A day after President Trump’s jaw-dropping joint press conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin, former President Barack Obama, speaking in Johannesburg, bemoaned the “utter loss of shame among political leaders who won’t quit lying.”
“Politicians have always lied, but it used to be if you caught them lying they’d be like, ‘Oh, man,’” Obama said Tuesday in a speech marking the 100th anniversary of Nelson Mandela’s birth. “Now, they just keep on lying.”
“Unfortunately, too much of politics today seems to reject the very concept of objective truth,” he said. “People just make stuff up.”
The former president said such truth-bending behavior can be seen in the “growth of state-sponsored propaganda” and “internet-driven fabrications” — things that both Trump and Putin have been accused of propagating. Trump began his political career by pushing the so-called birther conspiracy — the false claim that Obama wasn’t born in the U.S.
Obama prefaced his lecture by ruminating about “strange and uncertain times,” which struck some listeners as a reference to Monday’s events at the summit in Helsinki. Putin denied involvement in the cyberattacks on the Clinton campaign and Democratic National Committee that American intelligence officials have — with meticulous and copious evidence — attributed to Russian operatives. Trump seemed inclined to back Putin in what virtually the entire rest of the world considers a lie.
“Given the strange and uncertain times we are in — and they are strange, and they are uncertain, with each day’s news cycles bringing more head-spinning and disturbing headlines — I thought maybe it would be useful to step back for a moment and try and get some perspective,” Obama said.
Speaking about Mandela’s legacy of “freedom, justice and equal opportunity,” Obama said the world must also “recognize all the ways the international order has fallen short of his promise.”
“We now see much of the world threatening to return to an older, a more dangerous, a more brutal way of doing business,” he said. “So we have to start by admitting that whatever laws may have existed on the books, whatever wonderful pronouncements existed in constitutions, whatever nice words were spoken during these last several decades in international conferences or in the halls of the United Nations, the previous structures of privilege and power and injustice and exploitation never completely went away.”
Following his practice since leaving office, Obama did not mention Trump by name.
Obama said that in preparing his lecture, he “thought about the American press, and how they often got frustrated in my long-winded answers at press conferences, when my responses didn’t conform to two-minute soundbites.”
In early January 2017, shortly before Obama left office, a report concluded with “high confidence” that Putin “ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the U.S. presidential election.” Putin’s goals, the report said, were to “undermine public faith in the U.S. democratic process, denigrate Secretary Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency.”
In the wake of the 2016 presidential campaign, Obama was criticized for not speaking out more forcefully about Russia’s attempts to interfere in the election. Obama administration officials say he did not want to be seen as tipping the scales in Clinton’s favor, despite the assessment of U.S. intelligence agencies that Moscow was attempting to sow discord and boost Trump’s chances.
In October 2016, the Obama administration did release a joint statement from the Department of Homeland Security and Office of the Director of National Intelligence saying that the Russian government was behind the hacking of the Democratic National Committee earlier in the year — the first time the U.S. government had publicly accused a foreign superpower of intervening in an American election. The announcement, though, was overshadowed by the release of the infamous “Access Hollywood” tape a few hours later.
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