WASHINGTON ― U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies agree that Russia hacked Democratic National Committee emails with the intention of tipping the election in favor of President-elect Donald Trump.
The FBI, which previously told lawmakers it could not be sure of the motive behind the Russian cyberattack, now agrees with the CIA assessment that Moscow intended to boost Trump’s chance of winning, The Washington Post reported on Friday.
The intelligence community first publicly accused Russia of orchestrating the attack in October, but declined to ascribe a motive at the time. As the November election neared, Democrats, frustrated by what they saw as clear and negative effects the leaked emails were having on former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s campaign, pressed the Obama administration for a stronger response.
President Barack Obama on Friday declined to confirm the Post’s report, but staunchly defended his administration’s handling of the Russian cyberattack. If the White House had explicitly warned voters of Moscow’s effort to boost Trump’s chances of winning, it would have looked like a political play on Clinton’s behalf, Obama said at what is likely his final press conference as president.
“In this hyper-partisan atmosphere, at a time when my primary concern was making sure that the integrity of the election process was not in any way damaged, at a time when anything that was said by me or anybody in the White House would immediately be seen through a partisan lens ― I wanted to make sure that everybody understood we were playing this thing straight,” Obama said.
Obama said he personally confronted Putin about the election interference at the G20-Summit in September, warning the Russian leader to “cut it out,” and telling him there would be “serious consequences if he didn’t.”
During his nearly 20-minute response to a question on Russian hacking, Obama chided journalists in the briefing room for reporting extensively on the leaked DNC emails. “This was an obsession that dominated the news coverage,” he said.
“The truth of the matter is that everyone had the information,” Obama continued. “It was out there. And we handled it the way we should have.”
Earlier on Friday, Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) announced that his panel will review what led U.S. intelligence officials to make the October accusation against Russia. The committee will interview government officials from the outgoing Obama administration and the incoming Trump administration, using subpoenas if necessary, Burr said in a statement.
Burr notably did not mention reports of the CIA’s assessment that Moscow acted deliberately to help Trump win the election. Burr’s office did not respond to a question about whether the committee would also review the intelligence that led to that conclusion.
Burr’s announcement comes a week after the White House ordered the intelligence community to conduct a full review into “malicious cyber activity” tied to U.S. elections before the president leaves office next month. Congressional Democrats pushed for separate probes into Russia’s role, but Republicans, following the lead of their president-elect, downplayed the need for additional investigations.
The White House has said it could take several weeks before additional information about the Russian role in election interference is publicly released. That means Electoral College members won’t have details before they vote on Monday.
“This is a national crisis that must be fully explained to the American people right now,” Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) said in a statement. “When a foreign nation interferes in our election, delays and closed-door investigations are not good enough. We cannot continue to sweep this under the rug or to wait until just before Inauguration Day before leveling with the public.”
Trump has repeatedly challenged the U.S. intelligence community’s findings that Russia played a role in muddying the electoral process ― if not directly swinging the election in his favor. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) rejected calls for a special congressional panel to investigate the hacks, and deferred instead to the House and Senate intelligence committees.
Congressional Republicans, including Burr, have been caught in a bizarre political situation since allegations about Russian hacking emerged several months ago. The party is typically hawkish on Russian interference abroad, and GOP lawmakers repeatedly pounded Obama for not responding more aggressively to Russian incursions into Ukrainian territory in 2014. Republicans on Capitol Hill became notably more cautious in their criticism of Russia since Trump, who has said he will to steer the U.S. closer to Moscow, became their party’s nominee.
Obama pointed to a recent poll showing that 37 percent of Republicans view Russian President Vladimir Putin favorably. “Ronald Reagan would roll over in his grave,” the president said.
Putin played a direct role in his country’s covert effort to interfere with the U.S. elections, NBC reported on Thursday. Obama wouldn’t explicitly confirm Putin’s involvement, but added, “Not much happens in Russia without Vladimir Putin.”
Obama suggested a counterattack against Russia could be in the works.
“Our goal continues to be to send a clear message to Russia or others not to do this to us because we can do stuff to you,” he said. “But it is also important for us to do that in a thoughtful, methodical way. Some of it we do publicly, some of it we will do in a way that they know, but not everybody will.”