President Obama on Friday tied election-year hacks of Democrats to Russia’s Vladimir Putin, and warned Republicans that “Ronald Reagan would roll over in his grave” if he saw so many in the GOP expressing fondness for leaders in Moscow.
“Not much happens in Russia without Vladimir Putin,” Obama told reporters at his final press conference of 2016. “I will let you make that determination as to whether there are high-level Russian officials who go off rogue and decide to tamper with the U.S. election process without Vladimir Putin knowing about it.”
The president promised unspecific and potentially secret retaliation against Russia, telling Putin, “We can do stuff to you,” and took pains to belittle Moscow’s influence over world affairs.
“The Russians can’t change us or significantly weaken us,” he said. “They are a smaller country, they are a weaker country, their economy doesn’t produce anything that anyone wants to buy except oil and gas and arms. They don’t innovate. But they can impact us if we lose track of who we are. They can impact us if we abandon our values.
Obama pointed to a public opinion poll that, he said, showed 37 percent of Republicans have a favorable view of Putin, blaming the “fierceness of partisan battle” in the United States for driving Americans into the arms of a historic foe. During the campaign, Donald Trump often heaped praise on Putin, whom he labeled a stronger leader than the U.S. president.
“Over a third of Republican voters approve of Vladimir Putin, the former head of the KGB,” Obama said. “Ronald Reagan would roll over in his grave.
Asked whether his administration will provide evidence to back up charges of Russian meddling, Obama gave a guarded response.
“We will provide evidence that we can safely provide, that does not compromise sources and methods. But I’ll be honest with you, when you are talking about cybersecurity, a lot of it is classified and we’re not going to provide it, because the way we catch folks is by knowing certain things about them that they may not want us to know, and if we’re going to monitor this stuff effectively going forward, we don’t want them to know that we know.
But he expressed disbelief that Americans would trust Putin’s word over statements from the U.S. spy community. His comments came shortly after it was disclosed that the FBI agrees with the CIA’s conclusions that Russia targeted Democrats with the aim of helping Trump win on Nov. 8.
“This is one of those situations where, unless the American people genuinely think that the professionals in the CIA, the FBI, our entire intelligence infrastructure — many of whom, by the way, served in previous administrations, and who are Republicans — are less trustworthy than the Russians, then people should pay attention to what our intelligence agencies say,” Obama said.
Obama said he had confronted Putin during a September meeting about the cyberintrusions, telling the Russian leader to “cut it out.” He said he had delivered a similar warning to President Xi Jinping of China, which U.S. officials have blamed for major cyberattacks against the U.S. government and American firms.
And he promised that Moscow would pay a price for its alleged interference.
“Our goal continues to be to send a clear message to Russia or others not to do this to us because we can do stuff to you, but it is also important for us to do that in a thoughtful, methodical way,” Obama said. “Some of it we do publicly. Some of it we will do in a way that they know but not everybody will.”
Trump and some of his top aides have played down the potential impact of Russia’s alleged actions and cast doubt on the CIA’s findings. Last Friday, Trump’s transition team dismissed those findings, saying in a statement, “These are the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.”
At his press conference, Obama said the back-and-forth between the White House and the incoming administration would not hamper cooperation on the transfer of power.
“I think they would be the first to acknowledge that we have done everything we can to make sure that they are successful, as I promised, and that will continue,” he said.
Obama repeatedly emphasized the importance of a free and independent news media, but also took aim at the press over its widespread coverage of leaked emails linked to Hillary Clinton’s campaign.
“You guys wrote about it every day, every single leak about every little juicy tidbit of political gossip, including John Podesta’s risotto recipe,” the president said. “This was an obsession that dominated the news coverage.”
As a result, he said, “I don’t think she was treated fairly during the election. I think the coverage of her and the issues was troubling.
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