What Obama did, didn’t do and couldn’t do in response to Russian interference

  • Philip Bump
  • The Washington Post
8:00 a.m. Thursday, Feb. 22, 2018 Politics
President Barack Obama and President Vladimir Putin of Russia at the United Nations in New York, Sept. 28, 2015. Putin, skilled at keeping several steps ahead of his adversaries, announced that he would not retaliate in kind against the Obama administration for imposing new sanctions and expelling Russian diplomats from the United States.

It's proved hard for social media companies to completely uproot trolls apparently working on behalf of the Russian government. After all, the point of those trolls' activity has been to blend in with regular all-American trolls who have free rein on Twitter and Facebook. Automation is one thing; bots often demonstrate patterns of behavior that set them apart from humans. But humans trying to stir things up? That's like 60 percent of social media networks, so how do you pick out the 0.01 percent that's annoying people on behalf of Vladimir Putin? 

So it's not the case, as President Donald Trump implied Wednesday morning, that Russian interference in American politics came to a complete stop at noon on Jan. 20, 2017. Russian social-media accounts are still at work, evading Twitter's screening system, dipping into our ongoing political conversations and advocating the positions most likely to frustrate people. (How much those conversations are driven by Russian actors is another question entirely.) 

"Question: If all of the Russian meddling took place during the Obama Administration, right up to January 20th, why aren't they the subject of the investigation? Why didn't Obama do something about the meddling? Why aren't Dem crimes under investigation? Ask Jeff Sessions!" Trump tweeted Saturday. 

Trump's implication that the interference stopped on his Inauguration Day is an attempt to suggest that the problem lay only at President Barack Obama's feet. That Trump, himself, has done almost nothing to hold Russia accountable for its behavior — as indirectly made clear by White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders on Tuesday, means that he'd rather talk about what Obama did - or didn't do. 

It is fair to question how Russia was able to get away with what has been alleged by American intelligence agencies and in the indictment issued by Mueller's team last week. Beginning in 2014, Russians linked to an organization called the Internet Research Agency traveled to the United States and began tracking hot-button political issues. They soon began engaging in debates on those issues and attempting to bolster candidates in the 2016 election who were most likely to stir dissension. As the general election campaigns wound on, they posted untrue stories on social media and encouraged real-world protests. Meanwhile, American intelligence agencies believe that hackers tied to the Russian government stole data from the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton's campaign chairman, leaking that information out in 2016 via WikiLeaks to throw the election into turmoil. That effort was more obviously effective. 

Let's separate out the question of what the Obama administration did and when from Trump's other points in that tweet. Meaning that we will set aside the "Why aren't Dem crimes under investigation? Ask Jeff Sessions!" part, a rehash of Trump's long-standing and politically toxic insistence that various noncriminal things done by his opponents are crimes demanding investigation. 

As noted above, the Russian's efforts began in earnest in 2014. By the summer of 2015, hackers believed to be tied to Kremlin intelligence agencies accessed the computer network of the Democratic National Committee. They had access to emails and messages from the party for months, building a cache of documents that would eventually be published by WikiLeaks in July 2016. In March 2016, Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta's personal email was accessed by hackers, again believed to be linked to Russian intelligence. 

By May of 2016, as Trump and Clinton closed on securing their parties' nominations, the Obama administration started hinting publicly that hackers are targeting presidential campaigns. (The Post walked through the Obama administration's response to Russian interference last summer. Many of the components that follow stem from that reporting.) The following month, even before the bulk of information stolen from the DNC was released, Russian actors were linked to the DNC hack. 

On July 21, 2016, the White House convened an interagency meeting including the FBI and intelligence agencies. At some point in this same time period, the FBI has began a counterintelligence operation focused on whether the Trump campaign was involved with Russia's interference efforts. That investigation stemmed from a tip offered by Australian authorities: In May, Trump campaign adviser George Papadopoulos had told an Australian diplomat that he'd been informed that the Russians had a collection of emails that could be used against Clinton. Once the WikiLeaks posts on the DNC began, the Australian government informed the FBI about the Papadopoulos conversation. 

In early August 2016, the White House received a report from the CIA indicating that Putin had the aim of influencing the election and was working to damage Clinton while promoting Trump's candidacy. CIA Director John Brennan had formed a secret task force of agents from the FBI, CIA and National Security Agency. Senior Obama administration officials began to meet in the Situation Room at the White House to discuss potential responses; those conversations were conducted at an exceptional level of security, excluding even top aides. Brennan sent a message to the Kremlin warning against interference efforts, a warning that the administration thought would temper Russia's activity. 

Obama asked that his team develop a three-part response plan. First, getting more intelligence on what Russia was doing — and confirmation of the CIA's assessment of Putin's intentions. Then, bolstering state and local elections systems and seeking bipartisan support for a public response. 

That last point had an interesting genesis, according to The Post's reporting. On the campaign trail, Trump, trailing Clinton badly in the polls, was arguing that the election would be rigged against him. This was generally seen as an effort to excuse an imminent loss, but had the effect of making the White House nervous about taking unilateral action to suggest that the Russians were actually attempting to interfere in the election's outcome. 

In mid-August, Brennan began briefing congressional leaders. At the end of the month, he briefed then-Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, R-Nev. Days later, Reid wrote to the FBI seeking further investigation into Russian interference. Russia's efforts, he wrote were "more extensive than is widely known and may include the intent to falsify official election results." Reid's letter was leaked to The New York Times. 

During the same period, Trump first received a classified intelligence briefing as the Republican nominee. It included information about the Russian effort. Meanwhile, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson began briefing state officials on election security. He got a negative response from some states, worried about federal interference in their election processes. 

In late August, hackers believed to be operating from Russia probed election systems. Shortly after, administration officials briefed congressional leaders on threats to those systems. Democrats, The Post reported, wanted to identify Russia as the actor behind the efforts; Republicans worried about the effect on the election. 

Early in September, Obama confronted Putin about the interference at a Group of 20 summit in China. 

The Obama administration faced pressure from lawmakers and some intelligence officials to speak out about Russian interference. But without consensus across the intelligence community on Russia's role and motivations, and facing opposition from key Republicans, and due to concern about appearing to be trying to influence the election, the White House didn't act publicly. 

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., decided to make a statement of their own. 

"At the least," they wrote, the DNC hacking and other similar efforts were "intended to sow doubt about the security of our election and may well be intended to influence the outcomes. We believe that orders for the Russian intelligence agencies to conduct such actions could come only from very senior levels of the Russian government." 

Late that month, Republican leaders issued a statement warning states in abstract terms to secure their election systems. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., opposed a broader public statement, arguing that the intelligence wasn't confirmed. Without McConnell on board, a bipartisan statement was off the table. 

In early October 2016, then-Secretary of State John Kerry put together a package of possible responses, but they were tabled. He later pushed for a bipartisan commission to investigate the interference efforts, but the White House worried it would be viewed as partisan. 

During the first week of that month, though, the administration did take some actions. 

National security adviser Susan Rice summoned then-Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak to the White House to give him a message to relay to Putin. 

That same day, the director of national intelligence and Department of Homeland Security issued an unusual joint warning, blaming Russia for interference efforts and warning state elections officials to secure their systems. But hours later, the "Access Hollywood" tape was published, and WikiLeaks began dumping Podesta's emails. The government warning was buried. 

A week before the election, the White House sent a secure message to Putin. It "noted that the United States had detected malicious activity, originating from servers in Russia, targeting U.S. election systems and warned that meddling would be regarded as unacceptable interference," according to The Post's report. "Russia confirmed the next day that it had received the message but replied only after the election through the same channel, denying the accusation." 

On Nov. 8, 2016, Trump won an electoral college victory. 

The following month, The Post broke its story about Russian interference efforts. Shortly before the new year, the Obama administration issued sweeping sanctions meant to punish Putin for Russia's meddling. In early January 2017, intelligence agencies completed a report detailing Russian interference efforts. 

With Trump in office, further response to Russia has largely been tabled. When Congress approved additional sanctions against Russia last year, the Russians responded by forcing American diplomats out of facilities in their country. Trump, in turn, ordered Russians out of three facilities in the United States. But Trump opposed the sanctions before they got through Congress, and they have largely gone without implementation, despite the president signing them into law last August. 

Earlier this month, Trump's own national intelligence director told a Senate committee that Russian interference is ongoing, with an eye toward the November midterm elections. 

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has warned that Russia's efforts were evolving and might not look the way they did in 2016. But to some extent they do. Those trolls are still out there, trying to shift the political conversation into contentious territory. 

Uprooting Russia's web of cybertools is difficult, even after months of scrutiny — and even absent the political hurdles that Obama faced. 

There's one other part of Trump's tweet worth pulling out: "why aren't [Obama officials] the subject of the investigation [into interference]?" 

Russia's interference efforts have been the subject of several investigations, since even before the election concluded. There's been no information made public about Obama administration officials being part of Russia's effort, which would spur investigation into those officials. 

The reason Trump's campaign is being investigated as part of the Russia inquiry is that several members of his campaign team — Papadopoulos, his son Donald Jr., his former campaign chairman Paul Manafort, former adviser Carter Page — have all been linked to Russian actors who may have been aware of the country's efforts. 

If Trump's not clear on that, he can always ask Jeff Sessions.