President Barack Obama on Friday vowed to retaliate against Russia for what the U.S. intelligence community has concluded was hacking designed to influence the election, but said he will take a “methodical” approach on choosing an “appropriate” response.
But Obama also made clear he believes America’s political culture must change, citing a recent poll that found 37 percent of Republican voters had a favorable view of Russian President Vladimir Putin, the former head of the Soviet Union-era KGB.
“C’mon!” Obama exclaimed, reviving a reaction he often used for effect on the campaign trail. “Ronald Reagan would roll over in his grave.”
The departing commander in chief, citing the intelligence information he has reviewed, said he has “great confidence” that the Russian government was involved in hacking the emails of the Democratic Party and Hillary Clinton’s campaign in an effort to help Donald Trump become president.
Obama’s remarks during a year-end White House press conference reflected his belief that Putin was directly involved in the cyber operation. He called the Russian state a “hierarchical organization” in which very little happens without Putin’s approval.
Obama reiterated his White House’s stance that the Kremlin-backed hacking hurt Clinton’s presidential bid and helped boost Trump’s fortunes. But he largely pinned the result on some voters’ willingness to be swayed against a candidate because she represented a party to which they did not pledge allegiance.
The president called the political landscape “dysfunctional” and “divided,” saying that if voters continue to view members of the other party with skepticism and ill will, the United States will remain “vulnerable” to foreign influence on our elections.
The administration’s goal is to “send a clear message to Russia not to do this to us because we can do stuff to you,” Obama said, alluding to the United States’ suite of offensive cyber weapons. But he underscored his decisions would be made with an eye toward avoiding a cyber arms race. He said he is also looking for a retaliatory tactic that “does not create problems for us,” adding that the avoidance of future cyberattacks on America “something that’s worth taking the time to figure [out].”
Obama said people should not expect each part of his response to be made public.
“There are times [when] the message will be directly received by the Russians, but not publicly,” he said, noting that Russia and other cyber aggressors are often successful because they don’t publicize their operations — even the successful ones.
To that end, the Kremlin as recently as Thursday shot down the U.S. intelligence community’s findings and the White House’s criticisms.
On Friday, The New York Times reported that Clinton told supporters that the hack was the result of Putin’s grudge against her for challenging parliamentary election results in Russia while she was secretary of State.
“Putin publicly blamed me for the outpouring of outrage by his own people, and that is the direct line between what he said back then and what he did in this election,” Clinton said. “This is not just an attack on me and my campaign, although that may have added fuel to it. … This is about the integrity of our democracy and the security of our nation.”
At an event across town shortly after Obama wrapped up his press conference, Trump aide Sean Spicer said the hacking would not have occurred to the degree it did had Clinton opted against using a private email server as secretary of State. “There is zero evidence” that Russian hacking influenced the election outcome, Spicer said.
Obama, who has ordered the intelligence agencies to probe what happened and how to avoid it in the future, called on Trump to embrace his review and the bipartisan ones getting underway on Capitol Hill.
His comments came a day after his administration and Trump traded jabs. On Thursday, Trump tweeted that the White House and Democrats were only investigating and talking about hacking because Clinton lost an election the party expected to win. Obama’s top spokesman later in the day all but said that Putin was directly involved in the alleged hacking. Spokesman Josh Earnest said an Oct. 7 statement from the U.S. intelligence community shows the administration had warned about Kremlin-supported hacking before Election Day.
Obama, in what was possibly his final appearance in the White House briefing room, covered other issues. He stopped short of endorsing a candidate to take over the Democratic National Committee but lavished praise on his Labor Secretary Thomas E. Perez, calling him “wicked smart” and lauding his work ethic. Perez is vying with Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison, among others, for the DNC chairmanship.
He again criticized the Democrats’ 2016 election strategy by saying it focused too much on “latte-drinking” progressives on both coasts, and too little on working-class voters. And he repeated his observation that he won states like Iowa in 2008 because he went to “fish fries” and tried to talk to rural, blue-collar voters.
Obama acknowledged that he failed to translate his success with such voters to his party’s congressional races. “That’s something I would have liked to have done, he said. “That’s hard to do when you’re dealing with a lot of other issues here in the White House. That doesn’t mean it cannot be done.”