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Monday, December 09, 2019 {{ new Date().getDay() }}

By Jeff Mason

HONOLULU (Reuters) – Advancing gun control, closing the U.S. military prison in Cuba and reforming criminal justice laws are likely to top President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address agenda next month as he starts his last year with a key goal: remaining relevant.

Obama, who returns from a two-week vacation in Hawaii this weekend, will deliver his last State of the Union speech to both houses of Congress on Jan. 12, kicking of his final year in office just as the campaign to succeed him moves into a higher profile phase.

Current and former White House advisers noted that Obama avoided any slide into “lame duck” status in 2015 with big policy moves including the Iran nuclear deal and an international agreement to fight climate change.

With an especially chaotic Republican presidential race, led by frontrunner Donald Trump, they say Obama will continue to drive public discourse even as his time in office draws to a close.

“I expect 2016 will look a lot like 2015, the president and his team continuing to put substantive legacy-worth points on the board while the political circus is focused on Trump and the rest,” said Dan Pfeiffer, a former White House adviser.

Advisers have signaled that Obama’s final State of the Union address is unlikely to include a laundry list of proposed legislative initiatives that has been typical of other years.

The speech will emphasize policy priorities on climate change and Cuba while highlighting policy pushes he wants to finish, such as trade.

It is also likely to include a new call for gun control.

“We know that we can’t stop every act of violence. But what if we tried to stop even one? What if Congress did something – anything – to protect our kids from gun violence?” Obama said in his weekly radio address, released on Friday.

Obama said he will meet with Attorney General Loretta Lynch on Monday to discuss options that his advisers have put together to address the issue, suggesting an announcement on new initiatives is likely soon.

The president may decide to take executive action on another key priority before he leaves office: closing the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

The White House plans to release a revised plan to Congress spelling out a way to close the infamous facility, but aides are not optimistic that lawmakers will alter their resistance to moving prisoners to a location on U.S. soil.

Though executive action to close Guantanamo is not being talked about openly at the White House, aides said it was something the president would no doubt wrestle with before the end of the year.

“Presidents are always relevant and this president seems determined to use every legal authority he has to (have) impact on the big challenges he sees,” said David Axelrod, a former adviser and strategist for Obama’s 2008 and 2012 election wins.

(Reporting by Jeff Mason; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)

U.S. President Barack Obama delivers remarks on the recent shootings in San Bernardino, after meeting with victims’ families at Indian Springs High School in San Bernardino, California December 18, 2015. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany

White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany was forced to defend President Donald Trump's recent attacks on MSNBC host Joe Scarborough on Tuesday, an unenviable task she nevertheless intentionally signed up for. She desperately tried to divert the attention back to Scarborough — without engaging in the president's conspiracy theorizing — but offered no credible defense of the president's conduct.

Trump has been spreading the debunked theory that Scarborough killed a staffer in 2001 while he was in Congress, even though it was determined she died of natural causes. The staffer's widower wrote a released a letter on Tuesday pleading with Twitter to take down the president's offensive tweets promoting the thoery. He said he was "angry," "frustrated," and "grieved" by the president's promotion of the harmful allegations. Trump is perverting his late wife's memory, he said, and he fears her niece and nephews will encounter these attacks.When asked about the letter, McEnany said she wasn't sure if the president had seen it. But she said their "hearts" are with the woman's family "at this time." It was a deeply ironic comment because the only particularly traumatizing thing about "this time" for the family is the president's attacks, which come nearly two decades after the woman's death.

McEnany refused to offer any explanation of Trump's comments and instead redirected reporters to a clip of Scarborough on Don Imus's radio show in 2003. In that show, Imus made a tasteless joke obliquely referring to the death, and Scarborough laughed at it briefly.

"Why is the president making these unfounded allegations?" asked ABC News' Jonathan Karl. "I mean, this is pretty nuts, isn't it? The president is accusing someone of possible murder. The family is pleading with the president to please stop unfounded conspiracy theories. Why is he doing it?""The president said this morning, this is not an original Trump thought. And it is not," she said, bringing up the Imus clip. But she made no mention of why the president is bringing up the issue 17 years later and with a much larger platform.

When pressed further on the president's conduct, she again diverted blame to Scarborough, saying his morning show unfairly criticizes the president. But again, she offered no substantive defense of Trump.

After McEnany had moved on, PBS reporter Yamiche Alcindor brought it up again: "Why won't the president give this widower peace and stop tweeting about the conspiracy theory involving his wife?"

McEnany said she had already answered the question, which she hadn't, and said the onus is on Scarborough to explain the Imus clip."The widower is talking specifically about the president!" Alcindor shot back. But McEnany called on Chanel Rion, with the aggressively pro-Trump outlet OAN, who changed the subject to conspiracy theories about the origins of the Russia investigation.

"Are you not going to answer that?" Alcindor called out, still trying to get a substantive response to her question, but Rion spoke over her.

At the end of the briefing, another reporter asked whether Trump was looking for any actual law enforcement steps be taken in response to his conspiracy theory. But McEnany had nothing to add, and simply told people to listen to the Imus clip again. As she hurried out of the briefing room, a reporter asked if Trump would stop promoting the theory — but she left without answering.

Watch the exchange about Klausutis, which begins at 48:45.