Obama’s 2016 Warning: Trump Is a ‘Fascist’

The newly revealed comment is one of the former president’s strongest known critiques of his successor.

Donald Trump and Barack Obama walk and talk at the U.S. Capitol grounds. A marble pillar can be seen behind them.
Jack Gruber / Getty

Barack Obama’s private assessment of Donald Trump: He’s a fascist.

That is, at least, according to Tim Kaine, the Democratic senator from Virginia and a friend of the former president. In a video clip from October 2016, Kaine is seen relaying Obama’s comment to Hillary Clinton. The footage is part of the new Hulu documentary Hillary, which was obtained by The Atlantic ahead of its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival today.

“President Obama called me last night and said, ‘Tim, this is no time to be a purist,’” Kaine tells his then–running mate. “‘You’ve got to keep a fascist out of the White House.’”

Clinton replies: “I echo that sentiment.”

A representative for Obama declined to comment on the conversation. A representative for Kaine did not respond to requests for comment.

In an interview at Sundance today with Jeffrey Goldberg, The Atlantic’s editor in chief, Clinton elaborated on her exchange with Kaine. “If you look at the definition [of fascist], which I’ve had the occasion to read several times,” Clinton said, “I think we can agree on several things: One, he has authoritarian tendencies and he admires authoritarian leaders, [Vladimir] Putin being his favorite. He uses a form of really virulent nationalism. He identifies targets: immigrants, blacks, browns, gays, women, whoever the target of the day or week is … I think you see a lot of the characteristics of what we think of [as] nationalistic, fascistic kinds of tendencies and behaviors.”

Obama has been careful in how he’s publicly discussed his successor. Campaigning against Trump in 2016, Obama said several times that “democracy is on the ballot,” and he often portrayed the then–Republican nominee as an easily triggered hate-monger who couldn’t be trusted with the presidency. The night before the November election, at a closing rally in Philadelphia with Clinton, Obama said that the presidency reveals people for who they really are, and that Americans should be worried about what Trump had revealed about himself. Since then, Obama has largely stayed away from offering specific criticism of Trump. But he campaigned in 2017 and 2018 to defeat the president’s Republican allies, declaring, in a repeat of his 2016 message, that “our democracy’s at stake.”

Obama has never gone as far as using the word fascist in public, even though that’s not an uncommon opinion, especially on the left. Journalists and academics who have lived in and studied fascist regimes regularly point to the traits Trump seems to share with those leaders, including demanding fealty, deliberately spreading misinformation, and adopting Joseph Stalin’s slur that the press is the “enemy of the people.” And that’s not to mention Trump’s apparent admiration for living authoritarians, such as Russia’s Putin, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un. “He speaks, and his people sit up at attention,” Trump gushed about Kim in a 2018 interview on Fox & Friends. “I want my people to do the same.”

In the footage from Hillary, Kaine seems to suggest that Obama wanted him to be more aggressive against Trump. “He knows me and knows I tend to” hold back, Kaine says. (This past November, Kaine referred to Trump as a “tyrant” in an interview on the Radio Atlantic podcast.)

In the Sundance interview, Clinton said that Obama had never used the word fascist in conversations with her about Trump. But, she said, what Obama “observed was this populism untethered to facts, evidence, or truth; this total rejection of so much of the progress that America has made, in order to incite a cultural reaction that would play into the fear and the anxiety and the insecurity of people—predominantly in small-town and rural areas—who felt like they were losing something. And [Trump] gave them a voice for what they were losing and who was responsible.”

In the documentary footage, Clinton also notes that she is “scared” and suspicious of what Trump is up to. “His agenda is other people’s agenda,” she says. “We’re scratching hard, trying to figure it out. He is the vehicle, the vessel for all these other people.”

“[Paul] Manafort, all these weird connections,” Kaine replies, referring to Trump’s former campaign chair, who is now in prison after being convicted of financial crimes related to his international business dealings.

“[Michael] Flynn, who is a paid tool for Russian television,” Clinton continues, referring to Trump’s onetime national security adviser and former campaign surrogate. “The way that Putin has taken over the political apparatus …” she starts to say. Then, a voice off camera interrupts her.