- Mark Landler The New York Times
President Donald Trump, who spent months belittling charges that Russia meddled in the 2016 election, has managed to revive questions about how his predecessor, President Barack Obama, handled suspicions about Russia in the months before the election.
Some former Obama officials now confess to misgivings about Obama’s reluctance to act, or speak out more forcefully, even as the evidence piled up during the spring and summer of 2016 that the Russians had hacked the Democratic National Committee and were behind the leak of damaging emails about Hillary Clinton.
Yet the officials say the indictment last week of 13 Russians by the special counsel, Robert Mueller, does not suggest that Obama could have prevented the Russian campaign. The evidence uncovered in this phase of the investigation, they noted, is about Russia’s information warfare, not its hacking, and the government does not control what flows into the social media accounts of U.S. citizens.
“If there was a problem, it was that the government didn’t have any levers to pull in this space,” said Benjamin J. Rhodes, a former deputy national security adviser and one of Obama’s closest aides. “The U.S. government isn’t designed to guard against the manipulation of every individual American’s Facebook feed and Twitter feed.”
“So it comes back to one question,” Rhodes added. “Could he have talked about it more?”
The issue with Obama doing that, he said, is that Trump would have accused him of trying to rig the election — a charge he was already energetically airing in October 2016 when Obama told him to “stop whining and go try to make his case” to win more votes than Clinton.
On Tuesday, Trump seized on Obama’s comments, which he made at a Rose Garden news conference a month before the election and which was recycled this week by one of Trump’s favorite news shows, “Fox & Friends,” as evidence that the former president did not confront allegations of Russian hacking.
“That’s because he thought Crooked Hillary was going to win and he didn’t want to ‘rock the boat,'” Trump wrote on Twitter. “When I easily won the Electoral College, the whole game changed and the Russian excuse became the narrative of the Dems.”
The White House press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, insisted that Trump would not tolerate Russian interference in elections. Such meddling, she said, occurred during the previous administration. Trump himself tweeted, “I have been much tougher on Russia than Obama, just look at the facts.”
The facts suggest otherwise, which made Trump’s latest attack on Obama seem disingenuous. Trump has dismissed Russia’s interference in the election as a hoax, asserting that it could have been carried out by China, a guy from New Jersey or “somebody sitting on their bed who weighs 400 pounds.” He said President Vladimir Putin denied that Russia was involved and that he was inclined to believe him.
Trump’s initial response to Mueller’s indictment was to declare that it exonerated him, since it did not claim that he or Trump campaign officials knowingly met with Russian agents about the social media campaign. But as he spent a three-day weekend mulling the disclosures, the president grew angry, aides said.
On Saturday, Trump rebuked his national security adviser, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, for failing to assert, during a visit to a security conference in Munich, that Russia’s interference had no effect on the outcome of the election. He also went after Obama, declaring, “Obama was President, knew of the threat, and did nothing.”
The next day, he tweeted, “Obama was President up to, and beyond, the 2016 Election. So why didn’t he do something about Russian meddling?”
In fact, Obama personally issued a warning to Putin in September not to tamper in the election — a warning the administration repeated a few weeks later. On Oct. 7, his administration formally accused Russia of stealing and leaking emails from the Democratic National Committee and a range of other institutions and individuals.
Obama, his former aides said, had hoped that the announcement, by the director of national intelligence, James Clapper, and the Department of Homeland Security, would follow a bipartisan statement by congressional leaders about the need for state and local authorities to guard their voter-registration and balloting machines from Russian hacking.
The White House provided an intelligence briefing to the lawmakers, including Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis. and the House speaker, and Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. and the Senate majority leader. But McConnell, two former officials said, refused to back a statement publicly challenging Russia and told Obama that he would view an effort by the White House to do that as partisan.
Don Stewart, a spokesman for McConnell, said the White House asked him to sign a letter warning about the threat of cyberattacks, and he did so. But that letter did not name Russia and only spoke generally about the threat to the electoral process.
Other Republican senators faulted the Obama administration Tuesday for failing to warn officials in 21 states where intelligence agencies had detected efforts by the Russians to probe voting machines that they were at risk of being infiltrated. In some cases, officials in those states were not cleared to be briefed on the intelligence.
“I am very concerned that the Obama administration did so little,” said Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine. She added, referring to the FBI director at the time, “They were aware — the intelligence community leaders were fully aware, whether it was Jim Clapper or James Comey, that the Russians were attempting to interfere in our elections — and they put out that brief statement before the election.”
Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., said that even after Obama formally named Russia, the administration declined to declassify information related to meddling by the Kremlin. “I’m not sure why they continued to sit on that information,” he said.
Some former administration officials said they pushed for the United States to take pre-emptive or deterrent measures against Russia in the summer of 2016. But the White House was reluctant, in part because the intelligence agencies had not reached a consensus about who was responsible for the hacking. There were also concerns about Russia retaliating and whether the United States should use similar tactics.
Looming over all this was Obama’s worry that if he spoke out strongly, he would be viewed as trying to tilt the vote.
“He really did feel, in September and October of an election year, as the head of the Democratic Party, that his role in adjudicating the information Americans received should be limited,” Rhodes said. “If he had ratcheted up that rhetoric, we would have seen exactly what we see today. It would have been called fake news.”