WASHINGTON — President Obama said for the first time Friday that he had held back before Election Day from retaliating against Russia for meddling in the presidential race for fear of inciting further hacking “that could hamper vote counting.” But he said he was weighing a mix of public and covert actions against the Russians in his last 34 days in office, actions that would increase “the costs for them.”
Obama said he was committed to sending the Kremlin a message that “we can do stuff to you,” but without setting off an escalating cyberconflict.
“There have been folks out there who suggest somehow if we went out there and made big announcements and thumped our chests about a bunch of stuff, that somehow it would potentially spook the Russians,” he said. “I think it doesn’t read the thought process in Russia very well.”
The president did not reveal what steps he was considering if he decided to retaliate against the Russians and suggested that some of the options, if they were carried out, could remain secret. “Some of it we will do in a way that they will know, but not everybody will,” he said.
Obama made his comments at an annual end-of-year news conference, one tinged with melancholy at the impending end of his presidency, foreboding about the changes that could follow President-elect Donald Trump into office next month, and uneasiness about the role Russia played in the political earthquake that has resulted from his election.
The president less than a day after Hillary Clinton, addressing campaign donors in New York, bluntly accused President Vladimir Putin of Russia of orchestrating the hacks against her campaign and against the Democratic National Committee “to undermine our democracy,” as part of a “personal beef against me.”
Putin had blamed Clinton for fomenting mass protests in Russia after disputed 2011 parliamentary elections that challenged his rule. Putin said Clinton, then secretary of state, had ‘‘sent a signal’’ to protesters by labeling the elections ‘‘neither free nor fair.’’
Obama declined to place the blame for the hacking so squarely on Putin, though he noted, “Not much happens in Russia without Vladimir Putin.” Obama also sought to diminish the specter of Russian influence over the US political process, saying Russia was a smaller, weaker country that “doesn’t produce anything that anybody wants to buy, except oil and gas and arms.”
Still, the president was clearly wrestling with what he said the hacking affair and the reaction to it revealed about the state of US politics. Citing a recent poll that showed more than a third of Republican voters saying they approved of Putin — “Ronald Reagan would roll over in his grave,” Obama said — the president appealed to Americans not to allow partisan hatred and feuds to blind them to manipulation by foreign powers.
“Unless that changes,” Obama said, “we’re going to continue to be vulnerable to foreign influence because we’ve lost track of what it is that we’re about and what we stand for.”
During the news conference, Obama also offered a long list of accomplishments that he said marked his eight years in office. But his victory lap has been attenuated by the messy aftermath of Trump’s defeat of Clinton, which has raised questions about Obama’s pre-election response to the hacking, ignited a nasty squabble between Trump and the nation’s intelligence agencies, and left a residue of suspicion over the election itself.
The president continued to defend his cautious approach to reports of hacking — an approach that has come under criticism from Democrats after it emerged last week that the intelligence agencies had concluded Russia was trying to help Trump win the election.
“We were playing this thing straight — we weren’t trying to advantage one side or the other,” Obama said. “Imagine if we had done the opposite. It would have become one more political scrum.”
The president, however, is likely to face further questions after his CIA director, John O. Brennan, issued a statement Friday disputing reports of a rift between the intelligence agencies and the CIA over Russia’s motives in hacking the DNC and handing over e-mails to WikiLeaks, which released them in the weeks leading up to the vote.
In his statement, first reported by The Washington Post, Brennan said he had met with the director of the FBI, James B. Comey, and the director of national intelligence, James R. Clapper, and “there is strong consensus among us on the scope, nature, and intent of Russian interference in our presidential election.”
That statement will also challenge Trump, who has seized on reports of an interagency squabble to undermine the credibility of the hacking findings.
He has criticized the CIA analysis, saying it was supplied by the same agency that provided erroneous intelligence about Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction before the Iraq War.
Obama held out hope that when Trump takes office, he would take a more sober approach. He said he had had “cordial” conversations with his successor, and that Trump had listened to his suggestions about “maintaining the effectiveness, integrity, cohesion of our office, our various democratic institutions,” though he was not specific.
Obama also made a startling admission as he described how his administration had reacted to the Russian hack: He said it was not until the “beginning of the summer” that the White House was “alerted to the possibility that the DNC has been hacked.”
That was nine months after an FBI agent had first contacted the Democratic National Committee with evidence that a major, government-linked hacking group was inside the committee’s networks, raising the question of why it took so long for that news to reach the president.
Obama made it clear that he went out of his way to play down the news, because “in this hyperpartisan atmosphere” he did not think he or anyone else at the White House could talk about it without risking to appear to be acting on behalf of Clinton.
But the unintended result, as some of Obama aides concede, was that the Russians faced very little resistance. Not until September, when Obama pulled Putin aside at a Group of 20 meeting in Hanghzhou, China, was the Russian leader given a warning directly from the United States.
Obama said he told him “to cut it out, there were going to be serious consequences if he did not.”
The president made it sound like that worked, saying “we did not see further tampering of the election process.”
This report contains material from The Washington Post.