President Obama said Friday that his administration did not ascribe motives to Russia's alleged meddling in the 2016 campaign ahead of Election Day because he did not want to be seen as influencing the outcome in favor of Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, or risk exposing the nation's electoral system to greater attack.
Speaking at a year-end news conference, Obama said, “We did not — and the reason we did not was because in this hyper-partisan atmosphere, at a time when my primary concern was making sure that the integrity of the election process was not in any way damaged, at a time when anything that was said by me or anybody in the White House would immediately be seen through a partisan lens. I wanted to make sure that everybody understood we were playing this thing straight, that we weren't trying to advantage one side or another.”
“Imagine if we had done the opposite, it would become immediately just one more political scrum,” he added. “And 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 -- at a time, by the way, when the president-elect himself was raising questions about the integrity of the election.”
Obama defended his administration's handling of the investigation into the hacking of private emails from top Democratic Party officials, amid reports that U.S. intelligence officials have concluded that Russian operatives used the stolen materials to try to help Republican Donald Trump win the election. The FBI has now joined the CIA in that assessment.
Clinton has cited the stolen emails, which were made public by WikiLeaks, as a factor in her upset loss to Trump, and her former campaign chairman John Podesta blasted the FBI for focusing more aggressively on investigating her use of a private email server than on Russia's involvement.
Obama emphasized that his administration publicly accused Russian actors of being behind the email theft in the early fall and noted that reporters speculated that the disclosure of the private messages was made to embarrass Clinton and other Democrats during a hard-fought campaign.
The president suggested that the public was free to interpret the motives behind the leaks for themselves.
“What we were trying to do was let people know that this had taken place so that if you started seeing some effect on the election, if you were trying to measure why this was happening and how you should consume the information that was being leaked, that you might want to take this into account,” Obama said. “And that was exactly how we should have handled it.”
Obama has pledged to respond to Russia's actions with punitive measures, but he did not offer more details about when or how he might do so. Obama suggested that he believed Russian President Vladimir Putin knew about the hacking, and he said he warned Putin to “cut it out” during an international summit in the fall.
The president said he did not denounce Russia more forcefully in public leading up to the election because he did not think that would have any effect.
“And I know that there have been folks out there who suggest somehow that if we went out there and made big announcements and thumped our chests about a bunch of stuff, that somehow that would potentially spook the Russians,” he said. “And I should point out by the way, part of why the Russians have been effective on this is because they don't go around announcing what they're doing. It's not like Putin's gone around the world publicly saying, 'Look what we did. Wasn't that clever?' He denies it. So the idea that somehow public shaming is gonna be effective, I think doesn't read the -- the thought process in Russia very well.”
Obama noted that Trump has been complimentary of Putin and he expressed frustration at Republican leaders who have refrained from criticizing Russia since Trump's victory. The president cited a poll from the Economist and YouGov that said 37 percent of voters approved of Putin.
“The former head of the [Soviet spy agency] KGB,” Obama said. “Ronald Reagan would roll over in his grave at how that happened.”
The president covered a range of other subjects, including the deteriorating situation in the Syrian city of Aleppo and the risks of Trump jettisoning America's “One China” policy by recognizing Taiwan.
In the case of Syria, he noted, he felt a sense of responsibility for the suffering there but had concluding that wading in more deeply there was not in the U.S.'s national interest.
“And in that circumstance, unless we were all in and willing to take over Syria, we were going to have problems. And everything else was tempting because we wanted to do something and it sounded like the right thing to do but it was going to be impossible to do this on the cheap,” he said. “I mean that with all sincerity. I understand the impulse to want to do something, but ultimately what I've had to do is to think about, what can we sustain, what is realistic? And my first priority has to be, what's the right thing to do for America?”