When it came to disclosing Russian hacking during the 2016 election, President Barack Obama took his customary no-drama approach. But the drama has found him.
The Washington Post reported Friday morning that the CIA told the White House as early as August 2016 that Russian President Vladimir Putin had ordered interference in the 2016 election with the express purpose of helping elect Donald Trump. And this intelligence, according to The Post’s Greg Miller, Ellen Nakashima and Adam Entous, was based on Putin’s “specific instructions” from “sourcing deep inside the Russian government.”
The administration wouldn’t even wind up saying Russia was behind the hacking until Oct. 7. And it wasn’t until December — after Trump was elected president — that The Washington Post first reported on intelligence that indicated Putin was specifically trying to aid Trump.
That emerging timeline is liable to give plenty of Democrats heartburn. And indeed, the second-guessing of Obama's decisions is already underway, including among some quoted in The Post's new story.
An anonymous senior Obama administration official quoted in the Post story offers this brutal quote: “It is the hardest thing about my entire time in government to defend.” And then: “I feel like we sort of choked.”
Another administration official said this of the feeling after Trump won: "The White House was mortified and shocked. From national security people there was a sense of immediate introspection, of, ‘Wow, did we mishandle this.'"
At a hearing Wednesday, the leading Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, Rep. Adam Schiff (Calif.), pressed Obama’s homeland security secretary, Jeh Johnson, on why the Obama administration didn’t say something sooner.
“Why did it take the administration so long to make a public statement that a foreign adversary was trying to influence the American election?" asked Schiff, who said he took his own actions to get the word out when the administration failed to act. In the new Post story, Schiff says the administration's inaction left him with a sense of "cognitive dissonance."
And during an appearance on CBS's “This Morning” last month, former Obama administration acting CIA director Michael Morell also questioned the lack of action. Here’s the exchange:
MORELL: What struck me, Charlie, is that the U.S. government was concerned enough last summer about Russian interference in the election that they had the CIA director make contact with his Russian counterpart and tell them to stop and the Russians, clearly, didn't. So my question is: What did the Obama administration do after that after they learned the warning had fallen on deaf ears?
NORAH O’DONNELL: Well, it appears they did nothing.
MORELL: It appears they did nothing.
Much like then-FBI Director James B. Comey and his disclosure of more Hillary Clinton emails just 11 days before the election, Obama and the administration faced a pretty impossible decision here. They could disclose what they knew or believed to be true and risk looking like they were putting their fingers on the scales in the election, or they could try to act quietly to combat Russia, hoping their lack of action wouldn't be second-guessed.
Comey took Option A; Obama took Option B.
Obama would later, in December, disclose that he confronted Putin during a September summit of world leaders to tell him, according to Obama’s telling, to “cut it out.” And at that December news conference, Obama made clear that he was wary of inserting himself in the 2016 election and sending the wrong message.
“I wanted to make sure everybody understood we were playing this thing straight — that we weren't trying to advantage one side or another but what we were trying to do is let people know that this had taken place,” Obama said. “Part of the goal here was to make sure 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 when the president-elect himself was facing questions about the integrity of the election.”
It’s also not difficult to believe that part of the calculus Obama made in not going public sooner was that he, like almost everyone else, expected Hillary Clinton to win regardless. She was up big in the polls when that CIA assessment arrived in early August, and that was the case for most of the race thereafter.
And had she won, this probably wouldn’t be a big deal today. But given Trump pulled the upset and did so in such a narrow fashion, it’s apparent that any number of factors might have tipped the scales. Hillary Clinton has pointed to several of them — including Russian hacking, Comey and misogyny — and you can bet this latest disclosure will cause some on the left to believe Obama could have prevented all of this with more disclosure, sooner.
It was a perfect storm to make Obama’s decision look like the wrong one. And some on the left and from his administration are beginning to say as much.