Exclusive: President Obama on the FBI and Clinton emails, Dakota Access Pipeline—and why young people should vote
President Obama sat down with NowThis in Columbus, Ohio on November 1, 2016. Here is a full transcript of the interview. Published clips are included with the full interview video to come.
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Versha Sharma, Managing Editor, NowThis: Thank you for being with us. You just talked to thousands of young voters, we have an audience of about 20 million, almost overwhelmingly young voters.
President Obama: Right.
Versha: So, what we’re hearing from them is that some of them are a little less likely to vote or support Secretary Clinton because of the new email review. This is something people are trying to figure out. Do you think this is an actual controversy?
President Obama: Well, obviously it’s become a political controversy, but I think that for young people out there, what they need to focus on is that Secretary Clinton is, in my estimation, as qualified as anybody who’s ever run for president. She is somebody who worked as my Secretary of State. She is somebody who served as a U.S. Senator, as a First Lady, and on the issues that matter to young people, from making college more affordable, to growing jobs for people who are just getting out of school, to dealing with something like climate change, that is so vital to your futures, or environmental protection in general, to making sure that women have equal opportunity and are treated with dignity and respect. On all those issues, she is somebody who is aligned with the views of most millennials. And her opponent, Donald Trump, is not. I mean, here’s somebody who, by every measure, is not fit for office, somebody who vilifies immigrants, who has called for a ban based on what religion you are, who characterizes women in the most derogatory terms. That is somebody who is outside of the normal bounds of American politics, and you know, the fact of the matter is, is that Hillary Clinton, having been in the arena for 30 years, oftentimes gets knocked around and people say crazy stuff about her and when she makes a mistake, an honest mistake, it ends up being blown up as if it’s just some crazy thing, and so I understand why, if you’re voting for the first time or even the second time, you know, all that noise coming at you, you think, oh, well, there’s something maybe I should be worried about. I just want everybody who’s watching to know that Hillary Clinton not only is going to make a great president and not only is she willing to work on the issues that your viewers care about most, but I trust her, I know her, and you know, I wouldn’t be supporting her if I didn’t have absolute confidence in her integrity and her interest in making sure that young people have a better future.
Versha: I think the timing of this release or this letter that [FBI Director James] Comey sent to Congress is what’s confusing a lot of people, and like you said, kind of brings up past mistakes that were made, errors in judgement. Were you yourself upset with the timing at all?
Pres. Obama: Well, you know, I’ve made a very deliberate effort to make sure that I don’t look like I’m meddling in what are supposed to be independent processes for making these assessments. And what I’ve said before, I will say again, that Hillary Clinton is somebody who did outstanding work for me, I have seen her up close, I know her. Setting aside the particulars of this case, I know that she is somebody who has always looked out for the interests of America and the American people first, and I do think that there is a norm that, you know, when there are investigations — we don’t operate on innuendo, we don’t operate on incomplete information, we don’t operate on leaks, we operate based on concrete decisions that are made, and when this was investigated thoroughly, the last time, the conclusion of the FBI, the conclusion of the Justice Department, the conclusion of repeated congressional investigations was that, you know, she had made some mistakes, but that there wasn’t anything there that was, you know, prosecutable, and I think that in contrast, you’ve got somebody like Donald Trump who has admitted he doesn’t pay income tax, has admitted that he thinks that’s smart business, has admitted that he routinely stiffs people who do work for him, just doesn’t pay them, because they’re small contractors or workers, and they can’t afford to sue him for what he owes them, and then will pay half of what he owes them, and he thinks that’s fine or that that’s slick.
Versha: He’s also said a lot of sexist things this cycle–
Pres. Obama: Yes.
Versha: Which has been something that’s resonated with our viewers.
Pres. Obama: Right.
Versha: How do you talk to your daughters about some of the sexist things that Trump has said this campaign?
Pres. Obama: Well, I think you can imagine that in my household, with me, Michelle, my mother-in-law, my girls have a pretty clear sense that not only are girls and women equal to boys and men, but you know, they probably think they’re a little superior, and understandably.
Pres. Obama: And they–yeah, so they, I don’t think that they personally are somehow impacted by his views. I think what has surprised them, and I’ve had to talk to them about, is the notion that anybody would vote for somebody like that for president. I mean, they’re aware that there are bigots out there, they’re aware that there are people who are sexist out there, I think they are surprised that people would be willing to overlook such blatant disrespect of women. That they would overlook somebody bragging on tape of actions that pretty much describe sexual assault. We’ve never had anybody running for public office who would engage in some of those behaviors, and so, I think they’re surprised by that. The good news is that I don’t believe that represents the majority of people. I certainly don’t believe it represents the majority of Republicans. My concern is when Republicans say, yeah, we don’t like that, but–as long as Mr. Trump supports our views on tax cuts for the wealthy or as long as Mr. Trump supports our views on dismantling environmental regulation, that, you know, we’ll overlook that. You can’t overlook something as fundamental as that, because ultimately, part of being president is you’re representing all people, and you want to make sure that they are looking out for everybody and not just some people.
Versha: So you mentioned the [Access Hollywood] tape. This has been a truly crazy election–
Pres. Obama: It has been.
Versha: Where, you know, surprise after surprise has kind of come out pretty much every day, sometimes multiple times a day. Is there anything that has shocked you, like, or is there anything that shocks you anymore? What’s been the most kind of crazy moment for you?
Pres. Obama: Well, you’re right, I mean, there are obviously issues of Mr. Trump’s character, not paying taxes, the things he says about women, the things he says about immigrants, mocking people who are disabled, mocking Gold Star moms. But, in some ways, what continues to surprise me is the degree to which people would even consider this person as commander in chief. You know, the presidency is not a reality show. On a daily basis, I have to make decisions about whether or not to send our men and women in uniform into war. On a daily basis, we have to make decisions about how to protect this country from terrorist attacks and do so in a way that’s consistent with our values so that we’re not painting any group with a broad brush. Every single day, I’ve got to make decisions about how do we spread human rights and promote democracy around the world. How do we make sure that–on issues like climate change that can’t be solved by one country–that we’re able to mobilize people around the world. And I have the nuclear codes which means that, you know, at any given moment, I’ve got to make a series of really important decisions to make sure that, you know, we don’t engage in behaviors that could lead to catastrophe. And Donald Trump not only doesn’t seem to know anything about foreign policy, doesn’t seem to be curious about foreign policy, doesn’t seem to have studied it, even after he decided to run for President, but has been consistently erratic in terms of how he talks about things like the NATO alliance or about nuclear weapons or about going to war or about going back to torturing people as a way to deal with terrorist attacks, all of which I think should really concern any voter, and in contrast, Hillary Clinton is somebody who has been in the room when we make decisions about going after bin Laden. Who’s traveled to over 100 countries and is widely respected around the world. If, for no other reason than just who’s fit to be commander in chief, who has worked with our military, who has worked with our diplomats, who knows what it’s like to make decisions in the Situation Room or in the Oval Office, that’d be enough reason to vote for Hillary Clinton.
Versha: So, you mentioned climate change which is an issue that is hugely important to our audience and young voters. One thing the candidates aren’t really talking about is the Dakota Access Pipeline. Is that something that you would consider intervening in? People have called for your administration to make a call.
Pres. Obama: Yeah, well, you know, right now, there is some litigation involved in it, and I’ve been staying on top of it. One of the things I’m proudest of during my administration is the unprecedented work that we’ve done with the Native American tribes to treat them with the kind of dignity and respect and equality of regard that, so often in our history, wasn’t given, and my hope is that we can find a way to resolve this issue. You know, typically what happens is, is that initially things at a local level are worked on, and we try to resolve them. If an impasse is reached, then at some point, it’s something that we have to pay attention to, as well. We’re monitoring this closely, and you know, I think as a general rule, my view is that there is a way for us to accommodate sacred lands of Native Americans, and you know, I think that right now the Army Corps is examining whether there are ways to reroute this pipeline–
Versha: So that’s a possibility, right?
Pres. Obama: So, we’re going to let it play out for several more weeks and determine whether or not this can be resolved in a way that I think is properly attentive to the traditions of the First Americans.
Versha: Is there something to be done about the way protesters are being treated right now, though? They’re getting sprayed with rubber bullets, we’re seeing some kind of shocking footage.
Pres. Obama: Yeah, I mean, it’s a challenging situation, I think that my general rule when I talk to governors and state and local officials whenever they’re dealing with protests, including, for example, during the Black Lives Matters protests, is that there’s an obligation for protesters to be peaceful and there’s an obligation for authorities to show restraint. And, you know, I want to make sure that as everybody is exercising their Constitutional rights to be heard, that both sides are refraining from situations that might result in people being hurt.
Versha: So, I understand Malia voted for the first time this year–
Pres. Obama: She did.
Versha: Do you remember your first time voting?
Pres. Obama: You know, I do remember my first time voting, and I’m just clicking back real quick here. It would have been in 1980, because I turned 18 the summer of 1979, and my candidate lost, Jimmy Carter lost to Ronald Reagan. But you know, it was right around that time where I started being interested in politics and government. I hadn’t been somebody who was, like, a member of the student council or–
Pres. Obama: You know, had been particularly active. I was more interested in basketball and girls and partying too much and all kinds of things. So, I was entering into my second year in college, and I started realizing that there were a lot of issues out there that I actually cared about, and that if I wanted to have an impact of any sort that I had to get educated, I had to learn about some of these issues and part of growing up was saying that if you don’t like what’s happening, then you can’t just sit there and complain, you got to do something about it. And part of that is voting, and so when I hear young people who tell me, well, I’m not that interested or I don’t think my vote makes a difference, or you know, even though Trump is terrible, but you know Hillary is not exciting me that much–
Versha: There’s a trust issue that a lot of young voters have with her.
Pres. Obama: Yeah, when I hear that stuff, I just have to say, you know, the world’s imperfect, politics is imperfect, candidates are imperfect, I’m imperfect. You makes choices, you decide on what is best in this particular situation, and in this particular situation, it’s not even close. Hillary Clinton is somebody who’s qualified to be president and cares about the issues that millennials care about and will maintain the progress that we’ve made over these last eight years on issues like making sure young people can afford college or making sure that we’re dealing with climate in a serious way or making sure that everybody is included in our democracy. Or making sure that we continue to try to reform our criminal justice system so it works for everybody. And will she get 100% of what any young person or any activist wants during the course of her presidency? No. Will she compromise sometimes? Yes. By the way, so did I, because that’s how, you know, the process works, and you know, there were some people who were really supportive of Bernie, and I think that some of the mistrust came around, people thinking, well, you know–
Versha: Rigged against him.
Pres. Obama: Bernie seems, you know, a lot purer, and he’s, you know, hitting Wall Street and he wants a single-payer plan. I love Bernie, and I love his passion that he unleashed, but you know what, if Bernie were president, he’d have to compromise, too, to get something done. Because ultimately this is a big complicated democracy, and you don’t get 100% of what you want. Hillary understands that and more importantly, young voters have to understand that. You don’t–we don’t live in an abstraction, you know, we don’t live in, you know, a fantasy. We live here in America, and the question is who will do the best job in putting the most people back to work and most likely to make sure that women get paid the same as men for doing the same work, and are most likely to be able to keep us safe without discriminating against Muslim Americans and are most likely to keep us out of stupid wars and are most likely to make sure that our criminal justice system works for everybody, and by those standards, this is a clear choice, and so if you don’t vote, you’re voting for Donald Trump.
Because here’s what we know–young people, when they do vote, overwhelmingly support progressive causes, and I wouldn’t have been elected president had it not been for young people voting, and Hillary will not be elected president unless young people turn out to vote, so don’t give away your power and think that somehow you’re being sophisticated. There’s no room for irony or cynicism in this situation. Sometimes being idealistic involves you getting out there, making a choice, and then continuing to push to try to make even better choices in the future.