Obama, Trump, and the Golden Age of Political Hypocrisy

Obama and key former senior officials who worked for him lack the moral authority and political credibility to go after Trump on the issues of “honesty and lawfulness” in government.
September 10, 2018 • Commentary
This article appeared on The Hill (Online) on September 10, 2018.

It was one line in former President Obama’s speech last week attacking President Trump that gave me political flashbacks.

“Even if you don’t agree with me or Democrats on policy … I’m here to tell you that you should still be concerned and should still want to see a restoration of honesty and decency and lawfulness in our government,” the 44th President of the United States said.

I do believe that Obama, at the level of basic, face‐​to‐​face human civility and courtesy, is one of the most decent men to have held public office over the last 50 years. His cool, understated style, buttressed by a self‐​effacing, wry humor, make him extremely likeable. But neither he nor those who worked for him during those eight years can credibly lay claim to having promoted honesty and lawfulness while in government, particularly where the basic constitutional rights of Americans are concerned.

In 2008, then‐​candidate Obama made much of his opposition to the Bush administration’s warrantless spying program. Once he took Bush’s place, he demanded that mass surveillance programs be continued, and condemned NSA contractor‐​turned‐​whistleblower Edward Snowden for exposing ongoing mass surveillance on Obama’s watch.

Obama also did himself and the country no favors by making career CIA bureaucrat John Brennan first his principle campaign advisor on national security issues, then later naming Brennan to head the agency he worked for. Recall that during the second Bush term, Brennan repeatedly and publicly defended the CIA’s torture program—despite the fact that federal law made it a crime. Obama could not possibly have been ignorant of Brennan’s role in all of this when he invited him to join his campaign team when he made him his national security consigliere.

During Obama’s second term, multiple CIA employees broke intocomputers being used by Senate Intelligence Committee staff looking into the torture program that Brennan had so publicly defended. After the fact, it became clear that he was aware of the activity even as he was claiming to the world that no such spying on the Senate had taken place. Obama refused to fire him.

And of course, there is the infamous case of former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, who lied under oath to the Senate Intelligence Committee when asked if innocent Americans were being spied on by their own government. Obama kept Clapper on his team until the end of his presidency.

Obama himself ran afoul of the Supreme Court with his executive orders on immigration policy. But he paid no political or legal price for arguably violating the Constitution by launching an undeclared war against Libya in 2011.

None of what I’ve said so far is to suggest that Obama and those working for him were uniquely unethical or prone to violate the law more than their predecessors. Every president since William McKinley has used federal agencies to spy on the American public, either in part (on the basis of political ideology or race) or in whole (via electronic mass surveillance in the post‐​World War II era). And Presidents Madison, Polk, Johnson, and Nixon waged their own illegal, undeclared wars against various foreign powers. What I find offensive is the hypocrisy of both men—Obama and Trump.

Trump’s repeated false claims about Obama’s citizenship status, his delusional rantings that every person working at the FBI is involved in a “witch hunt” to get him, his falsehoods about the size of his inauguration crowds compared to his predecessors—the number of outright lies or misleading claims by Mr. Trump measure, literally, in the thousands.

But the fact of the matter is that Obama and key former senior officials who worked for him lack the moral authority and political credibility to go after Trump on the issues of “honesty and lawfulness” in government. Their past misdeeds and untruthfulness while in federal service render their attacks on Trump hypocritical and hollow. This is particularly true among that segment of the public that voted for Trump in 2016 but who might be persuaded to reconsider that decision in 2020, assuming Trump is not removed from office before then.

That Trump is unfit—emotionally and temperamentally—to remain in office is manifest. That key Democratic “leaders” in the so‐​called “Resistance” are themselves ethically and politically bankrupt is also obvious. If American democracy is to be rescued from the corrupt authoritarianism Trump represents, it will take a new generation of citizen‐​leaders to do it—men and women with genuine integrity and partisan‐​free patriotism, untainted by the hypocrisy and callowness of our present sterile political duopoly.

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