Former president Barack Obama has issued a scorching critique of Donald Trump’s policies and his pattern of pressuring the US Justice Department.
Mr Obama also reminded voters that the economic recovery — one of Mr Trump’s favourite talking points — began on his watch.
Mr Obama’s speech at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign was delivered less than two months before midterm elections that could determine the course of Mr Trump’s presidency.
“It did not start with Donald Trump,” Mr Obama said. “He is a symptom, not the cause. He’s just capitalising on resentments that politicians have been fanning for years.”
Noting the history of former presidents avoiding the rough and tumble of politics, Mr Obama acknowledged his sharp critique of Mr Trump was something of a departure from tradition. But he said the political moment required a pushback and called for better discourse.
“Appealing to tribe, appealing to fear, pitting one group against another, telling people that order and security will be restored if it weren’t for those who don’t look like us or don’t sound like us or don’t pray like we do — that’s an old playbook,” he said.
“It’s as old as time. And in a healthy democracy, it doesn’t work. Our antibodies kick in and people of good will from across the political spectrum call out the bigots and the fear-mongers and work to compromise and get things done and promote the better angels of our nature.”
But, Mr Obama added, when there is a vacuum in democracy, “other voices fill the void. A politics of fear and resentment and retrenchment takes hold”.
Mr Trump, meanwhile, claimed he fell asleep watching Mr Obama’s speech.
“I found he’s very good for sleeping,” Mr Trump said at a campaign appearance in Fargo, North Dakota. He said Mr Obama was trying to take credit for this “incredible thing that’s happening to our country”.
Even as he has largely remained out of the spotlight, Mr Obama made clear he has paid close attention to the steady stream of headlines chronicling the Trump administration and said the news is a reminder of what is at stake in the November midterm elections.
“Just a glance at recent headlines should tell you this moment really is different,” Mr Obama said. “The stakes really are higher. The consequences of any of us sitting on the sidelines are more dire.”
He later added: “This is not normal.”
He was especially stern in his condemnation of Mr Trump’s pattern of pressuring law enforcement officials, including attorney general Jeff Sessions.
The president has repeatedly called on Mr Sessions to fire special counsel Robert Mueller and earlier this week blamed the Justice Department for indicting two incumbent Republican members of Congress, arguing the moves could jeopardise their seats.
“It should not be a partisan issue to say that we do not pressure the attorney general or the FBI to use the criminal justice system as a cudgel to punish our political opponents,” Mr Obama said. “Or to explicitly call on the attorney general to protect members of our own party from prosecution because an election happens to be coming up. I’m not making that up. That’s not hypothetical.”
As Mr Obama spoke, Mr Trump told reporters on Air Force One that he believed Mr Sessions should investigate the identity of the author of an anonymous New York Times opinion piece that was sharply critical of his leadership, saying the essay was a “national security issue”.
Obama, reacting to the op-ed account, said: “That’s not how our democracy is supposed to work.”
“The claim that everything will turn out OK because there are people inside the White House who secretly aren’t following the president’s orders, that is not a check,” Mr Obama said. “I’m being serious here. … These people aren’t elected. They’re not accountable.”
Mr Obama also jabbed Mr Trump on the issue the current president frequently heralds as one of his greatest achievements: the strong economy. Mr Obama reminded the audience that the economic recovery began during his administration and defended his handling of the 2008 economic collapse.
“When you hear how great the economy’s doing right now, let’s just remember when this recovery started,” he said.
He also criticised Mr Trump’s response to the violence last year at a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, that resulted in the death of a counter-protester.
“We’re supposed to stand up to discrimination,” Mr Obama said. “And we’re sure as heck supposed to stand up clearly and unequivocally to Nazi sympathisers. How hard can that be, saying that Nazis are bad?”