Fact Check: Did The Obama Administration Respond To Election Interference By Russia?

Jul 15, 2018
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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

In responding to the news that 12 Russian intelligence agents allegedly hacked the DNC and other Democratic groups during the 2016 election, President Trump repeated a familiar line.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Again, this was during the Obama administration. They were doing whatever it was during the Obama administration.

MARTIN: This is from an interview this morning with CBS News. And, on Twitter yesterday, Mr. Trump wrote, quote, "the stories you heard about the 12 Russians yesterday took place during the Obama administration, not the Trump administration. Why didn't they do something about it?" - unquote. So we thought this would be a good moment to fact-check that claim, so we asked our national security editor Phil Ewing to break this down.

Phil, thanks so much for coming.

PHIL EWING, BYLINE: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: The assumption in what President Trump is saying is that President Obama took no action after learning that the Russians were interfering in the election. Is that the case?

EWING: No, that's not quite correct. The Obama administration had a great deal of internal debate in real time in 2016 about how to respond - whether they should do so publicly or privately. Ultimately, President Obama did so privately with the Russian president Vladimir Putin. He took him aside at an international summit and said, please stop interfering in our election - to no effect.

And the Obama administration also tried to ask leaders in Congress of both parties to sign a statement condemning these foreign efforts. The Democratic leaders agreed to do so. The Republican speaker, Paul Ryan, apparently thought that he could get there, but the majority leader in the Senate, Mitch McConnell, did not agree to do that. And so, ultimately, there was no public statement until October of 2016, by which time, with the view of history, it may have been too late to do anything about it.

MARTIN: Did the Obama administration take any steps other than jawboning?

EWING: Ultimately, President Obama's administration did take some action against the Russians. So in December of 2016 and January of 2017, there were some punitive measures the United States imposed. The Russian "diplomats," quote-unquote, were ejected from the United States. Their facilities in the United States were closed that they used to spy from New York and Maryland. And there were economic measures that the United States has taken, both under Obama and Trump, in retaliation for this election interference.

The view from critics on the outside was that it might have done more. There might have been cyberattacks - for example, the United States could have launched against the Russians to give back the Russians a taste of their own medicine. Ultimately, the Obama administration decided not to do that because the United States itself is so vulnerable to cyberattacks. And if you get into a cycle of escalation with the Russians, in this view, the United States is going to be the loser there because of how many more vulnerabilities we have as compared with how many they have.

MARTIN: In hindsight, is there regret on the part of Obama administration officials that they didn't take some of these steps?

EWING: You know, you definitely get the impression from people like the former director of national intelligence, James Clapper, who just wrote a book, that he regrets not acting more quickly or more forcefully. And I think this is something that, as the 2020 Democratic election storyline gets going, you may hear more from the former Vice President Joe Biden if he gets into the mix. And everyone in the world is going to be waiting for the former president, Mr. Obama, when his much-awaited book comes out. And I think a lot of people are going to be looking and seeing whether Obama has regrets or whether has decisions that he might have taken a different way once we find out what he was thinking in real time in 2016.

MARTIN: That's NPR national security editor Phil Ewing.

Phil, thank you.

EWING: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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