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Outgoing US President Barack Obama vowed not to remain silent when he feels the country’s “core values” are being threatened as he gave his last press conference on Wednesday before turning over the Oval Office to Donald Trump.
A president’s farewell news conference is traditionally a mild-mannered ritual, but the rocky handover to president-elect Trump had given Obama’s last presidential meeting with the press fresh political weight.
The outgoing president said he plans to assume a low profile in the months after he leaves office, and to avoid commenting on politics on a daily basis.
“I want to be quiet a little bit, and not hear myself talk so darn much,” Obama said.
Yet he carved out room for potential exceptions, insisting that he wouldn’t stay silent if Trump tried to deport children brought to the US illegally, a group Obama has sought to protect though executive action.
“That would merit me speaking out,” Obama said.
“Moment passing” for two-state solution
Taking questions on many topics two days before his presidency ends, Obama warned that the “moment may be passing” for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, pushing back on criticism over his recent move to put pressure on the Jewish state over settlement-building.
Appearing one last time in front of the White House seal, Obama said he was “significantly worried” that the growth of Jewish settlements in Palestinian territories would “increasingly make a two-state solution impossible.”
He stood behind his decision to allow a UN Security Council resolution to pass criticising Israel over the settlements, though he conceded Trump might pursue a different approach.
“If you do not have two states, then in some form or fashion you are extending an occupation,” Obama said.
‘Old thinking’ on Cuba
He defended his administration’s rapprochement with Cuba and his eleventh-hour move to end the “wet foot, dry foot” policy that lets any Cuban who makes it to US soil stay and become a legal resident.
Ending the visa-free path was the latest development in a warming of relations that has included the easing of the US economic embargo and the restoration of commercial flights between the US and the small island nation.
“That was a carry-over of an old way of thinking that didn’t make sense in this day and age, particularly as we’re opening up travel between the two countries,” Obama said of the “wet foot, dry foot” policy.
‘Justice has been served’ in Manning case
Obama also firmly defended his decision to cut nearly three decades off convicted leaker Chelsea Manning’s prison term Wednesday, arguing that the former Army intelligence analyst had served a “tough prison sentence” already.
The 44th US president said he granted clemency to Manning because she had gone to trial, taken responsibility for her crime and received a sentence that was harsher than other leakers had received.
He emphasized that he had merely commuted her sentence, not granted a pardon, which would have symbolically forgiven her for the crime.
“I feel very comfortable that justice has been served,” Obama said.
Victories and disappointments
Obama’s defense of controversial decisions came as he prepares to exit the presidency after eight years marked by major victories on health care, the economy and climate change, along with disappointments over his inability to achieve his goals on immigration, gun control and closing the Guantanamo Bay prison.
He also wound down wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but wrestled with other security threats posed by the Islamic State group and the Syria civil war he was unable to resolve.
Even many of Obama’s proudest achievements, like the “Obamacare” health care overhaul, stand to be rolled back or undermined by President-elect Donald Trump, a shadow that hangs over Obama’s legacy as he leaves office.
The formal end comes Friday when Obama and Trump will motorcade together to the Capitol for Trump’s swearing-in before Obama, then an ex-president, flies with his family to California for a vacation.
Reflecting on his legacy as the first black president, Obama disputed the notion that race relations had worsened. And he dismissed as “fake news” the idea that there is widespread voter fraud in the US, a notion that Democrats say is used to justify restrictions that make it harder for African-Americans to vote.