An indictment filed by special counsel Robert Mueller last week against 13 Russian nationals and three Russian entities for meddling in the 2016 election has revived questions from President Donald Trump and some Democrats about whether President Barack Obama’s response to the plot in the midst of a heated and divisive campaign was aggressive enough.
The indictment outlines a plot stretching back to 2014, beginning with a general desire to undermine faith in the electoral process and eventually developing into support for Trump and opposition to Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.
Obama was President up to, and beyond, the 2016 Election. So why didn’t he do something about Russian meddling?— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 19, 2018
“Obama was President up to, and beyond, the 2016 Election. So why didn’t he do something about Russian meddling?” Trump tweeted Monday.
Trump also pointed to comments by “Liddle Adam Schiff,” the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, who told NBC News Obama should have acted sooner and countered the Russian effort more publicly.
"While I respect the motive in terms of the Obama administration, they didn't want to be seen as meddling, the American people had a right to know what was going on and could be trusted to do the right thing with it,” Schiff told NBC’s Andrea Mitchell, expressing dissatisfaction that he and other Democrats have voiced since November 2016.
Sebastian Gorka, a former adviser to President Trump, said Tuesday that Obama was too deferential to Russia and the current administration is attempting to reverse that stance.
“Now we know that the Obama administration knew of this specific instance way back in 2014, so what exactly did they do about it?” Gorka said. “We don’t see a lot of evidence of the Obama administration doing anything.”
Politico revealed last summer that the Obama administration received a report in the spring of 2014 about the Kremlin bulking up its disinformation network to target western democracies. There was no explicit warning that Russia would attack the 2016 U.S. election.
Former Obama administration officials have said the full scope of Russian interference was not apparent until much later. The intelligence community did not reach a consensus conclusion that Russia was trying to help Trump until after the election.
In addition to supporting Trump and denigrating his opponents, the Russian-backed accounts attempted to prop up Democrat Bernie Sanders and Green Party candidate Jill Stein.
After the election, the accounts continued to exploit discord in the U.S. political system, organizing rallies both supporting and opposing Trump. They have also distributed propaganda and organized events surrounding racially, religiously, and culturally divisive issues like guns and immigration.
“You have to understand what Russia’s goals are,” Gorka said. “Russia doesn’t want one candidate to win. They want to disrupt; they want to sow confusion.”
He noted that liberal filmmaker Michael Moore was among the thousands of attendees at the “Not My President” rally in New York allegedly organized by Russian operatives, posting photos and videos from the event on social media. The rally also received extensive media coverage.
“It has to be a prolonged push, or a prolonged response,” Gorka said. “You have to keep identifying the lies coming out of the Kremlin, identifying the people they’re using here as foreign agents or just dupes.”
The Obama White House considered a more public and prolonged response to the Kremlin’s lies, but one factor in their decision not to act reportedly was Trump’s public stance about the allegations and his own effort to undermine confidence in the election’s outcome.
A 2017 Washington Post feature story detailed the Obama administration’s tortured internal deliberations over what to do in response to Russian interference and the reasons officials gave for why they, as one put, “sort of choked.”
According to the Post, Obama first learned that the CIA believed Putin was directly involved in a cyber campaign to damage or defeat Clinton in August 2016. A small circle of top national security officials began debating possible responses, including covert cyber-attacks, economic sanctions, and releasing information that might embarrass Putin.
Officials equivocated on moving forward with retribution, seeing a number of reasons not to do so before the election. They believed Putin might escalate his attacks on election systems in response, and they did not want to feed the perception that they were unfairly helping Clinton, delegitimizing what seemed like a likely victory.
As they began to seek support for more substantial actions, the administration faced opposition from Republican state election officials and Republican leaders in Congress. According to the Post, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell refused to back a bipartisan response to Russian interference.
In September 2016, Obama personally warned Putin face-to-face to halt efforts to undermine the election. Former administration officials told the Post that they believe that meeting did discourage further destabilizing activity.
On October 7, 2016, the administration issued an unusual statement on Russia’s “active measures” against the election. They expected that to get the public’s attention, but a half hour later, the “Access Hollywood” tape of Trump bragging about sexual assault was released, and later that day, WikiLeaks dropped its first batch of Clinton campaign chair John Podesta’s emails.
I hope people are looking at the disgraceful behavior of Hillary Clinton as exposed by WikiLeaks. She is unfit to run.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 11, 2016
Obama ultimately decided to delay retaliatory action until December, when the administration announced new sanctions, closed two Russian compounds in the U.S., and expelled 35 Russian diplomats.
The Post reported that Obama also approved a secret effort to plant cyber-weapons in Russia’s infrastructure, but that was still in its early stages when he left office.
As Obama wrestled with how to respond to Russia’s efforts, Trump was often welcoming them or denying they were happening.
In the weeks after the hack of the Democratic National Committee’s computer network was first reported, Trump and his campaign suggested the Democrats did it to themselves. He later seized on the content of DNC staff emails to convince Bernie Sanders supporters to back him over Clinton. At one press conference, he urged Russia to find emails Clinton deleted from her time as secretary of state, a comment aides insisted was a joke.
The issue of Russian interference was raised in all three presidential debates. Each time, Trump claimed nobody knows exactly what happened or who was responsible, and in the second debate he again floated the prospect that no hacking occurred at all.
“I notice anytime anything wrong happens they like to say, the Russians, the Russians — she doesn’t know it’s the Russians doing the hacking, maybe there is no hacking. But they always blame Russia,” Trump said.
In a post-election interview with Time, Trump said he did not believe Russia interfered in the election, but he said later in the same interview that it could have been Russia, China, or “some guy in his home in New Jersey.”
In statements and tweets over the following weeks, Trump questioned the credibility of the intelligence agencies he would soon be in charge of and defended Julian Assange against the intelligence community’s assessment that Russia proved hacked emails to WikiLeaks.
After taking office, Trump did several times denounce Russia’s actions. However, he has also perpetuated doubt, insisting last November that he believed Vladimir Putin when the Russian president claimed he did not interfere in the election.
White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said Tuesday that Trump does believe Russia meddled in the election, but he does not believe it had an impact on the outcome and his campaign had nothing to do with it.
Trump claimed on Twitter that he has been “much tougher on Russia” than Obama, an argument Gorka echoed, citing several actions Trump has taken that were counter to Russia’s interests like supporting Ukraine and expanding U.S oil production.
“Practically everything the president has done for the last 13 months has been bad for Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin,” Gorka said. The president’s critics disagree with that assessment.
On MSNBC Tuesday, Ned Price, former senior director of the National Security Council under Obama, defended his White House’s handling of “a novel, remarkable situation that no administration had been presented with before.”
“Putting yourself in the shoes of the administration in mid-2016 to November of 2016, there were no good options,” he said.
According to Price, Obama’s greatest fear was that Russia would manipulate voter records or potentially even the vote results, and officials successfully took private measures to prevent that from happening.
He pointed to the administration’s public warning about Russian meddling a month before the election and said Obama wanted to do more, blaming the president’s reticence in part on Trump and Republicans in Congress.
“It was a complex scenario, very complicated, complicated acutely by then-Republican nominee Trump who was claiming the election would be rigged,” he said.
While Obama’s rationale for not acting more aggressively may have made sense at the time, experts say it is clear in retrospect that he could have taken a firmer stand.
“I think Obama was being careful,” said Tom Whalen, a professor of social sciences at Boston University and author of “A Higher Purpose: Profiles in Presidential Courage.” “He didn’t want to be seen as the guy putting his thumb on the scale.”
Democratic strategist Scott Ferson compared the situation to President Lyndon Johnson’s handling of then-candidate Richard Nixon’s interference in peace negotiations in Vietnam, which Johnson privately described as treasonous but never discussed publicly.
“Incumbents are protective of their legacy at that point…Presidents, I think, are reluctant to try to affect the election,” he said.
What is less clear is whether a more full-throated denunciation of Russia or a public act of retaliation by Obama would have made any difference in the election results.
“It would not have been straightforward and he would not have been able to unite the country and parties behind a countermeasure,” Ferson said.
Whalen observed that it took a presentation of evidence to the United Nations Security Council to get the world to take Russian missiles in Cuba seriously in 1962. A convincing public explanation of what Russia was doing surrounding the election may have had similar effect.
“There is a reasonable argument to be made that he dropped the ball here and it cost the Democrats the White House,” he said, “and here we are.”
The indictment reveals a sophisticated operation with a deep understanding of how the U.S. political system works, how national campaigns operate, and how to galvanize voters, particularly those in Trump’s base. To the extent that it succeeded—and it may never be possible to quantify what influence the hacking, the propaganda, and the rallies had—Ferson suggested it was because the underlying message resonated with a dissatisfied electorate.
“What’s at play here is that Putin clearly hated Hillary Clinton and it seemed less a pro-Trump strategy and more an anti-Clinton strategy,” he said. “I think for a large swath of American voters, they felt the same way.”