The Slatest

Obama Explains to Republicans What It Means When They Denounce Trump Without Renouncing Him

Barack Obama, taking the Republican Party to school since 2008.

Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

During a joint White House press conference with the Singaporean prime minister, President Barack Obama went into Professor Barack Obama mode on Tuesday to explain to top Republicans why their denunciations of Donald Trump “ring hollow.”

The first questioner asked Obama—given Trump’s ongoing feud with a gold star family and his recent remarks that he would consider recognizing Russia’s annexation of Crimea as legitimate—did he think that the Republican nominee was unfit for the presidency?

“Yes,” Obama responded. “I think the Republican nominee is unfit to serve as president. I said so last week [at the Democratic National Convention] and he keeps on proving it. The notion that he would attack a gold star family that had made such extraordinary sacrifices on behalf of our country. The fact that he doesn’t appear to have basic knowledge around critical issues in Europe, in the Middle East, in Asia means that he’s woefully unprepared to do this job.”

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Channeling his constitutional law professor past, Obama then went into a lengthy disquisition questioning why so many prominent Republicans who seem to recognize Trump’s unfitness for office continue to support him.

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“I think what’s been interesting is the repeated denunciations of his statements by leading Republicans. Including the Speaker of the House [Paul Ryan] and the Senate Majority Leader [Mitch McConnell] and prominent Republicans like John McCain,” he said. “And the question, I think, that they have to ask themselves is, if you are repeatedly having to say in very strong terms that what he has said is unacceptable, why are you still endorsing him?”

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Trump has spent days quarreling with Khizr and Ghazala Khan, parents of a soldier who lost his life in Iraq and was posthumously awarded the Bronze Star and Purple Heart. Khizr Khan condemned Trump in one of the best speeches of last week’s Democratic National Convention. In the days since, Trump has implied that Khan didn’t allow his wife to speak because of their Muslim faith, that Khan’s criticism of Trump was “vicious,” and that what Khan was actually upset about was Trump’s position on keeping terrorists out of the country. Ryan, McConnell, and McCain have all condemned Trump’s response, but none has renounced their endorsements of his candidacy.

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“There has to be a point in which you say, this is not somebody I can support for president of the United States. Even if he purports to be a member of my party,” Obama said. “And, you know, the fact that that has not yet happened makes some of these denunciations ring hollow.”

Obama then made a fantastically cogent argument for why Republicans should pull their support for Trump:

There has to come a point at which you say somebody who makes those kinds of statements doesn’t have the judgment, the temperament, the understanding to occupy the most powerful position in the world. …. I recognize that they all profoundly disagree with myself, or Hillary Clinton on tax policy or on certain elements of foreign policy. But, there have been Republican presidents with whom I disagreed with. But I didn’t have a doubt that they could function as president.

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I think I was right and Mitt Romney and John McCain were wrong on certain policy issues. But I never thought that they couldn’t do the job. And had they won, I would have been disappointed, but I would have said to all Americans, they are—this is our president, and I know they’re going to abide by certain norms and rules and common sense. Will observe basic decency. Will have enough knowledge about economic policy and foreign policy. And our constitutional traditions and rule of law. That our government will work. And then we’ll compete four years from now to try to win an election. But that’s not the situation here.

No, it is very much not. Romney, George W. Bush, Jeb Bush, and many other Republicans would seem to agree.

Read more Slate coverage of the 2016 campaign.

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