Here's how Obama reacted to Russia's attempts to influence the 2016 election

President Obama's approach to Russia for its alleged election meddling has many concerned he wasn't tough enough

By Matthew Rozsa
June 23, 2017 3:25PM (UTC)
main article image
(AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

A new report by The Washington Post sheds light on how President Barack Obama responded to intelligence information regarding Russia's alleged meddling in the 2016 presidential election.

Obama knew in August the full extent of Vladimir Putin's deliberate efforts to meddle in the election


The report, which "detailed Russian President Vladi­mir Putin’s direct involvement in a cyber campaign to disrupt and discredit the U.S. presidential race," specifically mentioned that Putin's efforts went further than had been previously reported by the media, the Post noted.

The intelligence captured Putin’s specific instructions on the operation’s audacious objectives — defeat or at least damage the Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, and help elect her opponent, Donald Trump.

CIA Director John Brennan was very concerned about the material leaking

Brennan took no chances. Here's what the Post had to say.


The material was so sensitive that CIA Director John Brennan kept it out of the President’s Daily Brief, concerned that even that restricted report’s distribution was too broad. The CIA package came with instructions that it be returned immediately after it was read. To guard against leaks, subsequent meetings in the Situation Room followed the same protocols as planning sessions for the Osama bin Laden raid.

Obama's response to Russia may have been weak

Although Obama considered cyberattacks against Russia's infrastructure, stronger sanctions that would "crater" the Russian economy or releasing embarrassing material about Putin, he ultimately opted to simply close two Russian compounds and expel 35 diplomats. He initiated a process to plant "cyber weapons in Russia’s infrastructure, the digital equivalent of bombs that could be detonated if the United States found itself in an escalating exchange with Moscow," but that was merely in the planning stages when he left office.

While many in the Obama administration defend his response, there was this nugget.


“It is the hardest thing about my entire time in government to defend,” said a former senior Obama administration official involved in White House deliberations on Russia. “I feel like we sort of choked.”

Also this:

“The punishment did not fit the crime,” said Michael McFaul, who served as U.S. ambassador to Russia for the Obama administration from 2012 to 2014. “Russia violated our sovereignty, meddling in one of our most sacred acts as a democracy — electing our president. The Kremlin should have paid a much higher price for that attack. And U.S. policymakers now — both in the White House and Congress — should consider new actions to deter future Russian interventions.”

Russia watchers in Washington had a sense that something was amiss throughout the summer

Even before the August report, it was clear that Russia was up to no good, at least to many of the Washington professionals paid to monitor America's chief superpower rival.


Russia experts had begun to see a troubling pattern of propaganda in which fictitious news stories, assumed to be generated by Moscow, proliferated across social-media platforms.

And this:

Meanwhile, the FBI was tracking a flurry of hacking activity against U.S. political parties, think tanks and other targets. Russia had gained entry to DNC systems in the summer of 2015 and spring of 2016, but the breaches did not become public until they were disclosed in a June 2016 report by The Post.

Part of the reason Obama did so little in response to the Russia crisis is that it went against the grain of his philosophy toward foreign policy

Democrats nominated Barack Obama in 2008 in large part because of his firm stance against the Iraq War. Now it appears that that same mentality may have been responsible for his underreacting to the Russia threat.


Throughout his presidency, Obama’s approach to national security challenges was deliberate and cautious. He came into office seeking to end wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He was loath to act without support from allies overseas and firm political footing at home. He was drawn only reluctantly into foreign crises, such as the civil war in Syria, that presented no clear exit for the United States.

Obama’s approach often seemed reducible to a single imperative: Don’t make things worse. As brazen as the Russian attacks on the election seemed, Obama and his top advisers feared that things could get far worse.

When Obama received the August report, his response was understated:

Before departing for an August vacation to Martha’s Vineyard, Obama instructed aides to pursue ways to deter Moscow and proceed along three main paths: Get a high-confidence assessment from U.S. intelligence agencies on Russia’s role and intent; shore up any vulnerabilities in state-run election systems; and seek bipartisan support from congressional leaders for a statement condemning Moscow and urging states to accept federal help.

Republicans were always reluctant to come forward with this, with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell even doubting the intelligence while two congressional Democrats had to go forward with what they knew before the president would

During an early September meeting with powerful members of Congress:


The meeting devolved into a partisan squabble.

“The Dems were, ‘Hey, we have to tell the public,’ ” recalled one participant. But Republicans resisted, arguing that to warn the public that the election was under attack would further Russia’s aim of sapping confidence in the system.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) went further, officials said, voicing skepticism that the underlying intelligence truly supported the White House’s claims. Through a spokeswoman, McConnell declined to comment, citing the secrecy of that meeting.

Key Democrats were stunned by the GOP response and exasperated that the White House seemed willing to let Republican opposition block any pre-election move.

On Sept. 22, two California Democrats — Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Rep. Adam B. Schiff — did what they couldn’t get the White House to do. They issued a statement making clear that they had learned from intelligence briefings that Russia was directing a campaign to undermine the election, but they stopped short of saying to what end.

A week later, McConnell and other congressional leaders issued a cautious statement that encouraged state election officials to ensure their networks were “secure from attack.” The release made no mention of Russia and emphasized that the lawmakers “would oppose any effort by the federal government” to encroach on the states’ authorities.

The Obama administration didn't want to act because it may be seen as political

This really says it all.

To some, Obama’s determination to avoid politicizing the Russia issue had the opposite effect: It meant that he allowed politics to shape his administration’s response to what some believed should have been treated purely as a national security threat.

As Rep. Adam Schiff of California put it:

“Where Democrats need to take responsibility,” Schiff said, “is that we failed to persuade the country why they should care that a foreign power is meddling in our affairs.”

Also this:

“Our primary interest in August, September and October was to prevent them from doing the max they could do,” said a senior administration official. “We made the judgment that we had ample time after the election, regardless of outcome, for punitive measures.”

The assumption that Clinton would win contributed to the lack of urgency.


The White House realized their mistake after the results came in

Suddenly, Obama faced a successor who had praised WikiLeaks and prodded Moscow to steal even more Clinton emails, while dismissing the idea that Russia was any more responsible for the election assault than “somebody sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds.”

“The White House was mortified and shocked,” said a former administration official. “From national security people there was a sense of immediate introspection, of, ‘Wow, did we mishandle this.’ ”

After overcoming the shock of loss, Obama began to come up with a retaliation in December.


While some sources from the Obama White House deny being like a "funeral parlor," it is clear that the president himself finally snapped out of his complacency during the month after Trump's upset victory.

Obama’s decision to order a comprehensive report on Moscow’s interference from U.S. spy agencies had prompted analysts to go back through their agencies’ files, scouring for previously overlooked clues.

The effort led to a flurry of new, disturbing reports — many of them presented in the President’s Daily Brief — about Russia’s subversion of the 2016 race. The emerging picture enabled policymakers to begin seeing the Russian campaign in broader terms, as a comprehensive plot sweeping in its scope.

You can read the full report here.

Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer for Salon. He holds an MA in History from Rutgers University-Newark and is ABD in his PhD program in History at Lehigh University. His work has appeared in Mic, Quartz and MSNBC.

MORE FROM Matthew Rozsa

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Barack Obama Donald Trump Partner Video Russia Vladimir Putin