The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Hillary Clinton and President Obama are increasingly blaming Russia for her loss

Hillary Clinton looks on as first lady Michelle Obama speaks during a campaign rally at Wake Forest University on Oct. 27, in Winston-Salem, N.C. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Hillary Clinton, in audio just unearthed by the New York Times, offers her most unvarnished accounting of her 2016 election defeat yet.

And while it's no surprise that she blames FBI Director James B. Comey — she's done that before, if a bit less forcefully — she also points pretty squarely at another “unprecedented,” non-Comey actor: Russia.

Here's a partial transcript of Clinton's comments to campaign donors Thursday night:

There were some unprecedented factors that I don’t think we can ignore, because to do so is at our peril. Now, don’t take it from me. Take it from independent analysts. Take it from the Trump campaign. Take it from Nate Silver, who’s pointed out that swing-state voters made their decisions in the final days, breaking against me, because of the FBI letter from Director Comey. And Nate Silver believes — I happen to believe this — that that letter most likely made the difference in the outcome. But we're also learning something more every day about the unprecedented Russian plot to swing this election. And this is something every American should be worried about. You know, we have to recognize that, as the latest reports made clear, Vladimir Putin himself directed the covert cyber attacks against our electoral system, against our democracy, apparently because he has a personal beef against me.

Clinton later added, in reference to Russia's meddling, that “the press is finally catching up to the facts, which we desperately tried to present to them during the last months of the campaign.”

Clinton doesn't directly say “I lost because of Russia" — at least not as directly as she says it about Comey — but it wasn't as if she brought it up simply to make a case about cybersecurity; she brought it up in the context of the “unprecedented factors” that led to her loss. Right after she points to late deciders voting against her because of Comey, she brings up Russia.

President Obama said, "we need to take action and we will, at the time and place of our own choosing," against Russia for its involvement in cyberattacks. (Video: Reuters)

And Clinton isn't the only one entertaining the idea that Russia made the difference. President Obama said in a new NPR interview that Russia's meddling changed the “atmosphere” of the race and dominated the news coverage in a way that crowded out other issues and advantaged Trump in a clear way.

Obama told Steve Inskeep:

That whole swirl that ended up dominating the news meant that number one, issues weren't talked about a lot in the coverage, huge policy differences were not debated and vetted. It also meant that what I think would have been a big advantage for Hillary objectively, her experience, her — her knowledge, her outstanding reputation around the world as secretary of State, all that stuff got lost. And I think in that scrum, in that swirl, you know, Donald Trump and his celebrity and his ability to garner attention and obviously tap into a lot of the anxiety and fears that some voters have I think definitely made a difference.

But did it actually make a difference? Obama then put on his political scientist/pundit cap and left it open as a possibility.

“Elections can always turn out differently,” he said. “You never know which factors are going to make a difference. But I have no doubt that it had some impact, just based on the coverage.”

Obama was very diplomatic about this, but he's clearly not disputing the idea that Russia may have changed the results of the 2016 election; that's the inescapable extension of his comments. He was asked a direct question about whether it “could have turned out differently,” and Obama's answer was decidedly far from “no.” And in fact, Obama seems to think Russian meddling mattered in a very big way by essentially turning the entire debate away from Clinton's strengths.

Obama emphasized during the same interview that he didn't want to start “re-litigating” the 2016 election, but the problem with looking at Russia's role is that this is inherently part of the process. The fact is that Trump's margin of victory was so small — less than 1 percentage point in the three states that mattered: Michigan (0.2 percent), Pennsylvania (0.7) and Wisconsin (0.8) — that even a small shift could have made the difference. If Russia's meddling moved the vote in every state just one point toward Trump, it made the difference.

This is a big reason Republicans have been reluctant to go down this road. Even those who may be legitimately worried about Russia's meddling know it's not hard to draw the line from A to B to C: The Russians meddled on Trump's behalf, and Trump won by a very small margin (about 80,000 votes), so it's quite possible Russia tipped the scales in the election.

The comments from Clinton and Obama aren't likely to make them feel better about entertaining this investigation and all the questions that come with it. If the conclusion of that investigation is that Russia penetrated deeply and was able to influence the process in a serious way, there will always be that doubt about whether it made the difference and whether Trump would have been president without it.

We may never know for sure, but as Clinton and Obama demonstrate, plenty of people will have their suspicions.