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Obama Defends Manning Commutation, Lauds LGBT Activists

President Obama

In his final presidential press conference, he touted LGBT advances but didn't take all the credit. 

President Obama, in his final press conference in office, today defended his commutation of Chelsea Manning's prison sentence for leaking classified government documents, and he expressed pride in advances in LGBT rights during his presidency -- but didn't take all the credit.

"Chelsea Manning has served a tough prison sentence, so the notion that the average person who was thinking about disclosing vital classified information would think that it goes unpunished I don't think would get that impression from the sentence that Chelsea Manning has served," he said in response to a question about the commutation he issued Tuesday and whether it sends the wrong message to potential leakers.

"It has been my view that given she went to trial, that due process was carried out, that she took responsibility for her crime, that the sentence that she received was very disproportional -- disproportionate relative to what other leakers had received, and that she had served a significant amount of time, that it made sense to commute and not pardon her sentence," he continued.

"And, you know, I feel very comfortable that justice has been served and that a message has still been sent that when it comes to our national security, that wherever possible we need folks who may have legitimate concerns about the actions of government or their superiors or the agencies in which they work, that they try to work through the established channels and avail themselves of the whistleblower protections that have been put in place."

Manning had been in prison since 2010 for leaking the documents while she was an Army intelligence analyst. She was sentenced to serve 35 years, meaning she would be incarcerated until 2045. But with the commutation, she will be released in May. The more typical sentence for leaking documents is one to three years. Obama's action received praise from activists for transgender rights and civil liberties in general -- Manning is a transgender woman -- and condemnation from many conservatives.

Commenting on LGBT rights advances during his presidency, such as marriage equality, the end of "don't ask, don't tell," and the enactment of an LGBT-inclusive hate-crimes law Obama said, "I could not be prouder of the transformation that's taken place in our society just in the last decade. I've said before we made some useful contributions to it, but the primary heroes in this stage of our growth as a democracy and as a society are all the individual activists and sons and daughters and couples who courageously said this is who I am and I'm proud of it. And that opened people's minds and opened their hearts. And eventually laws caught up. But, I don't think any of that would have happened without the activism, in some cases loud and noisy, but in some cases just quiet and very personal."

Ellen DeGeneres provides one example of that personal activism, he said. "When I gave Ellen the Presidential Medal of Freedom, I meant what I said," the president noted. "I think somebody that kind and likable, projecting into, you know, living rooms around the country, you know, that changed attitudes. And that wasn't easy to do for her. And that's just one small example of what was happening in countless communities all across the country."

"I think that what we did as an administration was to help to the society to move in a better direction," he continued. He said he doesn't think the direction will be reversed, because society's attitudes have changed, but "that doesn't mean there aren't going to be some fights that are important, legal issues, issues surrounding transgender persons."

He also said more work needs to be done to address economic inequality and racial divides. "I worry about inequality because I think that if we are not investing in making sure everybody plays a role in this economy, the economy will not grow as fast, and I think it will also lead to further and further separation between us as Americans -- not just along racial lines," he said. "I mean, there are a whole bunch of folks who voted for the president-elect because they feel forgotten and disenfranchised."

He further voiced concern about attempts to restrict voting rights with laws that disproportionately affect members of racial minorities. "We've got more work to do on race," he added.

And Obama vowed to go on speaking out, as a citizen, but distinguishing "between the normal back-and-forth, ebb-and-blow of policy" and "certain issues or certain moments where I think our core values may be at stake." On the latter, he said, "I put in that category if I saw systematic discrimination being ratified in some fashion. I put in that category explicit or functional obstacles to people being able to vote, to exercise their franchise. I'd put in that category institutional efforts to silence dissent or the press. And for me at least, I would put in that category efforts to round up kids who have grown up here and for all practical purposes are American kids, and send them someplace else, when they love this country."

See a full transcript of the press conference from The New York Timeshere.

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