President Obama on Journalism, Russia, Israel, Chelsea Manning & More
President Obama held his final press conference today in Washington as his time in office comes to a close. He addressed a number of pertinent issues facing the United States and the rest of the world.
He started out by sending well wishes to the Bush family after hearing the news that President George H.W. Bush and Barbara Bush were admitted to the hospital this morning. President Obama stated he was in touch with the family today.
"They have not only dedicated their lives to this country, they have been a constant source of friendship and support and good counsel for Michelle and me over the years. They are as fine a couple as we know. And so we want to send our prayers and our love to them. Really good people.
Next he thanked the journalists present for their work, expressing his appreciation for the role a free press plays in our country. He pointed out their work to hold people in power accountable, reporting on facts and ultimately making our country better.
He commented, "So America needs you, and our democracy needs you. We need you to establish a baseline of facts and evidence that we can use as a starting point for the kind of reasoned and informed debates that ultimately lead to progress. And so my hope is, is that you will continue with the same tenacity that you showed us to do the hard work of getting to the bottom of stories and getting them right, and to push those of us in power to be the best version of ourselves. And to push this country to be the best version of itself."
Next he discussed the controversial decision he made to commute the sentence of Chelsea Manning, a United States Army soldier convicted by court-martial in July 2013 for breaking the Espionage Act and other offenses after disclosing sensitive military information to WikiLeaks.
He commented, "Chelsea Manning has served a tough prison sentence. So the notion that the average person who was thinking about disclosing vital, classified information would think that it goes unpunished I don't think would get that impression from the sentence that Chelsea Manning has served.
It has been my view that given she went to trial, that due process was carried out, that she took responsibility for her crime, that the sentence that she received was very disproportional -- disproportionate relative to what other leakers had received, and that she had served a significant amount of time, that it made it sense to commute -- and not pardon -- her sentence.
And I feel very comfortable that justice has been served and that a message has still been sent that when it comes to our national security, that wherever possible, we need folks who may have legitimate concerns about the actions of government or their superiors or the agencies in which they work -- that they try to work through the established channels and avail themselves of the whistleblower protections that had been put in place."
When asked about relations with Russia and advising the Trump administration going forward on lifting sanctions if they lower their nuclear stockpile. He commented, "I think it is in America's interest and the world's interest that we have a constructive relationship with Russia. That's been my approach throughout my presidency. Where our interests have overlapped, we've worked together. At the beginning of my term, I did what I could to encourage Russia to be a constructive member of the international community, and tried to work with the President and the government of Russia in helping them diversify their economy, improve their economy, use the incredible talents of the Russian people in more constructive ways."
President Obama also addressed growing concerns and opposition he has faced regarding his decision not to veto the UN's decision to not support Israel's settlements,
I continue to be significantly worried about the Israeli-Palestinian issue. And I’m worried about it both because I think the status quo is unsustainable, that it is dangerous for Israel, that it is bad for Palestinians, it is bad for the region, and it is bad for America’s national security.
And I came into this office wanting to do everything I could to encourage serious peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians. And we invested a lot of energy, a lot of time, a lot of effort, first year, second year, all the way until last year. Ultimately, what has always been clear is that we cannot force the parties to arrive at peace. What we can do is facilitate, provide a platform, encourage. But we can't force them to do it.
But in light of shifts in Israeli politics and Palestinian politics; a rightward drift in Israeli politics; a weakening of President Abbas’s ability to move and take risks on behalf of peace in the Palestinian Territories; in light of all the dangers that have emerged in the region and the understandable fears that Israelis may have about the chaos and rise of groups like ISIL and the deterioration of Syria -- in light of all those things, what we at least wanted to do, understanding that the two parties wouldn’t actually arrive at a final status agreement, is to preserve the possibility of a two-state solution. Because we do not see an alternative to it.
And I’ve said this directly to Prime Minister Netanyahu. I’ve said it inside of Israel. I’ve said it to Palestinians, as well. I don't see how this issues gets resolved in a way that maintains Israel as both Jewish and a democracy, because if you do not have two states, then in some form or fashion you are extending an occupation, functionally you end up having one state in which millions of people are disenfranchised and operate as second-class occupant -- residents. You can’t even call them citizens, necessarily.
And so the goal of the resolution was to simply say that the settlements -- the growth of the settlements are creating a reality on the ground that increasingly will make a two-state solution impossible. And we believed, consistent with the position that had been taken with previous U.S. administrations for decades now, that it was important for us to send a signal, a wake-up call, that this moment may be passing, and Israeli voters and Palestinians need to understand that this moment may be passing. And hopefully that, then, creates a debate inside both Israeli and Palestinian communities that won’t result immediately in peace, but at least will lead to a more sober assessment of what the alternatives are.
So the President-elect will have his own policy. The ambassador -- or the candidate for the ambassadorship obviously has very different views than I do. That is their prerogative. That’s part of what happens after elections. And I think my views are clear. We’ll see how their approach plays itself out.
I don’t want to project today what could end up happening, but obviously it’s a volatile environment. What we’ve seen in the past is, when sudden, unilateral moves are made that speak to some of the core issues and sensitivities of either side, that can be explosive. And what we’ve tried to do in the transition is just to provide the context in which the President-elect may want to make some of these decisions.