In his final press conference of the year, President Barack Obama addressed intelligence community assessments that hackers, associated with the Russian government, tampered with the U.S. election in order to sway the victory to Donald Trump. He defended the White House’s handling of the situation.
“When I look back at how we handled it, i think we handled it the way it should have been handled,” Obama said.
The president explained that the White House was primarily concerned with preventing hacking of voting machines or tampering with the voting process, rather than the email leaks that plagued the Clinton campaign. He said that focusing on the leaks would have made it seem that the White House was trying to advantage one candidate over the other and that he had made an effort to ensure his team was “playing this thing straight.”
“Part of the goal here was to make sure that we did not do the work of the leakers for them by raising more and more questions about the integrity of the election right before the election was taking place — when the president-elect was raising questions,” Obama said.
Obama explained that he instead allowed law enforcement and the intelligence community to investigate, brief Congress, and eventually inform the public.
For his part, Trump has repeatedly expressed doubt at the intelligence community’s assessment that the hacking of the DNC and Podesta was perpetrated by Russia. Although he called on Russia in July to release Clinton’s State Department emails, Trump has more recently denied that the hacks could be accurately attributed to Russia.
“I don’t believe they interfered. That became a laughing point, not a talking point, a laughing point,” Trump said of Russia during his TIME magazine Person of the Year interview. “It could be Russia. And it could be China. And it could be some guy in his home in New Jersey.”
Obama chastised Trump for not taking the hacking seriously, saying that preventing election tampering should not be a bipartisan issue. “My hope is that the president-elect is going to be similarly concerned with us having foreign interference in our election process,” Obama said, adding, “No American wants that.”
The president called on the press and the public to reflect on the amount of attention paid to the leaked emails, which he said overshadowed more pressing issues during the campaign.
“The truth is there was nobody here who didn’t have some sense of what kind of effect it might have. I’m finding it a little curious that everyone is suddenly acting surprised that this disadvantaged Hillary Clinton, because you guys wrote about it every day,” Obama said. “I do think it’s worth reflecting on how it is that a presidential election of such importance, with so many big issues at stake … came to be dominated by these leaks. What is it about our political system that makes us vulnerable to these kinds of manipulations?”
Obama had harsh words for those in the Republican party who have supported Trump’s warmness with Russian President Vladimir Putin, and said that the bitter partisanship in D.C. has made it easier for fake news and propaganda to take hold in America.
“[Russia] can impact us if we lose track of who we are. They can impact us if we abandon our values. Mr. Putin can weaken us, just like he’s trying to weaken Europe, if we start buying into notions that it’s okay to intimidate the press, or lock up dissidents, or discriminate against people because of their faith or what they look like,” Obama said.
“Over a third of Republican voters approve of Vladimir Putin, the former head of the KGB. Ronald Reagan would roll over in his grave. How did that happen? It happened in part because for too long everything that happened in this town, everything that’s said, is seen through the lens of, ‘Does this help or hurt us relative to Democrats or relative to President Obama?’ And unless that changes, we are going to continue to be vulnerable to foreign influence because we’ve lost track of what we’re about and what we stand for,” the president continued.
Obama reiterated comments he made in an interview with NPR on Thursday, vowing that the government would take action to respond to the hacking. The Department of Homeland Security and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence officially attributed the hacking of Democratic agencies and operatives to Russia in early October, but the president refused to say directly that the hackers worked with the blessing of Putin.
“Not much happens in Russia without Vladimir Putin,” Obama explained. But the president said the final determination on Putin’s involvement would not be announced until the review of the hacking is complete.
Last week, White House homeland security and counterterrorism adviser Lisa Monaco said that the president had ordered a full review of the hacking that occurred during the campaign season and expected it to be completed before he leaves office in January.
“The intelligence I’ve seen gives me great confidence in their assessment that the Russians carried out this hack — the hack of the DNC and the hack of John Podesta,” Obama said. However, the president said that much of the evidence would likely remain classified and would not be shared with the public.
“We will provide evidence that we can safely provide, that does not compromise sources and methods. But I’ll be honest with you, when you’re talking about cybersecurity, a lot of it is classified and we are not going to provide it, because the way we catch folks is by knowing certain things about them that they don’t want us to know,” Obama said.
Hacks and subsequent leaks of emails from the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager John Podesta trickled out throughout the campaign, and Clinton told donors yesterday that she believed the leaks contributed to her loss.
“This is not just an attack on me and my campaign, although that may have added fuel to it. This is an attack against our country. We are well beyond normal political concerns here. This is about the integrity of our democracy and the security of our nation,” Clinton said.
Obama seemed to disagree that the hacks were the only factor that influenced Clinton’s loss. He called the media coverage of Clinton “troubling” but said that he would try to advise the Democratic party after his presidency to help it improve its campaign strategy for working class voters.
Hackers employed a targeted phishing campaign, in which Podesta was tricked into resetting his email password, to break into Podesta’s account. The New York Times revealed this week that a Podesta staffer who had access to his email account accurately suspected the phishing email was the work of hackers, but a typo by another staffer declaring the password-reset message “legitimate” instead of “illegitimate” opened the gateway to Podesta’s emails.
Wikileaks published the Podesta emails, as well as emails stolen from DNC staffers earlier in the campaign season. The leaks, which included transcripts of Clinton’s paid speeches at Goldman Sachs and speculations about Bernie Sanders’ faith, damaged Clinton on the campaign trail and proved to be useful fodder for Trump.
Obama stopped short of accusing the Trump campaign of colluding with Russia in his NPR interview and said that it was not certain Russia intended to help Trump. “When I receive a final report, you know, we’ll be able to, I think, give us a comprehensive and best guess as to those motivations. But that does not in any way, I think, detract from the basic point that everyone during the election perceived accurately — that in fact what the Russian hack had done was create more problems for the Clinton campaign than it had for the Trump campaign,” Obama said.