Barack Obama has reportedly said the “rule of law is at risk” in the US, after the justice department said it would drop its case against former national security adviser Michael Flynn.
In remarks likely to enrage Donald Trump, Obama also reportedly labeled the Trump administration’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak “an absolute chaotic disaster”.
Flynn, a retired general, pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about conversations with the Russian ambassador about sanctions over election interference, which were levied by Obama at the end of his presidency.
Having been fired by Trump for lying to the vice-president, Mike Pence, Flynn co-operated with investigators before seeking to withdraw his plea.
Trump publicly toyed with pardoning Flynn and his supporters mounted a fierce campaign in support of the general, who had not been sentenced, before the decision to drop the case was announced on Thursday.
It prompted fierce criticism from Democrats and many in the mainstream media, met by counter-attacks from the White House.
On Friday, Yahoo News reported that it had obtained a tape of a web talk between the former president and members of the Obama Alumni Association.
“The news over the last 24 hours I think has been somewhat downplayed – about the justice department dropping charges against Michael Flynn,” Obama reportedly said.
“And the fact that there is no precedent that anybody can find for someone who has been charged with perjury [in fact Flynn pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI] just getting off scot-free. 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 president has repeatedly blamed Obama for the FBI investigation into Russian election interference which expanded to include links between his campaign and Moscow. Last week, Trump retweeted a conspiracy theorist who claimed Obama directed the investigation.
On Thursday Trump said at the White House: “What they did, what the Obama administration did, is unprecedented … and I hope a lot of people will pay a big price because they are dishonest, crooked people. They are scum, human scum.”
The president added: “[Flynn] was targeted by the Obama administration, and he was targeted in order to try to take down a president.”
After nearly two years of work, special counsel Robert Mueller did not establish a criminal conspiracy but did detail extensive links between Trump aides and Russians and numerous instances of possible obstruction of justice by the president.
Trump claims exoneration by Mueller. Mueller said he was not exonerating Trump.
Flynn’s guilty plea to lying to the FBI was one of Mueller’s biggest coups. In 2017 Trump acknowledged it, writing on Twitter: “I had to fire General Flynn because he lied to the Vice-President and the FBI. He has pled guilty to those lies. It is a shame because his actions during the transition were lawful. There was nothing to hide!”
According to Yahoo News, Obama told the web call the case made him feel a “sense of urgency” about November’s election, in which Trump is set to face Joe Biden, Obama’s vice-president.
“Whenever I campaign,” Obama reportedly said, “I’ve always said, ‘Ah, this is the most important election.’ Especially obviously when I was on the ballot, that always feels like it’s the most important election. This one, I’m not on the ballot but I am pretty darn invested. We got to make this happen.”
Obama reportedly said the election would be about fighting “long-term trends in which being selfish, being tribal, being divided, and seeing others as an enemy [have] become a stronger impulse in American life”.
“It’s part of the reason,” he reportedly said, “why the response to this global crisis [the coronavirus outbreak] 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.
“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.”
As of Saturday morning, according to researchers at Johns Hopkins University, 1,283,762 cases of Covid-19 had been confirmed in the US, with 77,175 deaths. Encouraged by the White House, more than half the 50 states are seeking to reopen their shuttered economies, despite warnings from public health experts that it is too soon to do so without risking a high death toll.
Obama has followed precedent in not criticising his successor in the Oval Office in public but reports of his view of Trump are fairly regular. In January, for example, it was reported that he said Trump was a fascist.
On Saturday Trump was at the White House. He did not immediately respond to the Yahoo News report.
However the attorney general, William Barr, perhaps spoke for the president earlier when he was asked how he thought history would view his decision to drop the Flynn case.
“Well, history is written by the winner,” he told CBS News. “So it largely depends on who’s writing the history.”