As Washington was glued to Attorney General William Barr’s public hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday, President Donald Trump renewed his allegation that President Barack Obama “did nothing” to stop Russian interference in the final months of the 2016 election.
Hours after Trump sent a Wednesday morning tweet asking why Obama didn’t “do something about Russia” before the 2016 election, the Trump campaign blasted out a video to reporters titled “Obama knew,” arguing that Obama “just watched” as Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election.
Trump has made the claim before. Now, in the wake of special counsel Robert Mueller’s report, which did not find that Trump or his campaign conspired with Russia during the 2016 election, the President and his campaign are attempting to score political points off the very Russian interference designed to help Trump win.
Republicans and some Democrats have criticized the Obama administration for not doing enough to thwart Russian election interference, but is it accurate to claim they did “nothing?”
Facts first: While there is evidence that the Obama administration struggled with how to deal with Russia’s election meddling, it did make attempts to get Russia to stop, and also to tell the American public about what the Russians were up to. Those attempts appear to have had little to no impact on Russia’s behavior, and the public did not fully grasp the extent of the meddling until well after the election.
Top Obama administration officials issued repeated warnings to Russia to stop their interference in the US election. Obama said he himself told Russian President Vladimir Putin in September 2016 “to cut it out,” vowing “serious consequences” if he did not.
In October 2016, the US Intelligence Community issued a statement that it was “confident” that the Russian government was behind the the theft and dissemination of Democratic officials’ emails.
Obama administration officials sought support from bipartisan congressional leaders to send a letter to state governors to urge shoring up of their defenses of election infrastructure. But, as reported by CNN in August 2017, they were rebuffed by Republican leaders, who viewed the request as partisan, according to current and former officials briefed on the discussions.
The Obama administration subsequently issued a set of sanctions to punish Russia for its interference in the 2016 election and booted 35 Russian diplomats the US accused of being intelligence officers.
Still, some Democratic members of Congress and some former Obama administration officials – privately at least – have criticized Obama for not doing enough to thwart the Russian election interference campaign.
After the election, Obama said during a news conference at the White House that he worried overly public US efforts to draw attention to the interference could be viewed as political interference and would not necessarily “spook the Russians.”
“We were playing this thing straight — we weren’t trying to advantage one side or another other,” Obama said. “Imagine if we had done the opposite. It would have become one more political scrum.”
But for Trump and his allies to call attention to Obama’s failings ignores Trump’s response to the Russian interference in 2016.
Trump has repeatedly undermined the US intelligence community’s findings of Russian interference in 2016. During a news conference in Helsinki last year alongside Putin, Trump publicly sided with the Russian leader over the US intelligence community, touting Putin’s denials and saying he didn’t “see any reason why” Russia would be responsible. He later said he misspoke.
The President was reluctant to sign a Russia sanctions bill in 2017 that passed the Senate nearly-unanimously, and his administration subsequently slow-walked the implementation of those sanctions, arguing that the passage of the legislation was already having an impact on Russian companies. Republicans and Democrats alike have also worried that several of Trump’s foreign policy actions – from sowing divisions in the NATO alliance to withdrawing US troops from Syria – have benefited Russia.
And there are now concerns that the Trump administration is not taking sufficient steps to counter foreign interference in the 2020 election. While national security officials are working to shore up capabilities to combat different types of foreign interference in the coming presidential election, top Trump administration officials have downplayed the threat and the President has not indicated it is a priority for his administration.
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Jared Kushner, the President’s son-in-law and senior adviser, downplayed Russian interference as merely “buying some Facebook ads.”
The President has repeatedly focused questions about past and future Russian interference by stressing that the influence campaign did not change any votes, even though the US government did not make an assessment of the electoral effect.
And during the 2016 campaign, amid reports of Russian interference, Trump called for closer relations between the US and Russia and even publicly encouraged Russia to find and release his rival Hillary Clinton’s deleted emails.
After the Mueller report was released, extensively detailing Russian interference in 2016, Trump did not address those findings. Instead, the President claimed exoneration, focusing on the fact that Mueller’s investigation “did not establish that members of the Trump campaign conspired with the Russian government in election interference activities.”