President Barack Obama defended his decision not to retaliate against Russia for tampering with the U.S. presidential election by initiating email hacks and leaks that undermined Hillary Clinton’s campaign.
“My principal goal leading up to the election was making sure that the election went off without a hitch,” Obama said Friday in his last news conference of the year — and perhaps his presidency. “And in fact, we did not see further tampering of the election process.”
An aggressive cyberattack response, Obama said, could have “compounded” the problem by incentivizing Russia to hack voting machines or interfere with vote counting. In order to avoid that and de-escalate the situation, Obama said he discussed the issue privately with Russian President Vladimir Putin in early September.
“I felt that the most effective way to ensure that [vote count hampering] did not happen was to talk to [Putin] directly and tell him to cut it out,” Obama said.
Obama also confirmed reporting from recent weeks that the intelligence community believes the highest levels of the Russian government coordinated the cyberattacks on Clinton’s campaign chairman, John Podesta, and the Democratic National Committee. “What I can tell you is that the intelligence that I’ve seen gives me great confidence in [the intelligence community’s] assessment that the Russians carried out this hack,” he said. He also obliquely laid the blame for the hack at the feet of Russia’s president.
“Not much happens in Russia without Vladimir Putin,” Obama said.
In both cyber attacks, thousands of emails stolen from private accounts were later published by WikiLeaks. Podesta’s emails were released slowly, with a new batch published every day over the final weeks of the campaign, ensuring that they would generate continual coverage. Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, denies that Russia was the source of the emails.
As the intelligence community’s assessments became public knowledge, many Democrats — including Clinton herself — started blaming their loss at least in part on Russia’s actions. Clinton told a group of donors last night in Manhattan that Russia’s actions were one of two “unprecedented” events that led to her defeat, according to the New York Times. The other was FBI Director James Comey’s letter to Congress 11 days before Election Day explaining that the bureau had found additional emails that “appear to be pertinent” to its investigation of Clinton’s private email server.
Podesta has said that members of the Electoral College, who are slated to vote next Monday, should be given the classified briefings on Russia’s involvement before they cast their votes. Presumably, Podesta hopes that the results of the election might change.
But Obama did not express any support for those hoping to alter the election results. He repeatedly said that Trump would take the oath of office next month and become the next president of the United States.