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Thanks, Obama: Trump Administration Uses Obama's Record As Defense


There's a name that's made a surprising number of appearances in the White House briefing room since President Trump took office - Obama. The new administration regularly cites the past president to explain some of its more controversial moves. NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith reports.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Citing President Obama has become a regular practice for White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer - not so much to attack his policies, but to bolster the Trump administration's arguments.


SEAN SPICER: It's important to note that at this point in 2009, President Obama had seven of his nominees confirmed on day one and five more in the first week. As it stands today, we have two.

KEITH: It's something Spicer would note again and again and again.


SPICER: By the end of the first week - of President Obama's first week in office - he had 12, so...


SPICER: And as a reminder, the Obama administration had 12 done at the end of their first week.


SPICER: I don't mean to sound like a broken record, but the numbers don't lie. At the same time in 2009, President Obama only had seven of these people waiting confirmation. In 2001...

KEITH: At this point, two weeks into his administration, President Trump still only has five Cabinet-level nominees confirmed by the Senate. Democrats have been slow-walking the process. Spicer also cited Obama, calling for a speedy confirmation for Trump's Supreme Court pick.


SPICER: Neither of the two Supreme Court justices that President Obama nominated were subject to the 60-vote threshold of a Senate filibuster.

KEITH: He failed to mention Obama's third Supreme Court nominee, Merrick Garland, who didn't even get a committee hearing. Spicer has cited Obama more than two dozen times in his first two weeks of briefings, often in a misleading or incomplete way. President Obama's first press secretary named President Bush in briefings just twice in the same period. In the wake of the confusing and arguably messy rollout of Trump's refugee and travel ban order, Chief of Staff Reince Priebus used Obama to defend the choice of halting immigration from seven Muslim majority countries. He was on NBC's "Meet The Press."


REINCE PRIEBUS: We used the seven countries that have already been codified and identified by both the Obama administration and the Congress.

KEITH: But it's not that simple. While the Obama administration did identify them for extra vetting, the former president never halted travel from those or any other countries. But for the Trump team and Spicer, especially, this has been a recurring talking point.


SPICER: This is a national security issue. These seven countries were derived from what the Obama administration had deemed as needing to further travel restriction.

KEITH: On that same day, Spicer found himself answering questions about a memorandum, elevating Trump adviser and former Breitbart News head Steve Bannon to the National Security Council Principals Committee. And again, Spicer turned to a familiar defense, bringing up Obama's one-time political guru.


SPICER: David Axelrod walked in and out of NSC meetings quite frequently, by his own account and by several of your accounts.

KEITH: But Tommy Vietor, a national security council spokesman during the Obama years, says that's a stretch.

TOMMY VIETOR: Occasionally, political advisors were brought in when we had to discuss working with Congress or rolling out a big policy, like the surge in Afghanistan, right? But is absolutely not true that those people had a standing invite to the Principals Committee meetings the way Steve Bannon now does.

KEITH: Vietor and other Obama alumni have noticed the frequent name-checking of the former president. Not surprisingly, they find it off-base.

VIETOR: If they want to say that they don't think President Obama's counterterrorism policies were strong and that that's why they're fixing them, that is well within their right.

KEITH: But Vietor says, instead, they're using Obama as a shield.

VIETOR: They're blaming the Obama administration for everything. They're claiming that we somehow set a precedent for the Muslim ban when that's not remotely true. And I think the problem for them is that these excuses don't wear well over time.

KEITH: Vietor says it didn't take long for the American public to tire of hearing from the Obama administration that the Iraq war and Great Recession started during the Bush years. In other words, at some point, the former president's actions and policies don't provide much cover. Tamara Keith, NPR News, the White House. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.
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