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Former President Obama Calls Out President Trump In The Commencement Speech

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Former President Barack Obama leveled some of his sharpest public criticism towards President Trump this weekend. Obama was addressing graduates of historically black colleges and universities during a virtual commencement.

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BARACK OBAMA: This pandemic as fully, finally, torn back the curtain on the idea that so many of the folks in charge know what they're doing. A lot of them aren't even pretending to be in charge.

CHANG: President Trump was asked about these comments at the White House yesterday. He responded over the sound of a helicopter.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Look; he was an incompetent president. That's all I can say - grossly incompetent.

CHANG: But Trump has actually had a lot more to say about Obama in recent days and weeks as he's running for reelection against Obama's former No. 2, Joe Biden. To get the play-by-play on this escalating feud between Obama and Trump, we're joined now by NPR senior political editor Domenico Montanaro.

Hey, Domenico.

DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: Hey, Ailsa.

CHANG: All right. Well, we just heard that back-and-forth between Obama and Trump over the coronavirus response. But, I mean, Trump has been on the attack against Obama for a few weeks now, right? Why go after him and not Joe Biden, the presumptive nominee?

MONTANARO: Well, we are within six months of the general election, as hard as that is to believe with life hardly back to normal...

CHANG: Yeah.

MONTANARO: ...With coronavirus. As you pointed out, you know, it's Obama's vice president that's on the ballot. Plus, you have to realize, right now, Obama is one of the most popular political figures in the country, short of his wife. And he's going to be out on the campaign trail for Joe Biden. His favorability ratings routinely are about 55%, meaning independents like him. Trump really needs to try and muddy him up and make him the kind of polarizing, partisan lightning rod for conservatives that fire up his base - that he wasn't much of his eight years as president. And no one quite fires up his base like Obama does.

CHANG: Well, Trump has also been talking about what he calls Obamagate.

MONTANARO: (Laughter).

CHANG: Explain what this is.

MONTANARO: Well, I'm not totally sure. Can anyone really explain it? I don't know. But look; it's all part of a strategy here from Trump to make it something shady, something surreptitious. It all revolves around the Obama administration officials' role in the handling of surveillance that later led to the investigation and guilty plea, by the way, of Michael Flynn, Trump's first national security adviser. The Department of Justice now wants to drop that case against Flynn, and the president and his spokespeople have been making this case against the Obama administration. And they've have been asked, you know, what are the criminal charges here? And they haven't been able to really answer a specific charge. And today Attorney General William Barr said that he and the DOJ are not going to be pursuing criminal charges against Obama or Biden. And Trump has called on his ally, Senate Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, to bring Obama before his committee. Graham warned Trump. He said, you know, in part, careful what you wish for, because Democrats could go after him.

CHANG: So do you expect this feud between Obama and Trump to keep going even though Trump is not running against Obama this year?

MONTANARO: Yeah. I mean, you bet. I mean, it's only going to ramp up a - you know, once or - if there are in-person campaign events, I mean, Obama's going to do everything he can to get Biden elected and, frankly, not just out of loyalty to Biden. I think, you know, people shouldn't underestimate how much of a moral imperative many in the country see in beating Trump. It's also personal between Obama and Trump. Trump fanned the flames of the baseless conspiracy of Obama's birthplace. And look; that comment from Graham - be careful what you wish for - has a double meaning because Obama's a pretty good campaigner. And, you know, some Democrats are worried that Obama maybe - take more of the attention from Biden. But having Obama on their side is something that they think is well worth it.

CHANG: That is NPR's Domenico Montanaro.

Thanks, Domenico.

MONTANARO: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.