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Obama Defends Chelsea Manning Commutation, Cites 'Cordial' Transition

  • Ken Bredemeier

President Barack Obama speaks during his final presidential news conference, Jan. 18, 2017, in the briefing room of the White House in Washington.

U.S. President Barack Obama said Wednesday justice had been served as one of the reasons behind his surprise commutation a day earlier of the prison sentence for an Army intelligence analyst who leaked military documents.

Obama, holding his final news conference as the American leader, said Chelsea Manning had served a longer sentence than others convicted of similar crimes, and that Manning had accepted responsibility for her crime.

"In light of all the circumstances, commuting her sentence was entirely appropriate," he said, adding that she had already served a "tough prison sentence" and that "justice was served."

FILE - Chelsea Manning
FILE - Chelsea Manning

Obama on Tuesday commuted the 35-year sentence of Army Private Manning, who leaked hundreds of thousands of military documents to the anti-secrecy website WikiLeaks. When she is released in May, she will have served about seven years behind bars.

Obama said he saw no contradiction in granting clemency to Manning even as he warns about Russia's hacking of the U.S. presidential campaign, in which stolen emails were released publicly by WikiLeaks. He said he wasn't motivated by WikiLeaks' recent pledge on Twitter that founder Julian Assange would agree to extradition to the U.S. if Obama commuted Manning's sentence.

“I don't pay much attention to Mr. Assange's tweets, so that wasn't a consideration,” Obama said.

Obama also said he would urge President-elect Donald Trump to persuade Russia to reduce nuclear stockpiles.

He said he had tried to negotiate reductions with Russian President Vladimir Putin but that Putin had been reluctant to do so.

WATCH: Obama on anti-American rhetoric from Russian President Putin

Speaking to the role the United States plays in the world, Obama said implementing sanctions against Russia after it annexed Ukraine’s Crimea region is a “good example of the vital role” America plays. He also urged the incoming administration to continue to prevent big countries from “bullying” smaller countries.

He said the transition with the Trump team has been "cordial," and he said he told the president-elect "this is a job you can't do alone," and to have a strong team you can count on.

Obama, however, said Trump won the November election by opposing many of the initiatives he pushed during the past eight years. He said Trump will move forward with his own vision and values.

“I don't expect that there is going to be enormous overlap,” he said Wednesday, of their policies or directions.

Economic inequality is one of the reasons Trump was elected by voters last November, Obama said, citing voters felt disenfranchised.

“You don’t want to have an America in which a very small sliver of people are doing really well, and everyone else is fighting for scraps,” he said.

Obama did not address the issue when asked about the more than 20 Democratic lawmakers who have said they will not attend Friday's inauguration. He said he and his wife, Michelle, would be attending.

He also made a small joke, saying that the inauguration would be held in much warmer weather than his first one in 2009, when the temperature hovered in the mid-20s. Temperatures in Washington on Friday are expected to be in the 50s.

President Barack Obama answers questions from reporters at the White House, Jan. 18, 2017.
President Barack Obama answers questions from reporters at the White House, Jan. 18, 2017.

Obama said he decided to end the so-called “wet foot, dry foot” policy for Cuban immigrants because it no long made sense, given the increasing engagement between the United States and Cuba.

The policy, which was changed by the administration last week, allowed Cubans who fled to the U.S. to pursue residency if they reached the mainland, but not if they had been picked up at sea before reaching land.

In answering a question about the Middle East, the president said the “moment may be passing” for a two-state solution in the Israeli and Palestinian conflict.

He said the “status quo is unsustainable” in Israel.

President Barack Obama waves as he concludes his final presidential news conference in the briefing room of the White House in Washington, Jan. 18, 2017.
President Barack Obama waves as he concludes his final presidential news conference in the briefing room of the White House in Washington, Jan. 18, 2017.

In a message of diversity and inclusion, Obama said in the future he expected to see a woman president, a Latino president, a Jewish president, a Hindu president and many others.

“We’ll have a whole bunch of mixed up presidents at some point that nobody knows really knows what to call them,” he added.

In ending the news conference, he said, "I believe in this country. I believe more people are good than bad.

"In my core, I believe America will be OK," Obama added, saying he is genuinely hopeful about the future.

WATCH: Obama offers prayers to family of former President George H.W. Bush

Shortly before addressing reporters on hand, Obama offered prayers nd well wishes to former President George H.W. Bush and his wife, Barbara, who were hospitalized in Houston, Texas, earlier Wednesday. The former president was admitted Saturday to a hospital suffering shortness of breath. His wife was admitted Wednesday suffering fatigue and coughing.

He also thanked the media for doing its job. He said he hasn't always been a fan of everything written about him, but that he felt the media was fair and balanced, and said the media plays an important role in U.S. democracy.

Obama said of journalists, "You're not supposed to be sycophants. You're supposed to be skeptics. You're supposed to ask tough questions."

The media readies for the final news conference of President Barack Obama, who leaves office on Friday, at the White House, Jan. 18, 2017.
The media readies for the final news conference of President Barack Obama, who leaves office on Friday, at the White House, Jan. 18, 2017.

White House press corp move

Earlier, White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Obama had planned in part to use his final news conference to voice his concerns about suggestions from Trump aides that they might move the White House press corps out of the West Wing, where they are close to the president's Oval Office, to another location in the White House complex, which the Trump officials say would allow more reporters to attend daily news conferences.

Trump has feuded with the news media throughout his presidential campaign and transition to power, claiming it produces "fake news" about him, and regularly disparages specific news outlets, including NBC News in a Twitter comment Wednesday, and occasionally individual reporters by name.

Obama labeled claims of voter fraud in America as “fake news.” During the campaign, Trump alleged election fraud. Those claims were disproved, Obama said.

He said there is an “ugly history” behind restrictive voting that traces back to slavery, saying the U.S. is the only country that makes it harder for people to vote, which “goes directly back to Jim Crow” laws.

WATCH: Obama doesn't think expansion of transgender rights is reversible

“The media environment is challenging and the news media and the journalists who cover the White House will be challenged to rise to the occasion and adapt to the changing environment,” Earnest told Politico ahead of Obama's news conference. “I know the president is interested in showing his support for their efforts to do that.”

At his own final briefing Tuesday, Earnest said the presence of news media working in close proximity to the American leader and key government officials in the White House, and holding them accountable, is a "uniquely American feature of our democracy."

Obama leaves office Friday after eight years in the White House, with Trump taking over when he is sworn in as the country's 45th president at noon on the steps of the U.S. Capitol.

Obama, a Democrat, adamantly fought against the Republican Trump in the presidential campaign, calling the billionaire real estate mogul turned politician temperamentally unfit to serve as the U.S. commander in chief. But since the election, Obama has met with Trump and talked to him on several occasions as they worked toward a peaceful transition in power.

President Barack Obama speaks during his final news conference at the White House, Jan. 18, 2017.
President Barack Obama speaks during his final news conference at the White House, Jan. 18, 2017.

Obama, at 55, is younger than many U.S. presidents as they leave office.

He has been somewhat vague about his post-presidency plans, although it likely includes writing a memoir and political attempts to help Democrats win more elections at the state level to eventually regain political clout in Washington, where Republicans now control both houses of Congress and in two days the White House.

Obama also can be counted on to play frequent rounds of golf, his favorite pastime.

Cindy Saine at the White House contributed to this article. Some material for this report came from AP and Reuters.

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