President Obama insisted in an interview that aired Sunday he did not underestimate Russian President Vladimir Putin when he dismissed Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign assessment that the country was the top U.S. geopolitical foe. But Obama acknowledged he may have misjudged Russia’s ability to tamper in the American electoral process.
“I underestimated the degree to which, in this new information age, it is possible for misinformation, for cyberhacking and so forth, to have an impact on our open societies, our open systems, to insinuate themselves into our democratic practices in ways that I think are accelerating,” he said on ABC’s “This Week.”
The comments in the taped interview came as debate over a joint intelligence report on Russia’s effort to help President-elect Donald Trump in the 2016 election continued to rage. Trump and his aides have tried to downplay the report’s findings and would not commit on Sunday to punishing Russia further for the activities than Obama has.
“That is something that the president-elect, when he is sworn in in less than two weeks, Chuck, will have to decide along with his security and intelligence team,” Kellyanne Conway, who served as Trump’s campaign manager, told Chuck Todd on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
“I do think some people are scratching their heads as to why President Obama took action and punished Russia and Russian operatives before the report was completed, before others had the information.”
Obama announced a raft of punishments in late December, including sanctions and orders for a few dozen Russian intelligence operatives to leave the U.S., well after after U.S. investigators had concluded that Russia intended to meddle in the election.
Thousands of emails pilfered from the Democratic National Committee servers and from Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman were posted on WikiLeaks and other websites through the summer and fall, undermining Clinton’s campaign.
Obama was given a report Thursday from the CIA, FBI and National Security Agency saying that Putin ordered agents to interfere in the election and ultimately sought to aid Trump’s rise. The president-elect was shown the same report Friday, before a declassified version was made public.
In another interview on CNN, Conway referred to “alleged attacks” from Russia, contradicting the conclusions from the U.S. intelligence community that the evidence of such attacks was clear. The report did not weigh in on whether those attacks succeeded, something that is difficult to gauge given the multitude of issues and controversies that arose during the election, the closeness of the election results and Clinton’s failure to connect with white working-class voters who swung the outcome.
Trump and his aides have pounced on the lack of definitive findings on whether the attacks affected the election outcome, even though Trump spoke frequently during the campaign about email leaks to WikiLeaks that have been linked to the Russians.
“We didn’t need WikiLeaks to convince the American people that they didn’t like her, didn’t trust her, didn’t find her to be honest,” Conway said.
As Obama leaves office, the dispute is not likely to go away. Many in Trump’s own party have called for continued investigation and retaliation against Russia.
Obama’s defense secretary, Ashton Carter, said on Sunday that he agreed more was needed.
“The steps that have been taken so far probably represent a beginning and not the end — a floor, not the ceiling,” Carter said on “Meet the Press.” “Obviously, being up to the next administration and the next Congress to take those steps. But I suppose, I believe, there will be more, there probably should be more.”
Still, Carter did not call for a complete chill in relations with Russia. He noted that even in the Cold War, the two countries found common ground on some issues.
“We do have to have what I’ll call a strong but also a balanced approach to Russia,” he said.