WASHINGTON — President Obama said for the first time on Friday that he had held back before Election Day from retaliating against Russia for meddling in the presidential race for fear of inciting further hacking “that could hamper vote counting.” But he said he was weighing a mix of public and covert actions against the Russians in his last 34 days in office, actions that would increase “the costs for them.”
Mr. Obama said he was committed to sending the Kremlin a message that “we can do stuff to you,” but without setting off an escalating cyberconflict.
“There have been folks out there who suggest somehow if we went out there and made big announcements and thumped our chests about a bunch of stuff, that somehow it would potentially spook the Russians,” he said. “I think it doesn’t read the thought process in Russia very well.”
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The president did not reveal what steps he was considering if he decided to retaliate against the Russians and suggested that some of the options, if they were carried out, could remain secret. “Some of it we will do in a way that they will know, but not everybody will,” he said.
Mr. Obama made his comments at an annual end-of-year news conference, one tinged with melancholy at the impending end of his presidency, foreboding about the changes that could follow President-elect Donald J. Trump into office next month, and uneasiness about the role Russia played in the political earthquake that has resulted from his election.
The president spoke hours after Hillary Clinton, addressing campaign donors in New York, bluntly accused President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia of orchestrating the hacks against her campaign and the Democratic National Committee “to undermine our democracy,” as part of a “personal beef against me.”
Mr. Obama declined to place the blame for the hacking so squarely on Mr. Putin, though he noted, “Not much happens in Russia without Vladimir Putin.” Mr. Obama also sought to diminish the specter of Russian influence over the American political process, saying Russia was a smaller, weaker country that “doesn’t produce anything that anybody wants to buy, except oil and gas and arms.”
Still, the president was clearly wrestling with what he said the hacking affair and the reaction to it revealed about the state of American politics. Citing a recent poll that showed more than a third of Trump voters saying they approved of Mr. Putin — “Ronald Reagan would roll over in his grave,” Mr. Obama said — the president appealed to Americans not to allow partisan hatred and feuds to blind them to manipulation by foreign powers.
“Unless that changes,” Mr. Obama said, “we’re going to continue to be vulnerable to foreign influence because we’ve lost track of what it is that we’re about and what we stand for.”
Mr. Obama offered a long list of accomplishments that he said marked his eight years in office. But his victory lap has been attenuated by the messy aftermath of Mr. Trump’s defeat of Mrs. Clinton, which has raised questions about Mr. Obama’s pre-election response to the hacking, ignited a nasty squabble between Mr. Trump and the nation’s intelligence agencies, and left a residue of suspicion over the vote itself.
The president continued to defend his cautious approach to reports of hacking — an approach that has come under criticism from Democrats after it emerged last week that the intelligence agencies had concluded Russia was trying to help Mr. Trump win the election.
“We were playing this thing straight — we weren’t trying to advantage one side or the other,” Mr. Obama said. “Imagine if we had done the opposite. It would have become one more political scrum.”
The president, however, is likely to face further questions after his C.I.A. director, John O. Brennan, issued a statement Friday disputing reports of a rift between the intelligence agencies and the C.I.A. over Russia’s motives in hacking the D.N.C. and handing over emails to WikiLeaks, which released them in the weeks leading up to the vote.
In his statement, first reported by The Washington Post, Mr. Brennan said he had met with the director of the F.B.I., James B. Comey, and the director of national intelligence, James R. Clapper, and “there is strong consensus among us on the scope, nature and intent of Russian interference in our presidential election.”
That statement will also challenge Mr. Trump, who has seized on reports of an interagency squabble to undermine the credibility of the hacking findings. He has criticized the C.I.A. analysis, saying it was supplied by the same agency that provided erroneous intelligence about Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction before the Iraq War.
Mr. Obama held out hope that when Mr. Trump takes office, he would take a more sober approach. He said he had had “cordial” conversations with his successor, and that Mr. Trump had listened to his suggestions about “maintaining the effectiveness, integrity, cohesion of our office, our various democratic institutions,” though he was not specific.
The president also defended the F.B.I., which has come under fierce criticism from Mrs. Clinton and her aides because of Mr. Comey’s 11th-hour announcement that the bureau was considering reopening its investigation of Mrs. Clinton’s email, which she has said cost her the election.
Mrs. Clinton’s remarks on Thursday underscored longstanding differences she has had with her former boss in how the United States should view Mr. Putin.
“This is not just an attack on me and my campaign,” she told donors. “This is an attack against our country.”
For his part, Mr. Obama also made a startling admission as he described how his administration had reacted to the Russian hack: He said it was not until the “beginning of the summer” that the White House was “alerted to the possibility that the D.N.C. has been hacked.”
That was nine months after an F.B.I. agent had first contacted the Democratic National Committee with evidence that a major, government-linked hacking group was inside the committee’s networks, raising the question of why it took so long for that news to reach the president.
Mr. Obama made it clear that he went out of his way to play down the news, because “in this hyperpartisan atmosphere” he did not think he or anyone else at the White House could talk about it without risking to appear to be acting on behalf of Mrs. Clinton.
But the unintended result, as some of Obama aides concede, was that the Russians faced very little resistance. Not until September, when Mr. Obama pulled Mr. Putin aside at a Group of 20 meeting in Hanghzhou, China, was the Russian leader given a warning directly from the United States. Mr. Obama said he told him “to cut it out, there were going to be serious consequences if he did not.”
The president made it sound like that worked, saying “we did not see further tampering of the election process.” But the leaks of D.N.C. emails, and those of John D. Podesta, the Clinton campaign manager, continued, because they were already in the hands of WikiLeaks, which doled them out to an eager news media until the last days of the campaign.
The Russian government’s motives were hardly a mystery, Mr. Obama said, “because you guys wrote about it every day, every single leak about every little juicy piece of political gossip, including John Podesta’s risotto recipe.”
Published at Sat, 17 Dec 2016 02:00:41 +0000