Former US president Barack Obama has been told to keep his opinions to himself after his blistering appraisal of the country’s coronavirus response.
During a web call with former members of his administration on Friday, Mr Obama said that response had been a “chaotic disaster”.
“What we’re fighting against is these long term trends in which being selfish, being tribal, being divided and seeing others as the enemy – that has become a stronger impulse in American life,” he said.
“It’s part of the reason why the response to this global crisis has been so anaemic 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 operationalised in our government.”
Mr Obama also criticised the US Justice Department’s decision to drop its case against Donald Trump’s former White House national security adviser, General Michael Flynn.
“That’s the kind of stuff where you begin to get worried that basic – not just institutionalised norms, but our basic understanding of the rule of law, is at risk,” he said.
These remarks were part of Mr Obama’s private pitch to his former staff and officials, urging them to rally behind the Democratic Party’s presidential nominee, Joe Biden.
“I am hoping that all of you feel the same sense of urgency that I do,” he told them.
But they became public after being leaked to Yahoo News.
‘SHOULD HAVE KEPT HIS MOUTH SHUT’
There is a longstanding, informal tradition in the United States that former presidents refrain from publicly criticising whoever currently occupies the office.
In recent decades, presidents from both parties have taken that tradition further by developing warm friendships with one another. George H.W. Bush was famously close with the man who beat him in the 1992 election, Bill Clinton. George W. Bush and his wife Laura are friends with the Obamas.
Republicans feel Mr Obama breached the convention of solidarity between the presidents with his comments on Friday.
The party’s most senior member of Congress, Senate leader Mitch McConnell, issued a particularly scathing response to Mr Obama during an interview with Mr Trump’s daughter-in-law, Lara Trump, broadcast live by the President’s re-election campaign.
“I think President Obama should have kept his mouth shut,” Mr McConnell said.
“You know, generally, former presidents just don’t do that.
“I remember President George W. Bush and his father went right through eight years of Democratic administrations after they left office and kept their mouths shut, because they didn’t feel it was appropriate for former presidents to critique even the president of another party.
“I think it’s a bit classless, frankly, to critique an administration that comes after you.
“You had your shot. You were there for eight years. I think the tradition that the Bushes set up, of not critiquing the president who comes after you, is a good tradition.”
It is true that Mr Bush has offered little direct criticism of the two men who succeeded him in the White House.
We know the former president was not happy about Mr Trump’s treatment of his brother, former Florida governor Jeb Bush, when they were each competing for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016.
Hillary Clinton claims Mr Bush offered a colourful description of Mr Trump’s inauguration speech in January of 2017.
“That was some weird s***,” he reportedly remarked.
And a speech Mr Bush gave to the United Nations later that year was widely interpreted as an implicit critique of Mr Trump.
“Bigotry seems emboldened,” he said.
“Our politics seems more vulnerable to conspiracy theories and outright fabrication.
“Our young people need positive role models. Bullying and prejudice in our public life sets a national tone, provides permission for cruelty and bigotry, and compromises the moral education of children.”
Apart from those isolated examples, Mr Bush has largely maintained his silence.
He did manage to attract Mr Trump’s ire earlier this month, however, when he posted a video message online thanking health workers for their efforts in the pandemic, and calling for national unity.
“We are not partisan combatants,” Mr Bush said.
“We’re human beings, equally vulnerable and equally wonderful in the sight of god. We rise or fall together, and we’re determined to rise.
“Medical professionals are risking their own health for the health of others, and we are deeply grateful. And we all need to do our part.
“I have no doubt, none at all, that the spirit of service and sacrifice is alive and well in America.”
The message contained no criticism of Mr Trump. Nevertheless, the President seemed to take it personally, and responded by asking why Mr Bush had not publicly supported him during the impeachment proceedings earlier this year.
‘NOBODY DID ANYTHING ABOUT IT’
While there is a tradition that former presidents avoid directly criticising their successors, that rule has never really worked in reverse.
Mr Obama did not shy away from blaming the Bush administration for his own political convenience during his early years in office.
Similarly, Mr Trump has sought to shift some of the blame for his handling of the coronavirus pandemic onto the previous administrations.
“We’re doing a great job. Hey, we inherited a broken system,” he told reporters last month.
“The cupboard was bare. The testing system was broken and old.”
We should note that COVID-19 is a new strain of coronavirus, so there was no existing system to test for it. That test had to be developed after the outbreak started.
The US suffered from a severe shortage of test kits throughout February and early March as the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention tried to develop a batch that worked properly.
“They had a chance to do it,” Mr Trump continued, referring to his predecessors.
“Somebody said – a certain person said this would happen, and that’s true. The problem is that person never did anything about it. They never did anything about it.”
The “somebody” in question here is Mr Bush, who warned about the danger of a pandemic back when he was president in 2005.
“We all know about pandemics, and all of the things we’re seeing now, but nobody thought it was going to happen,” said Mr Trump.
“And if we did think it was going to happen, the problem is nobody did anything about it. We did. We have rebuilt the system.”
Mr McConnell echoed this argument during his interview with Lara Trump this week.
“They claim pandemics only happen once every hundred years but what if that’s no longer true? We want to be early, ready for the next one, because clearly the Obama administration did not leave to this administration any kind of game plan for something like this,” he said.
“That’s exactly right,” Ms Trump replied.
It was, in fact, a rather dubious claim. As Politico reported in March, Mr Obama’s National Security Council did leave the Trump administration a document detailing how to respond to a pandemic, called the “Playbook for Early Response to High Consequence Emerging Infectious Disease and Biological Incidents”.
Not a catchy title.
TRUMP FUMES OVER ‘OBAMAGATE’
Mr Obama didn’t just criticise the Trump administration’s pandemic response. As we mentioned earlier, he also slammed the Justice Department’s decision to drop its case against Gen Flynn.
The former national security adviser was one of several Trump associates to be charged as a result of the FBI’s probe into Russian election interference, which later became the Mueller investigation. Gen Flynn pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his contacts with Russia’s ambassador to the United States.
Mr Trump, who fired Gen Flynn shortly after taking office, believes the general’s prosecution was part of a larger conspiracy against him within the federal government, which he traces back to Mr Obama.
In recent days, the President has accused Mr Obama of committing “the biggest political crime in American history by far”. He was asked to clarify that accusation during a media conference yesterday.
“What crime exactly are you accusing President Obama of committing, and do you believe the Justice Department should prosecute him?” a reporter asked.
“Obamagate. It’s been going on for a long time. It’s been going on from before I even got elected, and it’s a disgrace that it happened,” Mr Trump replied.
“And if you look at what’s gone on, if you look at now all of this information that’s being released – and from what I understand, that’s only the beginning – some terrible things happened, and it should never be allowed to happen in our country again.
“You’ll be seeing what’s going on over the coming weeks, and I wish you’d write honestly about it, but unfortunately you choose not to do so.”
“What is the crime exactly, that you’re accusing him of?” the reporter pressed.
“You know what the crime is. The crime is very obvious to everybody. All you’ve got to do is read the newspapers, except yours.”
The antipathy between Mr Obama and Mr Trump has been simmering for the better part of a decade now.
Mr Obama infamously mocked Mr Trump during the White House correspondents’ dinner in 2011. Before that, Mr Trump was one of the foremost boosters of the racist conspiracy theory that Mr Obama was actually born overseas, and was therefore ineligible for the presidency.
Put simply, these two do not like each other – and there are no signs of the feud de-escalating.