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Obama seeks to keep lines open with Trump

President Obama is seeking to preserve an open line of communication with Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpJudge rules to not release Russia probe documents over Trump tweets Trump and advisers considering firing FBI director after election: WaPo Obama to campaign for Biden in Florida MORE, even if doing so disappoints a liberal base that would like to see him light up the president-elect.

At an end-of-year press conference on Friday, Obama sought to dial down tensions that seemed to be reaching a crescendo this week, when news headlines were dominated by allegations that Russia had interfered in the election specifically to help Trump win. 

Evidence of how tense things had become was seen as Obama’s White House press secretary Josh Earnest and Trump’s campaign manager Kellyanne Conway exchanged verbal shots, and Trump called Earnest “foolish” at a Thursday night rally. 

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Meanwhile, first lady Michelle ObamaMichelle LeVaughn Robinson ObamaObama to young voters: Create 'a new normal in America' by voting for Biden Obama hits trail to help Biden, protect legacy Michelle Obama shares pro-Biden music video featuring Black Eyed Peas, Jennifer Hudson MORE told Oprah Winfrey in an interview recorded this week that, in the wake of Trump’s election, “Now, we are feeling what not having hope feels like.”

Obama could have dialed things up even more on Friday as he met the assembled media on a slow news day. 

Instead, he scaled the rhetoric back.

Obama carefully avoided any statements so stark as his wife’s, even as he made a more diplomatic case that there were plenty of reasons to be concerned about the Trump presidency.

One of his most striking remarks came when he sought to link the dangers of Russian meddling with the possibility that Trump could yield to authoritarian impulses. 

Obama argued that America was a significantly stronger nation than Russia, but he cautioned that “they can impact us if we lose track of who we are, if we abandon our values.”

Growing more specific, Obama added that this vulnerability would be multiplied if “we start to buy into notions that it is okay to intimidate the press or lock up dissidents or discriminate against people because of their faith.”

He also carefully addressed Trump’s decision to take a congratulatory phone call from the president of Taiwan, a nation that has not enjoyed direct contact with an American president since 1979 under the U.S. policy of “One China.” 

“If you are going to upend this understanding, you have to have thought through what the consequences are,” Obama said, referring to the complex protocols that underpin relations between the U.S., Taiwan and China. China considers Taiwan a breakaway province.

Still, the president and the president-elect have been much more civil toward each other than they were during the campaign. Obama characterized their conversations as “cordial” during his news conference, while Trump has spoken relatively warmly of Obama during the rallies he is undertaking as part of his “Thank You” tour.

On Friday, Obama sought to position his concerns as part of a broader range of worries about the general political climate. He assailed unnamed “domestic propagandists” for what he considered their corrosive effect on public trust, and took a passing shot at the media for their “obsession,” as he saw it, with even the most trivial details in emails hacked from the account of Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonJudge rules to not release Russia probe documents over Trump tweets Trump and advisers considering firing FBI director after election: WaPo Obama to campaign for Biden in Florida MORE’s campaign chairman John Podesta. 

On Trump specifically, Obama evinced confidence that the president-elect and his aides would go through a “sobering process” as they took the levers of power after the Jan. 20 inauguration. 

He also underlined the fact that he was willing to assist the incoming president with general advice, expressing some level of confidence that “maybe I can transmit some thoughts about maintaining the effectiveness, integrity, cohesion of the office [and] our various democratic institutions … I will always make myself available to him, just as previous presidents have made themselves available to me.”

That tone is a long way from the more confrontational one liberals would prefer Obama to strike against a man whom they view as an existential threat to American democracy. 

But the president gave them little satisfaction in that regard, nor did he oxygenate some of their wilder hopes. He insisted that there was no evidence that any outside power had interfered with the process of casting and counting votes, and he refused to get at all embroiled in the question of whether individual members of the Electoral College should cast “faithless” votes against Trump on Monday. 

Obama offered some criticisms of the Clinton campaign, too — albeit implicitly. He stressed the importance of Democrats making their case even in rural counties and other places that some in the party view as hostile territory.

It was important to “make sure we are showing up in places … where Democrats are characterized as coastal liberal, latte-sipping, politically correct, out-of-touch folks,” he said. “We have to be in those communities … and when we are in those communities, it makes a difference. That’s how I became president.” 

Clinton’s losses, especially in rural areas, are among the many factors that could be perceived to have proven decisive in such a close election.

In the closing moments of the news conference, too, Obama allowed himself a hint of ruefulness at an outcome that no one saw coming — and the election of a man who threatens to undo much of his legacy. 

“This is a clarifying moment,” he said. 

“It is a useful reminder that voting counts, politics counts,” he said. “What the president-elect is going to be doing is going to be very different from what I was doing.”