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OPINION | Crocodile tears for the rule of law

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HIS recent foray into the 2020 election was pure Barack Obama — pointedly partisan, sometimes entertaining and displaying an amazing lack of self-awareness.

In what was likely a preplanned maneuver, a friendly reporter received a recording of the former president’s 30-minute pep talk to his administration’s alumni association and posted the juicier nuggets online.

While revealing that the absence of sports is driving him “nuts” and he enjoys that his daughters “are stuck having dinner with me,” Mr. Obama used the webcast to encourage former staffers to “feel the same sense of urgency that I do” and join in “spending as much time as necessary and campaigning as hard” as they can to elect former Vice President Joe Biden.

Mr. Obama unleashed on President Trump’s handling of Covid-19, calling it as “an absolute chaotic disaster.” There have been mistakes and cringeworthy statements, but surely there has been progress, too —for example, on vaccines — and good early decisions, such as restricting travel from China. At odds with the facts, Mr. Obama’s uncalibrated condemnation of Mr. Trump is also at odds with the praise the administration has received from Democrats in the know such as California Gov. Gavin Newsom (“Promise made, promise kept”) and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (“The federal government stepped up and was a great partner”).

You’d think Mr. Obama, whose administration couldn’t get a website to work during the Affordable Care Act rollout or keep his key health-care promise, “If you like your plan, you can keep your plan,” might be more reticent about criticizing his successor amid the worst pandemic in a century. Especially since Mr. Obama failed to replenish the Strategic National Stockpile’s supply of N95 masks after it was depleted on his watch.

Mr. Obama also said that “what we’re fighting against” in the election are “long-term trends in which being selfish, being tribal, being divided and seeing others as an enemy — that has become a stronger impulse in American life.” Yet he helped America become more polarized. Mr. Obama spent two terms treating Republicans as enemies rather than the loyal opposition, referring to them as champions of “social Darwinism” and the “Flat Earth Society” and their proposals as, in so many words, unpatriotic and un-American. When he left office, more than 70% of Americans said he left the country more divided or no more united than it was in 2009.

Mr. Obama’s talk also included his claim that the Justice Department’s decision to drop charges against former national security adviser Michael Flynn means “our basic understanding of rule of law is at risk.”

Here’s another possibility: The department dropped the charges to defend the rule of law. It noted the charge “requires a statement to be not simply false, but ‘materially’ false with respect to a matter under investigation.” Having found no collusion with Russia, the FBI moved in December 2016 to end its investigation of Mr. Flynn. Only a paperwork snafu allowed FBI Deputy Assistant Director Peter Strzok to have Mr. Flynn interviewed on Jan. 24, 2017, an action the department now says had no “legitimate investigative basis.” Further, the government was likely to lose the case. It turns out Mr. Strzok and his lover, FBI lawyer Lisa Page, edited the Flynn interview report. The original notes haven’t been found, but the agents involved said at the time that they felt “Flynn was not lying.”

Where was Mr. Obama’s concern about the rule of law when he consulted with FBI Director James Comey about Mr. Flynn while the acting attorney general was kept out of the loop? Or when he acquiesced to Mr. Comey’s not giving the incoming Trump administration the normal defensive briefing on the issue? U.S. Attorney John Durham’s report on the Russia probe could make for interesting reading.

Then there’s Mr. Obama’s dismissal of Hillary Clinton’s private email server as a national- security issue while she was under active FBI investigation. Did that show proper respect for the rule of law?

Still, Mr. Obama’s appearance to rally the Democratic faithful helped boost — at least in weekend coverage — his party’s presumptive nominee. They are risks, however, to being too visible too often during the campaign. Mr. Obama reminds voters of how comparatively feeble Mr. Biden’s political and oratorical talents are and the peripheral role Mr. Biden played as his vice president. Having the former president speaking frequently could overshadow Mr. Biden, who’s already hard to find.

At the end of the day, Mr. Obama isn’t on the ticket: Joe Biden is. That alone gives Mr. Trump a good chance to win.

November 2020 pssnewsletter

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