FACT CHECK: Why Didn't Obama Stop Russia's Election Interference In 2016?

Feb 21, 2018
Originally published on February 21, 2018 2:01 pm

Why didn't then-President Barack Obama stop Russia's campaign of active measures against the 2016 presidential campaign?

President Trump has been casting blame on his predecessor for not acting against the scheme since Justice Department special counsel Robert Mueller brought indictments against a batch of Russians and Russian entities on Friday for the role they played.

FACT CHECK: This story is complex and goes beyond a simple "True" or "False" grade. One basic notion that is false is the idea the Obama administration took no action — it did. The question that has been asked many times since the presidential election is why it didn't do more.

Private warnings

Among other things, top U.S. intelligence officials — including then-CIA Director John Brennan — privately warned their Russian counterparts not to persist with their active measures. Obama himself told Russian President Vladimir Putin not to interfere in the election. These warnings did not work.

Publicity

Obama administration officials also told reporters on background that Russian intelligence operatives were behind the cyberattacks that led to the release of emails stolen from political figures and institutions. Later, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson formally blamed the Russian government in an official statement.

Although it wasn't universally accepted, the active measures campaign became a part of the political campaign itself. Trump and opponent Hillary Clinton traded barbs about the Russian interference during their debates.

Trump has gone back and forth about what he accepts and what he doesn't about the nature of the attack. Sometimes he acknowledges it; other times he has cited the denials he has gotten from Putin, saying, "I really believe that when he tells me that, he means it."

The president's position since Friday's indictments has been that the interference campaign did take place — but that he and his campaign had nothing to do with it. On that point, Trump has been consistent: There was, he says, "no collusion."

Mueller is focused on whether that is so and whether Trump may have broken the law if he tried to frustrate the investigation. More on this below.

Diplomatic response

After Election Day, Obama ordered the U.S. intelligence community to issue a public report about the Russian scheme. Once it had — and concluded Russia's attack was aimed at helping Trump and hurting Clinton — the United States imposed a slate of punitive measures against Moscow. In addition to imposing new sanctions, Washington also expelled a number of Russian diplomats and closed two Russian diplomatic compounds in Maryland and New York.

So why didn't Obama's administration do more?

That isn't clear. Some former administration officials who have talked about it publicly have reproached themselves for not acting more aggressively. There also was a long-standing criticism of Obama that his foreign-policy making amounted to endless process with no outcomes — hours of meetings that yielded more meetings but no ultimate action.

Plus, the relationship between the United States and Russia is multifaceted and often intensely complicated:

  • Obama scaled back missile defense plans in Europe to placate Moscow.
  • Obama wanted Russia to play a role in the international agreement under which Iran agreed to restrict its nuclear program — and Putin went along.
  • Obama spent the end of his presidency trying to bring Russia into a multilateral agreement to end the Syrian civil war, but Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov ultimately never committed.

So Obama's team had to manage many spinning plates in addition to the active measures campaign it detected by the middle of 2016. One question Obama may address in his book is why he calibrated his choices in the way he did — whether he looked the other way on election interference to keep open other options elsewhere.

A partisan tightrope

Former Vice President Joe Biden also has complained that the White House wanted Republicans to join in a bipartisan statement announcing and condemning the interference campaign. In Biden's telling, however, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., wouldn't go along.

But that didn't stop then-Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., from alluding publicly to the Russian campaign in a letter to then-FBI Director James Comey. And Comey reportedly wanted to announce the active measures in an op-ed column, as Newsweek reported in March 2017. Two sources with knowledge about the matter told Newsweek that Obama administration officials blocked the effort.

There's no way to know what difference it might have made for U.S. officials to have confirmed and condemned the Russian interference in real time.

Obama administration officials have said they worried about appearing to put their thumb on the scales for Clinton. Combined with Obama's belief that Clinton would win, their political calculus appears to have boiled down to: Let's ride this out.

Obama himself said in December 2016 that he wasn't convinced that he should have done anything different.

"There have been folks out there who suggest somehow if we went out there and made big announcements and thumped our chests about a bunch of stuff, that somehow it would potentially spook the Russians," he said. "I think it doesn't read the thought process in Russia very well."

FACT CHECK: The intelligence community did not make an assessment about how the active measures campaign affected the 2016 election. Trump and supporters have sometimes said incorrectly that the report found there was no effect; in fact, it did not address the question. Homeland Security officials did conclude that cyberattacks didn't tamper with vote tallies in 2016.

Why aren't Democrats under investigation?

Some of them may be. FBI special agents in Arkansas are reportedly conducting an investigation into the Clinton Foundation. But Trump and his allies, especially Republicans in the House, want more. They say this story is about abuse of power by the FBI and Justice Department and "bias" within those agencies against the president.

Trump wants Attorney General Jeff Sessions to do more work to expose those aspects of the story. He may, but so far Sessions and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein have said they don't see enough cause to appoint a second special counsel in addition to Mueller.

Why is Trump under investigation?

Part of Russia's active measures campaign included clandestine overtures from human intelligence operatives to people in the Trump campaign. When the FBI learned that a junior foreign policy adviser in London got offers of "dirt" on Clinton or "off the record" meetings with top Russian officials, it began a counterintelligence investigation that continues to this day.

Several other people in the Trump campaign had contacts with Russians before and after Election Day. Trump's son Donald Trump Jr. received an email that included what was described as an offer of help for the campaign from the Russian government.

"If it's what you say, I love it," Trump Jr. wrote back.

He later hosted a delegation that included a Russian attorney and a Russian-American lobbyist; the details of what took place in the meeting are disputed.

More contacts took place. An adviser traveled to Moscow. Other contacts involved Sessions — then an Alabama senator, who now serves as attorney general but is lately the target of Trump's ire — and Jared Kushner, Trump's son-in-law, who today is dueling behind the scenes with White House chief of staff John Kelly.

The contacts continued until just before the inauguration. As Obama was imposing punitive measures against Moscow following the election, Trump's administration-in-waiting was asking its Russian interlocutors not to retaliate.

Retired Lt. Gen. Mike Flynn, Trump's national security adviser, asked Russia's then-ambassador to the U.S. to hold off because it could expect a different approach once Trump was inaugurated. Putin agreed.

There have also been suggestions that Flynn and the Trump administration planned not only to renegotiate financial restrictions with Moscow once Trump was in office but had already decided before the fact to lift sanctions.

Flynn has pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about the conversations he had with Russia's ambassador and is cooperating with Mueller's investigation.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.