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Obama official says they didn't do enough about Russian election hacking: 'We choked'

The administration was concerned that stronger actions would have been perceived as an attempt to influence the election

Clark Mindock
New York
Friday 23 June 2017 19:55 BST
(AFP/Getty Images)

A former White House official has said that they think the Obama administration mishandled its response to Russia’s efforts to meddle in the 2016 election.

“It is the hardest thing about my entire time in government to defend”, the official from Barack Obama’s White House told the Washington Post of his role in determining how the White House should handle their knowledge that the Kremlin was trying to undermine the integrity of the US electoral process. “I feel like we sort of choked”.

The Obama White House was notified about Moscow’s campaign to interfere in the 2016 presidential election was on orders from Vladimir Putin in August, but was hesitant to make that knowledge public, according to that investigation by the Washington Post.

That’s at least in part because Donald Trump, then a Republican nominee whom many thought had almost no chance of beating Democrat Hillary Clinton, had repeatedly said that the election was being rigged. With those allegations repeatedly airing on cable news covering the Trump campaign, Mr Obama was hesitant to divulge the Russian influence for fear of giving the appearance that the US government was also interfering.

But the slow response was also a result of confidence in Ms Clinton’s campaign winning the election. Throughout the fall, as November crept closer, Democrats saw many signs that their candidate would ultimately win: She had three strong debate performances against Mr Trump, polls showed her with an impressive lead most of the time, and Mr Trump appeared to have an incredible capacity for inflicting harm on his campaign just by making controversial remarks on stage.

The Obama administration considered retaliatory measures against Moscow after they learned about the extent of the meddling, including potentially compiling a personal dossier on Vladimir Putin that could be released to embarrass him. They also considered planting “cyber weapons” in Russian infrastructure that could harm those services. They ultimately landed on modest sanctions, and expelled 35 Russian diplomats from the country in December.

The cyber weapons plan was given a green light, but those efforts hadn’t come to fruition by the time Mr Obama left office, and Mr Trump took over responsibility for those efforts.

Those measures have been criticised as being weak compared to what the Kremlin did.

“The punishment did not fit the crime”, Michael McFaul, Mr Obama’s ambassador to Russia from 2012 to 2014, told the Washington Post. “And US policymakers now — both in the White House and Congress — should consider new actions to deter future Russian interventions”.

Mr Obama’s former aides say that the threat was taken very seriously by that White House, and note that the President himself brought the issue up during a meeting with Mr Putin. The Russian president denied the allegations, and said that the US didn’t have proof that his government was directly involved.

Mr Trump’s campaign has been under investigation for potential collusion with Russia in the effort, but the President has adamantly denied any wrongdoing on his part.

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