Obama gives up promise of smooth transfer to Trump
First lady, official spokesman sow seeds of bitterness
President Obama is dishing out a much rockier transfer of power to Donald Trump than he received from his predecessor eight years ago, from accusing the president-elect of being aided by Russian hackers to first lady Michelle Obama’s complaint that the nation has lost hope.
Despite pledging a “smooth and efficient” transition on the day after Mr. Trump’s victory, Mr. Obama has presided over an increasingly acrimonious war of words between the White House and the president-elect’s team.
The awkward transfer of power stands in stark contrast to the cooperative atmosphere fostered by Republican George W. Bush’s White House in 2008, when Mr. Obama was preparing to take office. Obama advisers still talk about the example of unity.
The Obama administration’s bitterness and disappointment over Hillary Clinton’s loss erupted into the open last week as the president’s spokesman, Josh Earnest, accused Mr. Trump for four consecutive days of encouraging Russia’s suspected meddling in the election and ignoring the ramifications.
“Earnest seems to want to delegitimize the election,” said Republican strategist John Feehery. “It’s very dangerous and seemingly counter to the wishes of the president.”
Former Obama adviser David Axelrod went further, saying it was “highly unlikely” that the White House press secretary would take a week’s worth of verbal shots at Mr. Trump without the president’s approval.
Mr. Feehery said the transition is “more like the Clinton-Bush” transfer in 2001, when some Clinton officials, angry at the election outcome and the U.S. Supreme Court decision ending a recount in Florida, were accused of mischief, including removing the “W” keys from computer keyboards in the White House.
Jim McGrath, a close associate of the Bush family, tweeted that Mr. Bush’s last White House press secretary didn’t dish out such harsh treatment of Presidentelect Obama.
“Remember when @DanaPerino trashed Barack Obama from WH podium after George W. Bush pledged full cooperation w the transition? Me neither,” he tweeted.
At his year-end press conference on Friday, Mr. Obama said Mr. Trump should accept the findings of the CIA and FBI that Russia had aided the Republican’s campaign by hacking and publicizing Democratic officials’ emails.
“My hope is that the president-elect is going to similarly be concerned with making sure we don’t have potential foreign influence in our election process,” Mr. Obama said.
Compounding the rising tensions, Mrs. Obama said of Mr. Trump’s victory, “We’re feeling what not having hope feels like.”
In an interview with Oprah Winfrey that aired Friday, Mrs. Obama said of her husband’s departure that Americans “will come to appreciate having a grown-up in the White House.”
“What do you give your kids if you can’t give them hope?” she said. “What do we do if we don’t have hope, Oprah?”
Her comments prompted conservative Los Angeles radio host Larry Elder to respond on Twitter, “Imagine the outcry had [first lady] Laura Bush said, as Michelle Obama did, about the new president, ‘Now we’re feeling what not having hope feels like.’”
‘It feels good to have him here’
The first lady’s remarks may have touched a nerve with Mr. Trump, who mentioned it to thousands of supporters Saturday at a “thank you” rally in Mobile, Alabama.
“Michelle Obama said yesterday that there’s no hope,” Mr. Trump said as the crowd booed loudly. “But I assume she was talking about the past, not the future, because I’m telling you, we have tremendous hope. We are going to be so successful as a country again.”
Then the president-elect offered an olive branch of sorts.
“I actually think she made that statement not meaning it the way it came out,” he said of Mrs. Obama. “I really do. Because I met with President Obama and Michelle Obama in the White House, my wife was there. She could not have been nicer. I honestly believe she meant that statement in a different way than it came out because I believe there is tremendous hope, and beyond hope we have such potential.”
Mr. Trump’s team has contributed to rising tensions with some of its actions since the election, including eager vows to unravel a broad range of Obama policies, including Obamacare, a global climate change agreement and the Iran nuclear accord.
While all elections have consequences, the promised reversal of much of Mr. Obama’s agenda is causing deep disappointment and frustration among loyalists in the departing administration.
Mr. Obama encountered huge challenges as he took over for Mr. Bush in 2009, including a cratering economy and wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But those hurdles involved questions of policy, not what some view now as a deliberate effort to undermine the incoming administration.
Mr. Obama professed Friday that the transition to the Trump administration is proceeding nicely while acknowledging “there’s still feelings that are raw out there.”
“I think they would be the first to acknowledge that we have done everything we can to make sure that they are successful as I promised,” the president said of the Trump team. “It’s just been a few days since I last talked to the president-elect about a whole range of transition issues. That cooperation is going to continue.”
He insisted that “there hasn’t been a lot of squabbling” over Russia’s suspected hacking.
“What we’ve simply said is the facts, which are that, based on uniform intelligence assessments, the Russians were responsible for hacking the DNC, and that, as a consequence, it is important for us to review all elements of that and make sure that we are preventing that kind of interference through cyberattacks in the future,” Mr. Obama said. “That should be a bipartisan issue; that shouldn’t be a partisan issue.”
But Mr. Obama seems to be taking a willfully rosy view of the transition, judging from some of the frustration expressed by Trump advisers such as former campaign manager Kellyanne Conway. She said Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton should call a truce with the incoming administration if they “actually love the country enough.”
“If you want to shut this down and you actually love the country enough to have the peaceful transition in our great democracy between the Obama administration and the Trump administration, there are a couple people in pretty prominent positions. One is named Obama, one is named Hillary Clinton, since his people are trying to fight over her election still, they could shut this down,” Ms. Conway told Fox News.
As if recognizing that the rocky transition needed a happier face, Mr. Obama’s chief of staff hosted Mr. Trump’s incoming chief of staff, Reince Priebus, at the White House on Friday in a public show of cooperation.
Mr. Priebus smiled for cameras and told Obama Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, “Thanks for having me. It’s great.”
When journalists asked Mr. Priebus how it felt to be in the White House, Mr. McDonough cut in and replied, “It feels good to have him here.”
A White House official speaking on background said the lunch meeting was “part of the president’s directive for a smooth transition to the next administration.”
Also attending the meeting were Andy Card, former chief of staff to President George W. Bush; Rahm Emanuel, Bill Daley and Pete Rouse, who served as Mr. Obama’s top advisers; Treasury Secretary Jack Lew; former Clinton White House Chief of Staff John Podesta, whose emails were allegedly hacked by the Russians; and top aides to former Presidents George H.W. Bush, Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter.
The transition tensions could diminish for the next couple of weeks. Mr. Obama and his family departed Washington late Friday for their annual Christmas vacation in Hawaii and won’t return to the White House until after New Year’s Day.
President Obama invited President-elect Donald Trump to the Oval Office after promising a “smooth and efficient” transfer of power, but the administration’s bitterness and disappointment over Hillary Clinton’s election loss erupted into the open last week.