President Obama defended his decision to commute the sentence of Chelsea Manning as he bid farewell Wednesday to the White House press corps during the final press conference of his presidency.
“Chelsea Manning has served a tough prison sentence,” Obama said of the former U.S. Army soldier who was convicted of leaking classified information to WikiLeaks. “I feel very comfortable that justice has been served.”
Obama also pushed back against a proposal being floated by President-elect Donald Trump’s team about moving the reporters out of the White House.
“Having you in this building has made this place work better, it keeps us honest…it makes us work harder,” he said.
Obama also refused to weigh in on the decision by a growing number of Democratic lawmakers to skip the Trump inauguration.
“I’m not going to comment on those issues,” he said. “All I know is that I’m going to be there and so is Michelle.”
The president said he would speak out as private citizen if saw “systematic discrimination being ratified in some fashion,” if there were attempts to stifle dissent and a free press, or if there were “efforts to round up kids who have grown up here and are essentially American” and sent them “somewhere else.”
It is the 165th time Obama has faced the White House press corps in this kind of forum, according to the American Presidency Project.
That put the nation’s first African-American president 45 pressers behind his predecessor George W. Bush, who held 210 press conferences during his two terms, according to the APP.
Martha Joynt Kumar, who heads the White House Transition Project, said that doesn’t mean Obama has kept reporters at arm’s length.
“President Obama has given reporters plenty of access,” said Kumar. “In terms of one-on-one interviews, he has done more than (George W.) Bush and (Bill) Clinton combined.”
Kumar said she tallied 1,070 through September “and he’s certainly done a hundred since then.”
But Obama has not done many of the short question and answer sessions with the media that Clinton preferred doing, said Kumar. And, to the frustration of the White House press corps, he rarely took more than a handful of questions at formal press conferences.
“The thing about Obama is that he talked long,” said Kumar. “What he liked to do is deal with a particular issue or area and answer questions at length.”
Also, Obama — like other presidents before him — often preferred to take his message directly to the people.
“For example, when he wanted to get young people to sign up for the Affordable Care Act, he went to Zach Galifianakis,” Kumar said, referring to the comedian’s “Between Two Ferns” show.
Also, said Kumar, “for Obama social media was important.”
Like his predecessors, Obama left dealing with the White House press corps to press secretaries like Josh Earnest, who presided over his final briefing on Tuesday. Obama crashed the briefing and thanked Earnest for his service but split without answering any questions from reporters about the incoming Donald Trump administration.
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