In the final weeks before the election, Roger Ailes scourge Gabriel Sherman penned a revealing profile of the Donald Trump presidential campaign’s last moments for New York magazine. Of particular interest to journalists and comedians alike was a passage in which Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Conway revealed a rather interesting — albeit indirect — method for communicating with her boss: “A way you can communicate with him is you go on TV to communicate.” No, seriously. Trump was so bad at taking advice from his own paid advisers, but such “an avid cable-news viewer,” that Conway and the eventual President-elect’s many counselors and surrogates went on various programs to deliver his own talking points to him.
Trump’s television-watching habits are old news at this point. After all, he has already begun making appointments to his administration, so his penchant for skimming CNN, Fox News, MSNBC and others is the least of the country’s many worries. At least until you consider the fact that Trump will be the President of the United States come January 20, 2017, but old habits like channel surfing will be difficult to cull. Maybe that’s why whenever reporters have asked President Obama about his successor in numerous press conferences since, the former crafts his answers in the most diplomatic ways.
In other words, Obama may already be doing what Trump mentioned during the pair’s brief joint remarks to the press last Thursday. “I very much look forward to dealing with the president in the future,” said the president-elect, “including counsel.” Sources with knowledge of the meeting later told The Wall Street Journal Obama “plans to spend more time with his successor than presidents typically do,” since Trump and his team “seemed surprised by the scope” of the job. According to statements given at three different events during the past week, it seems the president’s next gig as unofficial presidential adviser has already begun.
‘Look to a veteran’
The day after Trump and Obama’s first meeting was Veterans Day. To commemorate the annual day of remembrance, the latter followed tradition by laying a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery, and delivering a short speech. Much of what Obama had to say about American’s current and former military personnel fell in step with the past comments of his presidential predecessors. As a potential means of counseling President-elect Trump, however, Obama’s address takes on the character of specific set of recommendations.
“Whenever the world makes you cynical, whenever you seek true humility and selflessness, look to a veteran,” Obama told the crowd and the cameras. “When the election is over, as we search for ways to come together to reconnect with one another and the principles that are more enduring than transitory politics — some of our best examples are the men and women we salute on Veterans Day.”
These words were meant to resonate with disaffected Americans on both sides of the partisan divide, though their basest meaning could be taken as “look to your elders.” Trump will be 70 years old when he takes the oath of office, but he lacks the political or governing experiences typical of past presidents. So Obama may very well be suggesting Trump consult with his more experienced advisers, partisanship notwithstanding, who actually know a thing or two about the political process. Doing so will, as Obama noted, help to “forge unity from our great diversity” and “sustain that strength and unity even when it is hard” in the coming administration.
— CNN (@CNN) November 11, 2016
‘This office has a way of waking you up’
While both men gave statements regarding one another after their White House meeting, neither answered questions from press. Nor did Obama take any queries from the media before or after his Veterans Day address the following day. Yet when the president’s office announced he would attend his first press conference since the election on Monday, November 14th, every single journalist with clearance knew precisely what they were going to ask him about. Hence why Obama came out swinging with a series of cool, collected answers regarding Trump’s transition.
“How you staff — particularly your chief of staff, your national security adviser, your White House counsel. How you set up a process and a system to surface information, generate options for a president, understanding that ultimately the president’s going to be the final decision maker,” Obama explained, “that’s something that has to be attended to right away.”
Obama went on to praise his past appointments, despite “admittedly [being] biased,” in order to clarify his successes: “As a consequence of that team, I’ve been able to made good decisions. And if you don’t have that around you, then you’ll get swamped.” After all, he added, “This office has a way of waking you up.” This and his more prescient remarks came in response to questions about “aspects of [Trump’s] positions or his predispositions” that may not “match up with reality.” Having a good team around him, Obama argued, would help prevent Trump from being “shaken up pretty quick.”
Most of what Obama said about the advice he gave Trump during their meeting was said in retrospect, yet his delivery of these anecdotes read more like instructions than recollections. Much like his sentiments at Arlington National Cemetery, Obama’s answers felt like they were directed at people in need of advice or information. Like a teacher providing student with a lesson based on his previous experiences. Yet Trump, and not the White House Press Corps, is the one who’s assuming office next year.
How Russia and the United States view the world
Viewed as lessons with specific subjects, you could characterize Obama’s Veterans Day speech and first post-election press conference as introductory steps toward a much larger, broader stage. A stage that, as it so happens, the president joined with German Chancellor Angela Merkel during his stop in Berlin on Thursday. As CNN described it, Obama “intended to reassure his most stalwart global ally, Chancellor Angela Merkel, about her prospects under Donald Trump” but instead “found himself warning of an impending shift in the global order.” Besides, all the American and international press wanted to ask him about was Trump’s win and his purported ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Rather than ignoring these questions, Obama obliged them:
“I’ve sought a constructive relationship with Russia, but what I have also been is realistic in recognizing that there’s some significant differences in how Russia views the world and how we view the world. The values that we talked about — the values of democracy, and free speech, and international norms, and rule of law; respecting the ability of other countries to determine their own destiny, and preserve their sovereignty and territorial integrity — those things are not something that we can set aside. So on issues like Ukraine, on issues like Syria, we’ve had very significant differences. My hope is that the president-elect coming in takes a similarly constructive approach, finding areas where we can cooperate with Russia, where our values and interests align. But that the president-elect is also willing to stand up to Russia where they are deviating our values and international norms.”
“I don’t expect that the president-elect will follow exactly our blueprint,” he concluded the brief geopolitical history lesson, adding: “My hope is he does not simply take a realpolitik approach and suggest we cut some deals with Russia.”
Everyone in that room, from Chancellor Merkel to the hundreds of journalists and diplomats awaiting the pair’s remarks, was already familiar with the distinct positions that Russia and the U.S. occupied regarding Syria and the Ukraine. No one present needed those reminders, but maybe those watching at home — especially in the private suite atop Trump Tower in New York City — did.