Although he didn’t mention Donald Trump by name, US president Barack Obama seemed to directly admonish his successor not to trust Russian president Vladimir Putin more than America’s own intelligence agencies.
In a remarkable news conference a month before he leaves office, Obama became the first sitting US president in memory to offer such clear warnings to his successor. His main messages to Trump: 1. Look at the Russian hacking of the presidential election as a threat to the country, not as a personal issue affecting his election as president; and 2. When it comes to Russia and Putin, you need to smarten up.
“Mr. Putin can weaken us, just like he’s trying to weaken Europe, if we start buying into notions that it’s ok to intimidate the press, or lock up dissidents, or discriminate against people because of their faith or what they look like,” Obama warned at the Dec. 16 news conference. “Because of the fierceness of the partisan battle, you’re starting to see certain parts of the Republican party, and Republican voters, suddenly finding governments and individuals who stand contrary to everything we stand for as being ok, because that’s how much [they] dislike Democrats.”
The Washington Post reported today that all 17 US intelligence agencies and the FBI agreed that Russia had stolen emails and other data from Democratic National Party computers in a strategy to elect Trump president. According to the paper, CIA director John Brennan conveyed this message in a letter to his subordinates. “Earlier this week, I met separately with (Director) FBI James Comey and DNI Jim Clapper, and there is strong consensus among us on the scope, nature, and intent of Russian interference in our presidential election,” the Post quoted Brennan as saying.
And US intelligence agencies suggest that Putin himself was involved in the hacking campaign, according to NBC News.
Trump has heaped scorn on the hacking reports, and suggested that he does not trust the American intelligence agencies.
Neither Brennan nor anyone else in a position of power has asserted that the Russians were responsible for Trump’s victory, although that is how the president-elect, his team and his supporters seem to hear the increasingly worried revelations about the Russian hacking campaign. As if arming Obama, Trump’s campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway, said just prior to the president’s news conference that Obama keeps talking about the hacking because he doesn’t “love the country enough to have the peaceful transition in our great democracy between the Obama administration and the Trump administration.”
In the 86-minute news conference, Obama signaled that Trump won fair and square, and that voting machines were not tampered with, at least not materially. “The votes were cast and they were counted,” he said. But also warned that “the integrity of our democracy” is under threat.
The president spent much of the news conference explaining and providing context to Russia’s hacking, and decrying American partisan politics that find fault with every politician on the other side and every institution of being “full of malevolent actors.” Said Obama, “Our vulnerability to Russia or any other foreign power is directly related to how divided, partisan and dysfunctional our political process is. That’s what makes us vulnerable.”
In just one remark that seemed directly aimed at Trump, Obama said that unless one thinks that the entire CIA is “less trustworthy than the Russians, then people should pay attention to what our intelligence agencies say.” Russia, he said, is responsible for behavior that is “contrary to everything we stand for.”
As to whether Putin himself approved the campaign, Obama said, “Not much happens in Russia without Vladimir Putin.”