifting that up,” he said.
“I believe in this country. I believe in the American people. I believe that people are more good than bad,” Obama told reporters. “In my core, I believe we’re going to be OK.”
Civil rights and America
“I could not be prouder of the transformation in our society just over the last decade,” Obama said, pointing out his administration’s accomplishments, such as same-sex marriage and integration of LGBT individuals into the US military. “I don’t think it is something that will be reversible, because American society has changed.”
“I think we’re going to see people of merit rise from every race, faith, corner of this country, because this is America’s strength,” Obama told a reporter who asked if there will ever be another African-American president.
Speculation about voter fraud was “fake news,” he said, and the real problem is that America has people who are eligible to vote but can’t because of ID laws and other restrictions, which he called an issue that “traces directly back to Jim Crow and the legacy of slavery.”
“That’s not who we are,” Obama said, resorting to a frequent refrain of his administration.