President Barack Obama and aides are keeping smiles on their faces, but a sense of doom has descended on the White House.
Not two days ago, Obama was campaigning against the existential threat that a President Trump posed to America and the world, mocking the idea of giving the nuclear codes to a man who had to have his Twitter account taken away from him over weekend.
That man is getting the nuclear codes, along with all the rest of the presidency: a pen that can in a moment wipe out the Iran nuclear deal that Obama argued was the only way to hold off mushroom clouds in the Middle East, a Congress eager to join him in destroying the Obamacare law that the president says has saved lives and will save more, a military, a bully pulpit where now every word he says is policy, an affirmation that he should be the model that children aspire to, an empowerment of white nationalist and disrespecting forces that Obama called dark and hateful and warned would only be more empowered if Trump won.
But the freak-out has been kept in check – in public, at least. Obama stood calmly on Wednesday afternoon promising a smooth transition, coolly urging supporters and disappointed voters to nurse their wounds and get back into the arena.
The world order has been shaken. Everything that everyone thought they knew about politics is wrong.
Wednesday, White House press secretary Josh Earnest diplomatically touched on those ideas, while insisting that inviting into the Oval Office a man he repeatedly called “unfit” for the job does not cast an air of insincerity. Earnest would not directly answer if Obama is now worried about turning over the nuclear codes, or if the president believes the world now faces a heightened chance of nuclear war.
“I’m not going to speculate on what sort of actions President-elect Trump may choose to prioritize or pursue,” Earnest said when asked about nuclear war.
His only answer to if Obama is worried about turning over the nuclear codes: “The election’s over, and it’s been decided,” reasserting that the president’s disagreements with the president-elect are “rather profound.”
Earnest then several times referenced importance of the U.S. alliance with South Korea, with North Korea is growing ever more aggressive in its nuclearization and Trump having previously expressed ambivalence about American involvement.
Asked about the existential threat to American democracy that Obama had said a President Trump represent, Earnest replied, “The president made a forceful argument, and he stands by that argument. But the time for making that argument has passed. The American people have rendered their judgment.”
An hour earlier in the Rose Garden, Obama recalled with a smirk that he told America on Tuesday, when he like most others thought Hillary Clinton would win, that after the election, “the sun would come up in the morning—and that was one prognostication that turned out to be true.”
The sun came up. But that doesn’t change how terrified Obama and Clinton, like many others, are about where America and the world will be in four years. The furthest Obama could bring himself to go was to say he had “hope” that Trump would be invested in unity, respect for American institutions, the way of life and the rule of law.
Obama, watching the returns come in from the White House residence until late into the night, was stunned and disappointed, Earnest said.
In public, and in talking with small groups of staffers, Obama was upbeat.
“This was a long and hard-fought campaign. A lot of our fellow Americans are exalted today, and a lot of Americans are less so, but that’s the nature of campaigns. That’s the nature of democracy,” Obama said. “It’s not always inspiring. But to the young people who got into politics for the first time and may be disappointed by the results, I just want you to know, you have to stay encouraged. Don’t get cynical. Don’t ever think you can’t make a difference.”
The White House staffers who massed into the Rose Garden to hear some kind of comfort or explanation cried and hugged, the shock running through their bodies.
They applauded loudly for two minutes after Obama and Vice President Joe Biden walked back into the Oval Office, ignoring shouted questions that included “Is Obamacare over?” and “Are you scared?”
But everything he and they worked for seems set to be ripped out by the roots. Four years is a very long time, especially with Republican majorities in the House and Senate that might only grow larger with the 2018 midterms.
“We owe him an open mind and a chance to succeed,” Clinton said in her own concession speech.
Earnest pushed back on the suggestion that the Obama legacy is toast. Trump would face difficult real-world consequences in following through on some of his campaign promises, he argued, between potentially ballooning the deficit and spiking health care costs. Meanwhile, House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell both said Wednesday that they’re going to move to repeal Obamacare quickly, and that would only be only the start.
But Earnest admitted that he’d had to practice just saying the words “President-elect Trump.”
It’s a neck-breaking whiplash from the valedictory trip that Obama took through New Hampshire, Michigan and Pennsylvania (all states he won twice, and two of which were part of the collapse that took the presidency from her).
White House chief of staff Denis McDonough, meanwhile, walked through the Rose Garden after Obama finished speaking. Asked if he’d take questions, he smiled tightly and said, “No.”
Earnest shared the message he said he’s been telling his own staff.
“People say adversity builds character,” Earnest said. “I’m not sure that’s true. I think adversity reveals character.”
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