When President Obama met with President-Elect Donald Trump in the White House, it was just days after the 2016 election, and the country was still reeling from the surprising result. Obama maintained his signature composure, but a new memoir from former White House advisor Ben Rhodes indicates that the then-president was much more alarmed than he seemed. Rhodes' new book details Obama's first meeting with Trump, which apparently left Obama "stupefied."
The two men indicated to reporters that their 90-minute conference was respectful and productive. Obama said that they'd had an "excellent conversation," while Trump said that he had "great respect" for his predecessor. Details about their meeting were unclear, but we know that Obama explained some of the inner workings of the White House and generally tried to prepare Trump for the presidential transition, taking particular care to warn him about the North Korea threat.
Now we have some more specific information. According to Rhodes in his new book The World as It Is, Obama made some "arguments about healthcare, the Iran deal, immigration" to which Trump apparently seemed receptive. The president later reportedly told Rhodes that Trump had "almost taken pride in not being attached to a firm position on anything."
Trump also apparently brought up the size of his rallies multiple times during the conversation (this was prior to the mild drama about his inauguration crowd size — but he'd been in the habit of exaggerating his rally numbers before that, too).
Rhodes said Obama told him that Trump had been polite during the meeting. Still, the experience apparently left him "somewhat stupefied." He told his adviser, "I'm trying to place him in American history," to which Rhodes replied that Trump "peddles bullsh*t. That character has always been a part of the American Story. You can see it right back to some of the characters in Huckleberry Finn." Obama reportedly laughed and said, "Maybe that's the best we can hope for."
This debriefing between Rhodes and Obama reportedly marked just one moment in the president's attempt to process Trump's victory. Rhodes wrote that his boss "went through stages," some of which were plain "disbelief." He was "trying on different theories" and seemed to decide that there were "multiple car crashes at once" that led to Hillary Clinton's defeat, Rhodes claimed.
Rhodes indicated that Obama didn't think Clinton was blameless. He reportedly suggested to his aides that she hadn't made "it clear to everyone how much [... she] want[ed] to win" and told them, "'You have to want it,' like Michael Jordan demanding the ball the final moments of a game."
Rhodes seems to agree and said that he personally "should have seen [... her loss] coming." He explains: "When you distilled it, stripped out the racism and misogyny, we’d run against Hillary eight years ago with the same message Trump had used: She's part of a corrupt establishment that can’t be trusted to bring change."
He also wrote that Clinton called Obama after the election to personally apologize. She, like many liberals, was reportedly concerned that her defeat would lead to the dismantlement of Obama's legacy. "Mr. President," she apparently said on the phone, "I'm sorry."
Obama reportedly told Rhodes that he feared the country might not have been ready for his presidency. "Sometimes I wonder whether I was 10 or 20 years too early," he said. "Maybe we pushed too far. […] Maybe people just want to fall back into their tribe."
Other times he indicated bitterness. "I don't know," he said once, according to Rhodes. "Maybe this is what people want. I've got the economy set up well for him. No facts. No consequences. They can just have a cartoon."
The World as It Is may be the most we'll know about Obama's reaction to his successor. It seems unlikely that Obama himself will let go of his poise to tell the public exactly what he thought, and thinks, of Trump. David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker, said in 2016 that he "asked Obama how things had really gone" in his meeting with the incoming president. Obama reportedly "smiled thinly" and said he'd be more honest "at some point over a beer — off the record."