In his final press conference of the year, President Barack Obama addressed intelligence community assessments that hackers associated with the Russian government tampered with the U.S. election in order to sway the victory to Donald Trump and defended the White House’s handling of the situation.
“When I look back at how we handled it, i think we handled it the way it should have been handled,” Obama said. The president explained that the White House was primarily concerned with preventing hacking of voting machines or tampering with the voting process, rather than the email leaks that plagued the Clinton campaign. He said that focusing on the leaks would have made it seem that the White House was trying to advantage one candidate over the other and that he had made an effort to ensure his team was “playing this thing straight.”
“Part of the goal here was to make sure that we did not do the work of the leakers for them by raising more and more questions about the integrity of the election right before the election was taking place — when the president-elect was raising questions,” Obama said.
Obama vowed in an interview with NPR on Thursday that the government would take action to respond to the election tampering. The Department of Homeland Security and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence officially attributed the hacking of Democratic agencies and operatives to Russia in early October.
“I think there is no doubt that when any foreign government tries to impact the integrity of our elections … we need to take action. And we will — at a time and place of our own choosing. Some of it may be explicit and publicized; some of it may not be,” Obama told NPR.
Last week, White House homeland security and counterterrorism adviser Lisa Monaco said that the president had ordered a full review of the hacking that occurred during the campaign season and expected it to be completed before he leaves office in January.
Hacks and subsequent leaks of emails from the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager John Podesta trickled out throughout the campaign, and Clinton told donors yesterday that she believed the leaks contributed to her loss.
“This is not just an attack on me and my campaign, although that may have added fuel to it. This is an attack against our country. We are well beyond normal political concerns here. This is about the integrity of our democracy and the security of our nation,” Clinton said.
Hackers employed a targeted phishing campaign, in which Podesta was tricked into resetting his email password, to break into Podesta’s account. The New York Times revealed this week that a Podesta staffer who had access to his email account accurately suspected the phishing email was the work of hackers, but a typo by another staffer declaring the password-reset message “legitimate” instead of “illegitimate” opened the gateway to Podesta’s emails.
Wikileaks published the Podesta emails, as well as emails stolen from DNC staffers earlier in the campaign season. The leaks, which included transcripts of Clinton’s paid speeches at Goldman Sachs and speculations about Bernie Sanders’ faith, damaged Clinton on the campaign trail and proved to be useful fodder for Trump.
Obama stopped short of accusing the Trump campaign of colluding with Russia in his NPR interview and said that it was not certain Russia intended to help Trump. “When I receive a final report, you know, we’ll be able to, I think, give us a comprehensive and best guess as to those motivations. But that does not in any way, I think, detract from the basic point that everyone during the election perceived accurately — that in fact what the Russian hack had done was create more problems for the Clinton campaign than it had for the Trump campaign,” Obama said.
For his part, Trump has repeatedly expressed doubt at the intelligence community’s assessment that the hacking of the DNC and Podesta was perpetrated by Russia. Although he called on Russia in July to release Clinton’s State Department emails, saying, “Russia, if you are listening, I hope that you are able to find the 30,000 e-mails that are missing. I think that you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press,” Trump has more recently denied that the hacks could be accurately attributed to Russia.
“I don’t believe they interfered. That became a laughing point, not a talking point, a laughing point,” Trump said of Russia during his TIME magazine Person of the Year interview. “It could be Russia. And it could be China. And it could be some guy in his home in New Jersey.”
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