Things change in America in ten days, when Donald Trump becomes America’s president, but this day was the real transition. Obama gave his thoughtful and generous and hopeful farewell address in Chicago.
Obama is a mensch. People get that now. Agree with him or not, he’s a decent man. He’ll listen to you. His approval ratings are higher than ever, and he just said goodbye. Elvis has left the building – and Donald Trump is not a mensch. He’s a nasty man. He wants us all to be nasty – or winners, as he puts it. There’s now no point in reviewing what he’s said and done. Two items will do – his mocking that disabled reporter and that one line he kept repeating – “We’ve got to stop being so nice to people, folks.”
The rest is mere detail. Think of his campaign as a bad Bach fugue – theme and variations. Sneering was the theme. That’s what winners do – and they hit back ten times harder. Everyone knows the tune now, and all the variations. That’s what we’ve got now. The matter is settled. The vote was certified. Some see dark days ahead.
Obama knows that, and his farewell address was about dealing with darkness:
President Obama used his farewell speech here on Tuesday to outline the gathering threats to American democracy and press a more optimistic vision for a country that seems more politically divided than ever.
Obama said goodbye to the nation against the backdrop of one of the most corrosive elections in U.S. history and a deep sense that the poisonous political environment has pitted Americans against each other.
“America, we weaken those ties when we allow our political dialogue to become so corrosive that people of good character aren’t even willing to enter public service; so coarse with rancor that Americans with whom we disagree are not just misguided, but malevolent,” Obama said. “We weaken those ties when we define some of us as more American than others; when we write off the whole system as inevitably corrupt, and blame the leaders we elect without examining our own role in electing them.”
It was 2004 in Boston once again. That’s when he gave that famous speech at the Democratic National Convention – there’s not a red America, there’s not a blue America, there’s the United States of America, and all the rest. He brought the house down, even if he was officially nominating John Kerry. Kerry wouldn’t become president. He would, and Obama introduced his main theme that night. The subsequent twelve years have been variations on a theme – that one. Everyone knows the tune now too.
Still, there are always sour notes:
“After my election, there was talk of a post-racial America. Such a vision, however well-intended, was never realistic,” he said. “For race remains a potent and often divisive force in our society. Now, I’ve lived long enough to know that race relations are better than they were 10, or 20, or 30 years ago – you can see it not just in statistics, but in the attitudes of young Americans across the political spectrum. But we’re not where we need to be.”
He took note of overseas threats including “violent fanatics who claim to speak for Islam” and “autocrats in foreign capitals who see free markets, open democracies, and civil society itself as a threat to their power.”
Some things can’t be fixed, but maybe they can:
The president recalled his days as a community organizer in some of Chicago’s toughest neighborhoods. “This is where I learned that change only happens when ordinary people get involved, get engaged, and come together to demand it,” he said of his adopted home town.
The idea is that things don’t have to be dark. Do something. It might help, but he kept returning to that 2004 theme:
He spoke repeatedly of the need for empathy, saying that Americans of color needed to tie “our own struggles for justice to the challenges that a lot of people in this country face,” including “the middle-aged white guy… who’s seen his world upended by economic, and cultural and technological change.”
He called on white Americans to acknowledge “that the effects of slavery and Jim Crow didn’t suddenly vanish in the ’60s.”
“We have to pay attention,” Obama implored the crowd, “and listen.”
Good luck with that. The new guy says we’ve got to stop being so nice to people, but people there liked the old tune:
Obama’s references to expanded health care coverage, the legalization of same-sex marriage and tolerance for immigrants and minorities drew the loudest applause and cheers. But when he mentioned the prospect of Trump’s inaugural – “In 10 days, the world will witness a hallmark of our democracy” – a murmur of boos rippled through the audience.
They knew, and then there were the warnings:
Even as he touted his accomplishments and rallied his supporters, Obama pointed to the places where he said our politics was failing.
“But without some common baseline of facts; without a willingness to admit new information… then we’re going to keep talking past each other,” he said. “And isn’t that part of what so often makes politics dispiriting?”
He warned that denying climate change not only “betrays future generations, it betrays the essential spirit of this country.”
He called on Americans to be “anxious, jealous guardians of our democracy” and to break out of their ideological bubbles.
“If you’re tired of arguing with strangers on the internet, try talking with one of them real life,” he said, to cheers, before urging them to run for office. “Show up. Dive in. Stay at it.”
In short, dark days are ahead. Do something. Turn on a light, and he ended with this:
“Yes We Can,” the president said, invoking the catchphrase of his first presidential bid.
“Yes We Did,” he added, as audience members stamped their feet on the bleachers in time to his words. “Yes We Can.”
Donald Trump isn’t worried. He’ll tweet them into submission.
And that was that, although Matthew Yglesias saw this:
Barack Obama is a famously optimistic rhetorician. He’s also one who doesn’t really do “bad guys.” The enemies in his speeches are always unnamed and merely alluded to. He’s also extremely even-handed, in typical fashion balancing a slam on people who deny that racism is real and important with a call on people of color to empathize with “the middle-aged white man who from the outside may seem like he’s got all the advantages, but who’s seen his world upended by economic, cultural, and technological change.”
But for one, brief, shining moment Obama stopped being polite and started being real.
“If every economic issue is framed as a struggle between a hardworking white middle class and undeserving minorities,” he said, “then workers of all shades will be left fighting for scraps while the wealthy withdraw further into their private enclaves.”
Yglesias says that it doesn’t take a genius to know what Obama was getting at:
Donald Trump, who was born rich and lives in a gold-plated tower, is a wealthy person who can withdraw further into his private enclaves. So is his son-in-law and senior advisor Jared Kushner. So is his billionaire education secretary Betsy DeVos. So is his billionaire commerce secretary Wilbur Ross. So is the Goldman Sachs executive he’s tapped to run the National Economic Council and the Goldman Sachs trader turned hedge fund manager he’s tapped to run the Treasury Department. This crew is laughing all the way to the bank as white working class votes install a new regime based on regressive tax cuts and bank deregulation.
And in this brief section of the speech, Obama mercifully spared us the tired pieties that have dominated discussion of this topic since Trump won.
He didn’t balance the ledger with a slam on identity politics. He didn’t argue that white people’s economic pain is somehow more authentic or meaningful. He identified, correctly, that the economic woes of working class of all ethnicities are caused, to a large extent, by the racism of a sub-set of the working class that leads them to prefer a politics of white supremacy to a politics of economic uplift.
This commitment to white supremacy is, Obama argued, deadly to the future of the country.
Obama said that? Perhaps he did. At least he planted a seed, or introduced an earworm – that song you can’t get out of your head – and Obama played a variation on that theme:
If we decline to invest in the children of immigrants, just because they don’t look like us, we diminish the prospects of our own children – because those brown kids will represent a larger share of America’s workforce. And our economy doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game. Last year, incomes rose for all races, all age groups, for men and for women.
They did? The long argument with Trump has begun, although Yglesias wonders if it can be won:
What Obama chose not to dwell on, given the tenor of the occasion, is that this broad-based income growth didn’t impress everyone. Older and less-educated white Americans embraced Donald Trump’s story that the country was going to hell in a handbasket, and then as soon as he won they immediately started saying the economy was good again. Actual results in the form of rising incomes weren’t good enough. Trump telling them the good old boys were back on top again was.
They’re fine with that, but Obama is telling them that dark days are ahead for them too:
Trump is proposing to bring back the exact policy mix of tax cuts for millionaires and deregulation for banks and fossil fuel extractors that brought the global economy to its knees under George W Bush. Economic policy will be crafted at the highest levels by and for the inheritors of large fortunes.
He’s far too polite a man and far too savvy a politician to say so plainly, but the message if you read between the lines is clear enough: white working class Trump supporters played themselves this November.
So what else is new?
Something was new, a new darkness descending, with a story that was breaking as Obama began to speak:
A classified report delivered to President Obama and President-elect Donald Trump last week included a section summarizing allegations that Russian intelligence services have compromising material and information on Trump’s personal life and finances, U.S. officials said.
The officials said that U.S. intelligence agencies have not corroborated those allegations but believed that the sources involved in the reporting were credible enough to warrant inclusion of their claims in the highly classified report on Russian interference in the presidential campaign.
Trump, however, replied Tuesday night with a tweet declaring: “FAKE NEWS – A TOTAL POLITICAL WITCH HUNT!”
Obama was in Chicago speaking of civic engagement and common decency. Trump was in in penthouse at the top of Trump Tower, tweeting, but he was in trouble:
A senior U.S. official with access to the document said that the allegations were presented at least in part to underscore that Russia appeared to have collected embarrassing information on both major candidates but released only material that might harm Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton – a reflection of Russian motivation that bolstered U.S. spy agencies’ conclusion that Moscow sought to help Trump win.
The inclusion of such unsubstantiated allegations in the election report, a development first reported Tuesday by CNN, adds a disturbing new dimension to existing concerns about Russia’s efforts to undermine American democracy.
If true, the information suggests that Moscow has assembled damaging information – known in espionage circles by the Russian term “kompromat” – that conceivably could be used to coerce the next occupant of the White House. The claims were presented in a two-page summary attached to the full report, an addendum that also included allegations of ongoing contact between members of Trump’s inner circle and representatives of Moscow.
What? Team Trump was working with the Russians all along? This must be crap, unless it isn’t:
U.S. officials said the claims about Russian possession of compromising material were based not on information obtained through traditional intelligence channels but research done by an outside entity engaged in political consulting work and led by a former high-ranking British intelligence official. The material was first mentioned in a Mother Jones report in October.
U.S. officials said that while the FBI had so far not confirmed the accuracy of the claims, U.S. officials had evaluated the sources relied upon by the private firm, considered them credible, and determined that it was plausible that they would have firsthand knowledge of Russia’s alleged dossier on Trump.
That wasn’t helpful:
After CNN’s report Tuesday, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), Trump’s nominee to be the next attorney general, was asked at his confirmation hearing about the allegations in the intelligence report.
“If it’s true, it’s obviously extremely serious,” Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) said, after reading from the CNN report. “And if there is any evidence that anyone affiliated with the Trump campaign communicated with the Russian government in the course of this campaign, what will you do?”
Sessions responded that he was “not aware of any of those activities.”
Heck, Jefferson Beauregard Sessions was just there to tell them that he’s no longer a racist. He didn’t need this, but there it is:
Last month, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who had been provided with the information, personally delivered it to FBI Director James B. Comey. A source familiar with the matter said the FBI had it well before then and had interviewed the former intelligence official.
Clinton’s former campaign spokesman, Brian Fallon, appealed for a congressional inquiry. “Mitch McConnell, you must let a Select Committee investigate these allegations, as @SenJohnMcCain has been urging for weeks,” Fallon wrote on Twitter.
K. T. McFarland, Trump’s designated national security adviser, declined to respond to a question about the report. “I don’t know about the story that you’re talking about that’s broken,” she said during participation in a panel Tuesday at the United States Institute of Peace. “I know in Washington people prefer to talk about something about which they know nothing, but I’m going to refrain.”
That won’t do. In late October Harry Reid sent an angry letter to FBI Director James Comey saying that “it has become clear that you possess explosive information about close ties and coordination between Donald Trump, his top advisors, and the Russian government.” A few days later, at Mother Jones, David Corn summarized this dossier of raw intelligence provided by a “former senior intelligence officer for a Western country” this way:
When he dug into Trump, he notes, he came across troubling information indicating connections between Trump and the Russian government. According to his sources, he says, “there was an established exchange of information between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin of mutual benefit.”…The first memo, based on the former intelligence officer’s conversations with Russian sources, noted, “Russian regime has been cultivating, supporting and assisting TRUMP for at least 5 years. Aim, endorsed by PUTIN, has been to encourage splits and divisions in western alliance.” It maintained that Trump “and his inner circle have accepted a regular flow of intelligence from the Kremlin, including on his Democratic and other political rivals.” It claimed that Russian intelligence had “compromised” Trump during his visits to Moscow and could “blackmail him.”
And BuzzFeed has the full US intelligence memo here – the compromising information on Trump supposedly includes evidence of Trump’s “personal obsessions and sexual perversion” including “golden showers” and “sex parties” in Moscow. Cool.
None of this may have happened, but our folks know the source is credible. It might have happened. Our folks gave Trump a heads-up. There’s talk. There might be more than talk.
Trump is certainly not Obama, and it seems that the FBI did consider the evidence of ties between Russia and the Trump team to be credible enough to investigate, and in the Guardian, Julian Borger reports on where this led:
The Guardian has learned that the FBI applied for a warrant from the foreign intelligence surveillance (FISA) court over the summer in order to monitor four members of the Trump team suspected of irregular contacts with Russian officials. The FISA court turned down the application asking FBI counter-intelligence investigators to narrow its focus. According to one report, the FBI was finally granted a warrant in October, but that has not been confirmed, and it is not clear whether any warrant led to a full investigation.
The FBI investigates Hillary Clinton and talks about it. They don’t talk about Trump:
Another Democratic senator, Ron Wyden, questioned Comey insistently at a Senate intelligence committee hearing on Tuesday on whether the FBI was pursuing leads on Trump campaign contacts with Russia.
“Has the FBI investigated these reported relationships?” Wyden asked.
Comey replied: “I would never comment on investigations … in a public forum.”
Yeah, right, but it only gets better:
According to the report passed to Comey, Russian intelligence allegedly gathered compromising material during Trump’s stay in Moscow in November 2013, when he was in the city to host the Miss Universe pageant.
Another report, dated 19 July last year said that Carter Page, a businessman named by Trump as one of his foreign policy advisers, had held a secret meeting that month with Igor Sechin, head of the Rosneft state-owned oil company and a long-serving lieutenant of Vladimir Putin. Page also allegedly met Igor Divyekin, an internal affairs official with a background in intelligence, who is said to have warned Page that Moscow had “kompromat” (compromising material) on Trump.
Two months later, allegations of Page’s meetings surfaced in the US media, attributed to intelligence sources, along with reports that he had been under FBI scrutiny.
Page, a vociferous supporter of the Kremlin line, was in Moscow in July to make a speech decrying western policy towards Russia. At the time he declined to say whether he had been in contact with Russian officials…
That’s okay. The FBI was on it, and now other things make sense:
Another of the reports compiled by the former western counter-intelligence official in July said that members of Trump’s team, which was led by campaign manager Paul Manafort (a former consultant for pro-Russian politicians in Ukraine), had knowledge of the DNC hacking operation, and in return “had agreed to sideline Russian intervention in Ukraine as a campaign issue and to raise US/NATO defense commitments in the Baltics and Eastern Europe to deflect attention away from Ukraine”.
A few days later, Trump raised the possibility that his administration might recognize Russia’s annexation of Crimea and openly called on Moscow to hack Hillary Clinton’s emails.
In August, officials from the Trump campaign intervened in the drafting of the Republican Party platform, specifically to remove a call for lethal assistance to Ukraine for its battle against Moscow-backed eastern rebels…
Since then, Trump has consistently cast doubt on Russian culpability for hacking the Democratic National Committee, defying a consensus of 17 national intelligence agencies. After Obama deported 35 Russian diplomats in retaliation for Moscow’s intervention, Trump praised Putin for not carrying out tit-for-tat deportations of US diplomats. “I always knew he was very smart,” he tweeted.
And there’s Michael Flynn, Trump’s national security advisor, who was fired by the director of national intelligence, for being a jerk, who sat next to Putin at that RT dinner in Moscow, and Rex Tillerson, nominated for secretary of state, who received the Order of Friendship from Putin, who pinned it on Tillerson’s chest himself.
These things mount up, but the election is over. There’s nothing to be done now. Darkness descends – but Obama gave a fine speech in Chicago, as the lights went out. The transition is complete.