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Obama calls Trump’s coronavirus response a “chaotic disaster” in private call

Obama offered pointed criticism of the Trump administration’s approach to government on Friday.

Obama, in a dark suit and blue and white button down shirt, his collar open, gestures as he speaks into a microphone.
Former President Barack Obama speaks at the Illinois Institute of Technology in 2019.
Scott Olson/Getty Images

Former President Barack Obama leveled stinging criticism against President Donald Trump in a private call to former members of his administration Friday, saying Trump’s response to the coronavirus pandemic is “an absolute chaotic disaster,” and that the Justice Department’s choice to drop charges against former national security adviser Michael Flynn undermines the rule of law.

The remarks, first reported by Yahoo News, are a rarity from Obama, who — in public at least — has been reserved in his assessments of his successor since leaving office.

The call, with the Obama Alumni Association, was intended to urge former staffers to get involved with former Vice President Joe Biden’s presidential campaign. And it reportedly featured Obama speaking about the importance of electing Biden as political divisions have deepened both nationally and internationally, while making the case for Biden as someone who could bridge those divides.

“It’s part of the reason why the response to this global crisis has been so anemic and spotty,” Obama reportedly said. “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 operationalized in our government.”

The former president also expressed concern over the Justice Department’s decision to drop charges against former White House national security adviser Michael Flynn, who pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI.

“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,” he said. “And when you start moving in those directions, it can accelerate pretty quickly as we’ve seen in other places.”

Trump has defended Flynn, as Vox’s Jen Kirby has explained, calling him an “innocent man” (despite his guilty plea) and an “even greater warrior.” And prior to the case being dropped, Attorney General Bill Barr got involved in it, assigning an outside prosecutor to review the matter as Trump and his allies made the argument that there was a conspiracy against Flynn.

Obama has said previously he planned to take a more public role in the 2020 race once Democrats settled on a nominee. His comments about Trump were made in private, but do appear to represent him beginning to make good on that promise, by mobilizing talent from his administration.

Obama’s own endorsement of Biden came last month, after the final leg of a heated primary contest came to a close. Thus far, he has not been able to appear at any in-person events with Biden, as the coronavirus pandemic has kept most of the public indoors. According to the New York Times, Obama has told friends he’s worried Trump will be able to leverage his public platform for campaigning while Biden is taken off the trail due to the virus.

And Trump has, in fact, used press conferences to both attack Biden and blame the Obama administration for current testing failures (despite the coronavirus not existing during Obama’s tenure).

In late April, Trump pilloried Biden over the Obama administration’s response to the swine flu, saying Biden “didn’t even know the name,” and claiming that due to his predecessor the US had “broken tests. We had tests that were obsolete. We had tests that didn’t take care of people.”

As Vox’s Aaron Rupar has written, Trump has made this claim “again and again and again.” It is not true, but it is a means by which the president can attempt to blame an old enemy for his administration’s failures.

Obama has not responded publicly to these claims, but his comments Friday suggest that he is willing to highlight the flaws of his successor, particularly in support of his party’s presidential nominee.