Obama also appeared to slam the Trump administration’s response to the coronavirus pandemic as an “absolute chaotic disaster,” offering the sort of blistering criticisms he has rarely aired in public. Obama said shortly before President Trump took office that he would only weigh in on his successor’s actions when he believes “our core values may be at stake.”
With his comments on Flynn, Obama joined a wave of criticism from Democrats and law enforcement officials, as legal analysts see a pattern by Attorney General William P. Barr to intervene in cases that involve the president’s allies. The Justice Department moved this week to drop its case against Flynn, who pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his contacts with a Russian ambassador amid Robert S. Mueller III’s special counsel inquiry. He is now seeking to withdraw that plea.
“There is no precedent that anybody can find for someone who has been charged with perjury just getting off scot-free,” Obama said in the Friday night call to about 3,000 members of the Obama Alumni Association, according to his spokeswoman. “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.”
The news that the government would not pursue its case against Flynn “has been somewhat downplayed,” Obama said.
The move to abandon Flynn’s case was cheered by Trump supporters who have long derided the special counsel and believe the former Trump adviser was unfairly targeted — bolstered by a Justice Department finding that lower-level prosecutors and agents made key errors while investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election.
Flynn was one of the first and highest-ranking Trump aides to plead guilty and cooperate with Mueller’s investigation, as the FBI tried to determine whether anyone in Trump’s campaign had coordinated with Russia. After Mueller’s probe ended in March 2019, Flynn changed course, hired new lawyers and began fighting to undo his plea deal.
In court documents filed Thursday, the Justice Department said that Flynn’s FBI interview was “untethered to, and unjustified by, the FBI’s counterintelligence investigation into Mr. Flynn” and that it was “conducted without any legitimate investigative basis.”
While Obama has spoken out critically of the Trump administration before — including the month he left office, when he encouraged Americans to protest a travel ban on citizens from seven majority-Muslim countries — his comments Friday night stood out.
Obama had previously said the country lacked “a coherent national plan to navigate this pandemic,” but he offered aides a harsher apparent assessment of Trump’s performance during the crisis. Yahoo News’s report said Obama “lashed out at the Trump administration’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic as ‘an absolute chaotic disaster,’ ” and Obama spokeswoman Katie Hill confirmed that the call occurred and said that “nothing in the [Yahoo] story is inaccurate.”
Obama was touching base with and seeking to rally his former staff to help elect presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden and other Democrats on the ballot this fall, Hill said. Obama has endorsed his former vice president.
On the call, Obama said that in the upcoming election “what we’re going to be battling is not just a particular individual or a political party.”
“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,” he said on the call, according to the Yahoo report.
Obama went on to say that “the response to this global crisis has been so anemic and spotty” and seemed to allude to a White House whose rhetoric has drawn rebukes across the political spectrum.
“It would have been bad even with the best of governments,” he said. “It has been an absolute chaotic disaster when that mind-set — of ‘what’s in it for me’ and ‘to heck with everybody else’ — when that mind-set is operationalized in our government.”
Obama is expected to campaign heavily for his former vice president, which he confirmed on the call.
“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 said.
Spencer S. Hsu, Devlin Barrett and Matt Zapotosky contributed to this report.