'Chaotic disaster': Obama hits Trump's coronavirus response, warns of disinformation ahead of election

Mike Memoli and Kelly O'Donnell

After largely staying out of the fray since leaving the White House, former President Barack Obama pointedly criticized the Trump administration on a range of issues while also sounding the alarm about the spread of misinformation ahead of the presidential election as he rallied former members of his administration to join him in doing all they can to back his former vice president.

In a call with thousands of alumni of his administration Friday night, the contents of which were first reported by Yahoo! News, Obama also was harshly critical of the Justice Department directing prosecutors to drop its case against former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn, warning that the “rule of law is at risk.”

This is how “democracies become autocracies,” he warned.

And Obama slammed the Trump administration’s response to the coronavirus pandemic as an “absolute chaotic disaster.”

“What we're fighting against is these long-term trends in which being selfish, being tribal, being divided, and seeing others as an enemy — that that has become a stronger impulse in American life,” Obama said according to audio provided to Yahoo! News, the authenticity of which was confirmed by multiple sources who participated on the call.

“It's part of the reason why the response to this global crisis has been so anemic, and spotty, and it would have been bad, even with the best of governments,” he said.

White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany responded to Obama's criticism on Saturday by saying, "President Trump’s coronavirus response has been unprecedented and saved American lives."

"While Democrats were pursuing a sham witch hunt against President Trump, President Trump was shutting down travel from China. While Democrats encouraged mass gatherings, President Trump was deploying PPE, ventilators, and testing across the country," the statement said. "As Governor (Andrew) Cuomo said, President Trump’s response has been 'phenomenal.' There has been a bipartisan recognition of President Trump’s leadership, and the American people have taken notice."

Some 3,000 Obama administration alumni took part in Friday’s discussion, as part of a regular series of gatherings of the tight-knit network. One participant who took detailed notes of the conversation said the purpose was for the former president to encourage those who were inspired to join his campaign and administration to remain engaged in the political process, especially in the fall campaign.

Obama took five questions submitted in advance by attendees and pre-selected by event organizers, including one about the prevalence of disinformation campaigns with the rise of social media.

The former president shared that his two daughters have shown him viral TikTok videos intended to discourage voters from supporting Biden in the fall.

“I'm a 58-year-old guy, I don't have the answers here,” Obama said. But he said finding solutions to counter that and address it was “long-term mission” for his former staff.

Obama repeatedly voiced support for Biden on the call, but said it wasn’t just enough to support him in the presidential race, but to ensure Democrats held the House and won back control of the Senate as well.

“I'm going to be spending as much time is necessary and campaigning as far as I can for Joe Biden. We all know Joe,” Obama said, while also praising Nancy Pelosi’s leadership as Speaker of the House.

Obama, who endorsed Biden officially last month, downplayed any notion of a rift in the Democratic party, and praised Sen. Bernie Sanders for what he characterized as a sincere desire to do all that he can to help Biden as well. Sanders’ support, he added, could help his former running mate as he works to improve his standing with young voters.

Obama was careful not to name Trump often in the discussion, but was sharply critical of the Republican Party. He said that the party campaigns by stoking cynicism about whether government can effectively tackle the nation’s problems, and when they're in power, takes steps to deliberately weaken it, making it a “self-fulfilling prophecy.”

He said his biggest concern if Trump is reelected is that it would double-down on an “us versus them” attitude that has become more common in a highly partisan political environment, and risks redefining the nation’s identity from a melting pot that had welcomed and embraced diversity.

In lighter moments, Obama said he is still working hard on his memoir, to the point where he hasn’t been able to read as much as he would like. He also plugged his wife’s new Netflix special, “Becoming.”

Noting the late afternoon timing of the event, Obama also joked that his staff should share a toast.

“It’s after 5 o’clock people. You should be drinking!” he joked.