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Former Obama Chief of Staff Denis McDonough criticizes Trump’s actions on Obamacare, Iran deal at MinnPost event

MinnPost photos by Jana Freiband
Former Obama Chief of Staff Denis McDonough speaking during Friday night's 10th Anniversary celebration.

In a wide-ranging interview in Minneapolis on Friday, former Obama administration Chief of Staff Denis McDonough delivered a pointed critique of President Trump, expressed grave concerns about North Korea, and offered some blunt advice for current White House staffers.

The interview was part of MinnPost’s 10th-anniversary celebration, during which McDonough discussed everything from football to foreign policy in front of a capacity crowd at the Cowles Center in downtown Minneapolis.  

The day before the interview, President Donald Trump had announced that his administration would end the subsidies paid to health insurers that currently allow millions of lower-income Americans to afford coverage under the Affordable Care Act, a decision that was paired with an executive order by Trump allowing alternative health plans to skirt the law’s requirements. Taken together, the developments were seen as another attempt by Trump to undermine the viability of the ACA, the Obama administration’s signature domestic policy.

“The fact that people who had become covered as a result of a nonpartisan idea are now at risk of losing their coverage — I find that an outrage,” McDonough said. “I don’t think this is a question about the president’s legacy. I don’t think this is a question of tit for tat, who is up and who’s down. … This is going to fundamentally hurt American people. We used to have a government that defended American people from such things. So I’m outraged.”

McDonough, who was interviewed by MinnPost editor Andy Putz at the event, also took issue with the current administration’s actions regarding the nuclear agreement with Iran, which Trump refused to certify on Friday — an agreement McDonough said “is working and it’s serving our national interests.”

“The president seems to continue to believe that some of these things are debating matters or public relations questions. … I think that’s a mistake,” he said. “This isn’t a question for the president to figure out how to volley it [back] to Congress. This is a question for the president to continue to lead.”

When asked what kind of advice he’d give the current White House staff, McDonough  offered a bit of tough love: “What I’d say is, ‘You know you guys run the most powerful building in the world; stop pretending like you’re somebody’s victim.’ ” 

McDonough, who served as Obama’s deputy national security adviser before becoming chief of staff, touched on several foreign policy issues, including North Korea and the Obama administration’s response to Russian meddling in the 2016 election.

When asked what international issue concerned him most, he had a quick answer: North Korea. “I think there is a role for steady, reserved American leadership here, to make sure that we’re not giving any reasons for escalation from any of the parties now,” he said. “Ultimately, it looks to me like the North Koreans want to try to deal with the Americans. … There’s definitely a role for China to play, but that does not replace the American role.” 

McDonough defended the Obama administration’s actions regarding Russia, saying that the Obama White House was concerned about upholding the integrity of the elections and making sure that Russia’s actions were exposed to the wider world. “Not only did we name the Russians in a public way but it also put the rest of the world on notice that this may happen there,” he said. “So I think we played an important role in forewarning other democracies … about what to worry about. We then took a series of very concrete steps, including the imposition of not only diplomatic sanctions but also economic sanctions, that have continued to have a pretty significant impact on the Russian economy.”

But McDonough also said the episode also revealed the downside to the disruption of the media industry over the last 15 years, “why it’s so important that as educators, as leaders, as parents, as neighbors, that we be more discerning in what we consume,” he said. “The world’s biggest intelligence agencies are trying to influence us, including influence us in  how we vote. And they’re using all available means to do that.”

McDonough talked about how his upbringing and education in Stillwater and at St. John’s University affected his career. He described a household steeped in conversations about public affairs, how his family — he’s one of 11 kids — regularly engaged in dinner-table discussions about what was happening in the world, an ethos that was further cultivated at St. John’s. “They send you out there with the belief that not only is it an interesting place that you should go to check out,” he said, “but that you also have something to give.”

McDonough, who now works for the Markle Foundation and teaches a class at the University of Notre Dame’s Keogh School of Global Affairs, said that he has no interest in ever running for office, but that he would like to become involved in the plight of refugees worldwide at some point in the future. “There’s 62 million people right now … who are not in their homes. They want to be in their homes, but they’re not allowed to be in their homes. And so my next dream is to get more active in that fight.”

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Comments (4)

  1. Submitted by joe smith on 10/17/2017 - 09:05 am.

    Of course he criticized Trump.

    If you don’t have a message to unite your party, you criticize. Also, Trump is unraveling the Obama legacy. The 3 major accomplishments of Obama are Obamacare (screwing the working class while subsidizing the big health insurance companies), Dodd/Frank (killed community banks, hurt lending to regular folks and grew the big banks) and Iran deal (see Clinton and N. Korea deal). The Dems still don’t have a message, so criticizing Trump is the next best thing.
    My only surprise was he didn’t bring up Russian collusion. I guess that is yesterday’s complaint, now it is criticizing Trump eliminating Obama’s accomplishments. I suggest they actually get a platform that us in “fly over country clinging to our bibles and guns” can understand. Since 2008, when Obama had the White House and both branches of Government, the Democratic Party has been decimated in election after election. No message, dividing Americans along race, money, religion lines isn’t working. Try a message please.

    • Submitted by Ray Schoch on 10/17/2017 - 09:32 am.

      Let me suggest

      …that when you don’t have a message to unite your country, you criticize. So far, the accomplishments of the Trump presidency are to undermine the Affordable Care Act, thus screwing the working and middle class who couldn’t afford health coverage previously; to undermine Dodd-Frank, thus giving the big-bucks players on Wall Street who wrecked the economy a decade ago a “get out of jail free” card so they can go right back to doing what they were doing previously; and undermining the Iran deal, which significantly increases the risks of nuclear war, not to mention undermining our country’s credibility in any future negotiations, not just with Iran, but with any foreign power.

      Dividing Americans along the lines of race, money and religion is the specialty of modern-day “conservatives,” who are, in point of fact, radical agents of neofascist reaction. The consistency, magnitude and frequency of Republican use of the “big lie” propaganda technique over the past generation is unprecedented, at least in this society. It’s being done almost entirely in the service of the very wealthy, and for the political advantage of the party itself. Benefits to the general public from Republican proposals are negligible.

      • Submitted by Nick Foreman on 10/17/2017 - 10:10 am.

        Yes republicans or those even farther right

        Have very, very short memories, like the worst recession in history, a catastrophic failure of the war in Iraq, and a pure bank fraud bailed out by the middle class. Not because of Obama fools.

      • Submitted by Solly Johnson on 10/17/2017 - 10:32 am.


        Author Thomas Frank states that Republicans represent the top 1%, the Democrats represent the others in the top 10%, and 90% of Americans lack effective representation. Unfortunately, unlike the Democratic Party of a half century ago, the modern Democratic Party is doing little to better the lives of average Americans, and differs significantly from the GOP mainly on social issues.
        I agree that the Republican Party has very little concern for average Americans, but the Democratic Party is not an effective party, which is why they have lost over a thousand elected positions nationwide in the past decade. Until the Democrats stop being Republican Lite and adopt strong positions on policies that benefit average Americans, I am afraid that the Republicans will continue to control most levels of government.

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