President Barack Obama held his final news conference at the White House on Wednesday, defending the importance of the free press and some of the final decisions he has made before leaving office.
Administration aides have begun to pack up in preparation for the handoff, with most of the West Wing staff scheduled to move out late Thursday. Officials said a small number of Obama aides will remain on the job through noon Friday, when President-elect Donald Trump takes the oath of office.
The president addressed his decision Tuesday to commute the 35-year prison sentence of Chelsea Manning, an Army private convicted of taking troves of secret diplomatic and military documents and disclosing them to WikiLeaks, after deciding that Manning had served enough time.
“Let us be clear: Chelsea Manning has served a tough prison sentence,” Obama said, adding, “It made sense to commute — and not pardon her sentence. … I feel very comfortable that justice has been served, and a message has still been sent.”
He dismissed the idea that his act of clemency was aimed at securing the extradition of WikiLeaks’ founder Julian Assange, who has taken refuge in the Ecuadoran Embassy in London.
“I don’t pay a lot of attention to Julian Assange’s tweets, so that wasn’t a consideration in this decision,” the president said.
The president chose to field questions from reporters in the White House briefing room, a location chosen by aides in part for its symbolism of having the working press in proximity to those in power. Trump aides have alarmed reporters by suggesting that they could be moved out of the West Wing, with fewer chances to question senior officials.
In his opening statement, Obama praised reporters for “asking tough questions” of him and his aides and serving as a conduit of information to ordinary citizens.
“You’re not supposed to be sycophants; you’re supposed to be skeptics,” he said. “And having you in this building has helped this place work better.
He said that when reporters query him on issues such as why he had not done more to curb the spread of Ebola in 2014 or the oil leaking into the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, “it allows me to go back to my team and say, ‘Will you get this solved before the next press conference?’”
“So America needs you, and our democracy needs you,” he told the dozens of reporters gathered in the room.
Obama also addressed the transition of power and faced questions from reporters over the growing number of Democrats who have announced that they plan to boycott the inaugural ceremonies over differences with Trump.
The president-elect and Rep. John Lewis, D-Georgia, have traded insults after Lewis questioned Trump’s electoral legitimacy in the wake of reports that Russian operatives meddled in the 2016 campaign in an effort to help Trump beat Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.
“With respect to the inauguration, I’m not going to comment on those issues,” Obama said. “All I’m going to say is I’m going to be there, as is Michelle.”
And while Obama said he had offered Trump his “best counsel,” he acknowledged the limits of that advice.
“I can’t tell you how convincing I have been. I think you’d have to ask him,” the president said, noting that since the president-elect had campaigned on a platform that was contrary to many of his top priorities, “it is appropriate for him to go forward with his vision and his values, and I don’t expect that there’s going to be enormous overlap.”
White House aides said the president has instructed his staff to “set aside” personal feelings and work to ensure “that the next administration can get off to a running start,” press secretary Josh Earnest said in an interview on “CBS This Morning.”
Obama’s participation in the inaugural ceremonies will be “the culmination of that effort to put the country’s interests ahead of his personal political interests.”
Obama is leaving office on a high note, with 6 in 10 Americans approving of his job performance, moving him ahead of the average final mark for modern presidents, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll. By comparison, the poll showed that Trump is the least-popular incoming president in at least four decades, even as a majority of Americans expressed optimism that he will be able to fulfill his campaign pledges to boost the economy and deal with terrorist threats.
Obama and his wife are scheduled to fly to Palm Springs, Florida, for a vacation Friday afternoon after Trump is sworn in. The Obamas are relocating to a private residence in Washington, D.C.’s Kalorama neighborhood while their younger daughter, Sasha, finishes her final 2 1/2 years of high school.