Riding in a motorcade in Lima, Peru, shortly after the 2016 election, President Barack Obama was struggling to understand Donald Trump’s victory.
“What if we were wrong?” he asked aides riding with him in the armored presidential limousine.
He had read a column asserting that liberals had forgotten how important identity was to people and had promoted an empty cosmopolitan globalism that made many feel left behind. “Maybe we pushed too far,” Obama said. “Maybe people just want to fall back into their tribe.”
His aides reassured him that he still would have won had he been able to run for another term and that the next generation had more in common with him than with Trump. Obama, the first black man elected president, did not seem convinced. “Sometimes I wonder whether I was 10 or 20 years too early,” he said.
In the weeks after Trump’s election, Obama went through multiple emotional stages, according to a new book by his longtime adviser Benjamin J. Rhodes. At times, the departing president took the long view, at other points, he flashed anger. He called Trump a “cartoon” figure who cared more about his crowd sizes than any particular policy. And he expressed rare self-doubt, wondering whether he had misjudged his own influence on American history.
Set to be published next week by Random House, Rhodes’ memoir, “The World as It Is,” offers a peek into Obama’s tightly sealed inner sanctum from the perspective of one of the few people who saw him up close through all eight years of his presidency. Few moments shook Obama more than the decision by voters to replace him with a candidate who had questioned his very birth.
Rhodes served as Obama’s deputy national security adviser through some of the most consequential points of his presidency, including decisions to authorize the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, send more troops to Afghanistan, pull most troops out of Iraq, restore diplomatic relations with Cuba, seal a nuclear agreement with Iran, intervene militarily in Libya and refuse to intervene militarily in Syria.
But his book offers a new window, if only slightly cracked open, into the 44th president’s handling of Russia’s intervention in the 2016 election to help Trump get elected and the aftermath.
In handing over power to someone determined to tear down all he had accomplished, Obama alluded to “The Godfather” mafia movie: “I feel like Michael Corleone. I almost got out.”
Rhodes describes the reaction of foreign leaders. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan apologized for breaching protocol by meeting with Trump at Trump Tower in Manhattan after the election. Obama urged Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada to take on a more vocal role defending the values they shared.
Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany told Obama that she felt more obliged to run for another term because of Trump’s election to defend the liberal international order. When they parted for the final time, Merkel had a single tear in her eye. “She’s all alone,” Obama noted.
And yet despite criticism even from former advisers to Obama, Rhodes offers little sense that the former president thought he could have done more to counter Russian involvement in the election. Obama had authorized a statement to be issued by intelligence agency leaders a month before the election warning of Russian interference, but was thwarted from doing more because Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, refused to go along with a bipartisan statement.
Rhodes called McConnell’s refusal “staggeringly partisan and unpatriotic.” But Obama, whose Supreme Court nomination had been blocked by McConnell for months, seemed less surprised.
“What else did you expect from McConnell?” he asked. “He won’t even give us a hearing on Merrick Garland.”
Still, in preparatory sessions before meetings with the news media before the election, aides pressed Obama to respond to criticism that he should speak out more about Russian meddling. “I talk about it every time I’m asked,” he responded. “What else are we going to do? We’ve warned folks.”
He noted that Trump was already claiming that the election would be manipulated if Hillary Clinton won. “If I speak out more, he'll just say it’s rigged,” Obama said.
Rhodes writes that neither he nor Obama knew at that time that there was an FBI investigation into contacts between Trump’s campaign and Russia, despite Trump’s recent unsubstantiated claims that the departing president placed a “spy” or multiple spies in his campaign.
Rhodes writes he did not learn about the FBI investigation until after leaving office, and then from the news media. Obama did not impose sanctions on Russia in retaliation for the meddling before the election because he believed it might prompt Moscow into hacking into Election Day vote tabulations. Obama did impose sanctions after the election but Rhodes’ suggestion that the targets include President Vladimir Putin was rebuffed on the theory that such a move would go too far.
Obama and his team were confident that Clinton would win and, like much of the country, were shocked when she did not. “I couldn’t shake the feeling that I should have seen it coming,” Rhodes writes. “Because when you distilled it, stripped out the racism and misogyny, we’d run against Hillary eight years ago with the same message Trump had used: She’s part of a corrupt establishment that can’t be trusted to bring change.”
On election night, Obama spoke by telephone with Cody Keenan, his chief speechwriter, and Rhodes to figure out what he should say. Rhodes asked if he should offer reassurance to allies. “No, I don’t think that I’m the one to tell them that,” he said.
The next day, Obama focused on cheering up his despondent staff. At one point, he sent a message to Rhodes saying, “There are more stars in the sky than grains of sand on the earth.”
But days later, Obama seemed less sanguine. “I don’t know,” he told aides. “Maybe this is what people want. I’ve got the economy set up well for him. No facts. No consequences. They can just have a cartoon.”
He added that “we’re about to find out just how resilient our institutions are, at home and around the world.”
The day Obama hosted Trump at the White House after the election seemed surreal. Trump kept steering the conversation back to the size of his rallies, noting that he and Obama could draw big crowds, but Clinton could not, Rhodes writes.
Afterward, Obama called a few aides to the Oval Office to ruminate on the encounter. “I’m trying to place him in American history,” he said.
“He peddles” bull, Rhodes answered. “That character has always been part of the American story. You can see it right back to some of the characters in Huckleberry Finn.”
“Maybe,” Obama answered, “that’s the best we can hope for.”