Grading the president's final UN address

This is a rush transcript from "Special Report with Bret Baier," September 20, 2016. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Until basic questions are answered about how communities co-exist, the embers of extremism will continue to burn, countless human beings will suffer, most of all in that region, but extremism will continue to be exported overseas. And the world is too small for us to simply be able to build a wall and prevent it from affecting our own societies.

Aggressive nationalism, a crude populism, sometimes from the far left but more often from the far right which seeks to restore what they believe was a better, simpler age, free of outside contamination.


BRET BAIER, ANCHOR: President Obama addressing the United Nations General Assembly for the last time as president, this time speaking for almost 50 minutes. Zero interruptions for applause compared to about 12 of them in 2009. Within the first 90 seconds, he talked about climate change and the ravages of climate change. It took him about 30 minutes to mention the word "Syria." He said "terror" or "terrorism" three times and mentioned ISIS three times in that speech.

Let's talk about that first with our panel, Steve Hayes, senior writer for The Weekly Standard; A.B. Stoddard, associate editor at Real Clear Politics, and Mercedes Schlapp, columnist for the Washington Times.

OK Steve, a not so veiled reference to Donald Trump even though he didn't mention Donald Trump. But overall your thoughts on the speech?

STEVE HAYES, THE WEEKLY STANDARD: He couldn't resist the elbow at Donald Trump. Look, I mean, this was Barack Obama's attempt I think that at a valedictory sort of victory lap, and if that were the case the speech could is been considerably shorter because he doesn't have that much to celebrate.

What struck me as I listened to the speech was it sounded almost like professorial. This is Barack Obama the university professor. And he gave a speech that was filled with the kind of buzzwords that might impress undergraduates about international relations but really very little resemblance to the kinds of things that we're seeing on the ground unfold today. He talked about Syria. He laments the fact nothing was done to prevent the slaughter in Syria. Who's the leader of the free world? I mean, this is a guy who gave a speech in defending his Libya policy, his decision to go into Libya. He said the United States occupies a special role to prevent such atrocities, and he did nothing.

BAIER: Yes, to that point, we have the president at a later event on refugees speaking on just that, on Syrian savagery.


OBAMA: In recent years in the United States, we've worked to put in intensive screening and security checks so we can welcome refugees and ensure our security. In fact, refugees are subject to more vigorous screening than the average terrorist. And we've seen in America hardworking patriotic refugees serve in our military and start new businesses and help revitalize communities. I believe refugees can make us stronger.

I believe history will judge us harshly if we do not rise to this moment. But first and foremost, we must recognize the refugees are a symptom of larger failures, be it war, ethnic tensions, or persecution. If we truly want to address the crisis, wars like the savagery in Syria must be brought to an end, and it will be brought to an end through political settlement and diplomacy and not simply by bombing.


BAIER: OK, A.B., this is The Atlantic in which he talked about this decision on Syria back in April. "The fact that I was able to pull away from the immediate pressures and think through in my own what was in America's interests not only with respect to Syria but also with respect to our democracy, was as tough a decision as I've made. And I believe ultimately it was the right decision to make. There's playbook in Washington that presidents are supposed to follow where America is directly threatened, the playbook works. But the playbook can also be a trap that can lead to bad decisions. In the midst of an international challenge like Syria, you get judged harshly if you don't follow the playbook even if there are good reasons why it does not apply."

So I guess today he was talking about inaction in Syria, and he had inaction in Syria.

A.B. STODDARD, REAL CLEAR POLITICS: Right. I mean, we remember that he drew a red line and that he called for airstrikes, and the Congress rejected him. And then we've watched the whole situation deteriorate. And this is now a new normal where something like this is going on where the world stands by, especially the United States in a position of leadership really paralyzed these last couple years since 2013. And it's gotten worse and worse.

And really he threw out some tough talk, I thought it was interesting today, on Russia. But the headline here is that we seem to be powerless in the face of Russia's role here. They're in the driver's seat. And so he - - you know, he's running out the clock. He's leaving really soon. Trump won't talk about this because he is sympathetic to Russia or whatever his position is. It's not, you know, it's not the American position. It's not usually the Republican position. And then Hillary Clinton because she doesn't want to be associated with a failed policy in the Middle East, especially in Syria, from the Obama administration, doesn't want to talk about it either. And so you heard Ed Royce, House member today, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, saying --

BAIER: Foreign Affairs.

STODDARD: Excuse me, Foreign Affairs. Sorry. Saying basically that we have to try to act through passing a sanctions bill. I don't know what that will do. But basically saying these are Russian, you know, Russian airplanes that are stopping the aid convoy. Russia is actually helping Assad with ethnic cleansing. But this is not being debating at all. It's not being addressed by Obama and it's not being debated in the presidential campaign.

BAIER: Ben Rhodes echoed that tonight to reporters in New York. Mercedes, what about the political overtones and his messaging?

MERCEDES SCHLAPP, WASHINGTON TIMES: Clearly, I think President Obama is pushing through two messages today. It was the two enemies. It was Trump and Putin. Clearly I think when you look at the case in Syria, he last year mentioned in the United Nations, same type of speech, saying we need to ensure that Assad must be out of power. Obviously, the diplomacy has not worked. Obviously, the fact that Russia does have more influence in the Syrian region and Assad has more power now than he has in the past, I mean, shows the weak position that -- that the United States is in right now.

BAIER: We pointed out on this panel the president has said Assad's days are numbered, they happen to number in the hundreds and hundreds as of now.

Steve, what about this investigation into Rahami, this suspect, taken in? The FBI is now saying about this, in August 2014 the FBI initiated an assessment of Ahmad Rahami based on comments made by his father after a domestic dispute that were subsequently reported to authorities. The FBI conducted internal database reviews, interagency checks, and multiple interviews, none of which revealed ties to terrorism.

HAYES: Well, I think the FBI has some explaining to do. First of all, the FBI did not disclose the fact it had started this guardian investigation initially. The FBI assistant director spoke yesterday, did not disclose that fact, said that he had a run-in with the law.

Secondly I think when you look at what the FBI was doing, their argument is, look, this didn't trigger a deeper investigation because we didn't find anything when we first looked at it. It's important to know his father is the one who had suggested he was associating with, quote/unquote, "bad people" overseas who wanted to get their hands on explosives. But he had not said this just to investigators but had said this to a neighbor who reported it.

And you now have the situation where you have a family that is apparently posting messages that are sympathetic to Islamic extremism. You have, I think, momentum in the counterterrorism establishment to suggest that this was yet another lone wolf, that everything fits into this new paradigm, that everything's lone wolf attack. And yet the evidence that we've got in front of us suggests that he at least may have had help. He was associating with bad guys overseas, Islamic radicals overseas. His father suggested he was a terrorist and was worried about him getting his hands on explosives through his contacts overseas.

BAIER: And he spent a lot of times overseas, A.B. -- Afghanistan, Pakistan, this incident with the authorities happens and that doesn't set off red flags. We've seen this in the Boston bombing marathon bombers.

STODDARD: It's terrifying for all of us to find out there was a lead on these people and then it sort of went dormant then they commit, you know, a huge crime that, thank God in this case, didn't kill anybody.

BAIER: We should point out they did a fantastic just getting the guy, to figure it out, do it very quickly. And they do a great job protecting us every day. However, when these things happen, it does raise flags about what flags they're not seeing.

STODDARD: Right. And it's disconcerting. I'm not a terrorist expert. He's a bad bomb maker. I don't think he was trained by the best people. But certainly he's been at it for a while if his father told that to the FBI, and that's alarming.

BAIER: Quickly, this comes after the DHS I.G. report that says they gave citizenship to some almost 900 people set for deportation. It does fit into Donald Trump's messaging on refugees. Maybe not directly, but I'm sure he's using this again and again.

SCHLAPP: Absolutely. And it fits into Trump's narrative that the broken immigration system needs to be fixed, that there is substantial problems, whole problems with the immigration system. And unless we get that part of it completed and fixed, we can continue to see this potential problem.

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