On the eve of his first meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, President Donald Trump made some questionable claims about the U.S. intelligence community’s finding that Russia hacked into U.S. political organizations to interfere in the 2016 presidential election:
- Trump said the computer hacking “could have been other people and other countries.” There is no evidence for that. U.S. intelligence has named only Russia as the culprit. A Jan. 6 report based on the work of three intelligence agencies said Putin “ordered” a broad “influence campaign” to help elect Trump.
- Trump claimed former President Barack Obama “did nothing” from August to Nov. 8 about Russia meddling in the election. That’s wrong. Among other things, Obama spoke to Putin about the issue in September, and his administration worked with state officials from mid-August until Election Day to prevent voting systems from being hacked.
The president made his remarks during a joint press conference with Polish President Andrzej Duda in Warsaw on July 6. Trump made the stop in Poland on his way to a Group of 20 summit meeting in Germany, where he is scheduled to meet with Putin on July 7.
Hallie Jackson of NBC News asked the president if he would “once and for all, yes or no, definitively say that Russia interfered in the 2016 election.” He gave a less-than-definitive answer.
Trump, July 6: I think it was Russia. And I think it could have been other people and other countries. It could have been a lot of people interfered. I’ve said it very simply. I think it could very well have been Russia but I think it could very well have been other countries, and I won’t be specific. But I think a lot of people interfere. I think it has been happening for a long time. It has been happening for many, many years.
There is no evidence that other countries were involved in the cyberattacks.
The Department of Homeland Security and Office of the Director of National Intelligence issued a joint statement on Oct. 7, 2016, that said the U.S. intelligence community is “confident” that hacks into the email systems of the Democratic Party and its officials were directed by “Russia’s senior most officials.” The U.S. intelligence community includes 17 separate intelligence agencies.
“Such activity is not new to Moscow — the Russians have used similar tactics and techniques across Europe and Eurasia, for example, to influence public opinion there,” the statement said. “We believe, based on the scope and sensitivity of these efforts, that only Russia’s senior-most officials could have authorized these activities.”
After the election, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence issued a declassified report on Jan. 6 that went even further. That report said that “Putin and the Russian Government developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump” and that “Putin ordered an influence campaign” to help Trump and damage his opponent, Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.
The 25-page report was “drafted and coordinated” among three intelligence agencies — the CIA, FBI and the National Security Agency — based on “intelligence information collected and disseminated by those three agencies.”
Among other things, the report said, Russian military intelligence gained access to Democratic National Committee computers from July 2015 to June 2016 and then used WikiLeaks, DCLeaks.com and “Guccifer 2.0, who claimed to be an independent Romanian hacker,” to publicly release hacked emails and documents. The cyberattacks and public release of hacked material were part of larger “Russian propaganda efforts” to hurt Clinton and help Trump, the report said.
“Russia’s state-run propaganda machine — comprised of its domestic media apparatus, outlets targeting global audiences such as RT and Sputnik, and a network of quasi-government trolls — contributed to the influence campaign by serving as a platform for Kremlin messaging to Russian and international audiences,” the report said. “State-owned Russian media made increasingly favorable comments about President-elect Trump as the 2016 US general and primary election campaigns progressed while consistently offering negative coverage of Secretary Clinton.”
In sworn testimony before the Senate intelligence committee on June 8, former FBI Director James Comey said there should be no confusion that Russia interfered with the election.
Comey, June 8: There should be no fuzz on this whatsoever. The Russians interfered in our election during the 2016 cycle. They did with purpose. They did it with sophistication. They did it with overwhelming technical efforts. It was an active measures campaign driven from the top of that government. There is no fuzz on that. It is a high confidence judgment of the entire intelligence community and the members of this committee have seen the intelligence. It’s not a close call. That happened. That’s about as unfake as you can possibly get. It is very, very serious, which is why it’s so refreshing to see a bipartisan focus on that. This is about America, not about a particular party.
Of course, this isn’t the first time that Trump has questioned U.S. intelligence on Russia. He did so before and after winning the election, sometimes in the same way as he did at his Warsaw press conference.
After the election, Trump issued a statement on Dec. 9 that compared U.S. intelligence on Russia’s election meddling to U.S. intelligence on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. At his press conference in Poland, Trump again raised the issue of WMDs. He said “everybody was 100 percent sure that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction,” but faulty intelligence “led to one big mess.”
And, as he did in Poland, Trump told Time magazine in a Nov. 28, 2016, interview: “It could be Russia. And it could be China. And it could be some guy in his home in New Jersey.”
But no evidence to date has emerged that China or any other country was involved.
Update, July 7: Two House members – a Republican and a Democrat – said they have seen no evidence that any country other than Russia interfered in the 2016 election.
CNN’s John Berman asked Rep. Jim Himes in a July 6 interview: “[H]ave you seen any evidence that any other country besides Russia tried to meddle in the 2016 election?” Himes, a Democratic member of the House intelligence committee, responded, “None. None.”
Republican Rep. Michael McCaul, chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security, said in a July 7 interview on MSNBC that the intelligence reports and briefings that he has received show “very clear and convincing evidence that it was a nation state attack by Russia.”
Obama ‘Did Nothing’?
Even though he continues to question the U.S. intelligence community’s findings, Trump criticized Obama for doing “nothing” about Russia’s attempts to influence the election.
Trump, July 6: Now, the thing I have to mention is that Barack Obama, when he was president, found out about this in terms of if it were Russia, found out about it in August. Now the election was in November. That’s a lot of time. He did nothing about it. Why did he do nothing about it? He was told it was Russia by the CIA, as I understand it. It was well reported. And he did nothing about it. They say he choked. Well, I don’t think he choked. I think what happened is he thought Hillary Clinton was going to win the election and he said, “Let’s not do anything about it.” Had he thought the other way he would have done something about it.
Trump is referring to a Washington Post story — “Obama’s secret struggle to punish Russia for Putin’s election assault” — that said Obama received a CIA report in early August that detailed Putin’s “direct involvement in a cyber campaign to disrupt and discredit the U.S. presidential race.” The story said the CIA “captured Putin’s specific instructions on the operation’s audacious objectives — defeat or at least damage the Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, and help elect her opponent, Donald Trump.”
The Post story detailed the internal debate within the Obama administration on what action to take against Russia.
Washington Post, June 23: It took time for other parts of the intelligence community to endorse the CIA’s view [on Putin’s objectives]. Only in the administration’s final weeks in office did it tell the public, in a declassified report, what officials had learned from [CIA Director John] Brennan in August — that Putin was working to elect Trump.
Over that five-month interval, the Obama administration secretly debated dozens of options for deterring or punishing Russia, including cyberattacks on Russian infrastructure, the release of CIA-gathered material that might embarrass Putin and sanctions that officials said could “crater” the Russian economy.
It wasn’t until Dec. 29 that Obama announced that he would impose sanctions on Russia for interfering in the election. At the time, Trump criticized the sanctions. “It’s time for our country to move on to bigger and better things,” Trump said in a statement.
There are certainly Democrats who believe that Obama didn’t do enough to alert the public about the extent of Russia’s meddling in the election. But Trump goes too far when he — repeatedly — says that Obama “did nothing about it.”
So, what did Obama and his administration do from early August until Election Day on Nov. 8?
Obama answered that question during a Dec. 16 press conference when he was asked about the “perception that you’re letting President Putin get away with interfering in the U.S. election.” At the time, the president had yet to impose sanctions, which would not come for nearly two more weeks.
Obama, Dec. 16: At the beginning of the summer, we’re alerted to the possibility that the DNC has been hacked, and I immediately order law enforcement as well as our intelligence teams to find out everything about it, investigate it thoroughly, to brief the potential victims of this hacking, to brief on a bipartisan basis the leaders of both the House and the Senate and the relevant intelligence committees. And once we had clarity and certainty around what, in fact, had happened, we publicly announced that, in fact, Russia had hacked into the DNC.
That public announcement was made, as we said earlier, in a statement by the Department of Homeland Security and DNI on Oct. 7. But that announcement competed for public attention with other major breaking news in that same 24-hour news cycle: The Washington Post published a story and video of lewd comments that Trump made about women while talking with Billy Bush, then of “Access Hollywood.”
In addition to the Oct. 7 announcement, Obama also said that he confronted Putin about the hacking at a G-20 summit in September.
Obama, Dec. 16: And so in early September, when I saw President Putin in China, I felt that the most effective way to ensure that that didn’t happen was to talk to him directly and tell him to cut it out, and there were going to be some serious consequences if he didn’t. And, in fact, we did not see further tampering of the election process. But the leaks through WikiLeaks had already occurred.
WikiLeaks began to release hacked emails on July 22 — about two weeks before Obama had been briefed by the CIA on Putin’s direct role in the hacking. That damage was already done, so the Obama administration turned its attention to securing the nation’s voting systems.
Obama said his “principal goal leading up to the election” was to prevent Russia from hacking into voting systems and tampering with registration rolls and ballots. That was accomplished through the Department of Homeland Security, and it started at about the time that Obama first learned in mid-August about Putin’s desire to help Trump win the election.
On Aug. 15, then-Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson held a conference call with members of the National Association of Secretaries of State and other election officials. A readout of the call said, “While DHS is not aware of any specific or credible cybersecurity threats relating to the upcoming general election systems, Secretary Johnson reiterated that DHS, the Election Assistance Commission, NIST, and DOJ are available to offer support and assistance in protecting against cyber attacks.” He also said that the department “would be examining whether designating certain electoral systems as critical infrastructure would be an effective way to offer this support.”
The designation of “critical infrastructure” would have given states “priority in terms of the assistance we give on cyber security,” Johnson testified at a June 21 House intelligence committee hearing on Russia’s meddling. Other sectors designated as “critical” include the defense, energy and financial sectors, according to the Department of Homeland Security.
Many state officials were “resisting the idea of a designation to be critical infrastructure,” Johnson testified.
On Aug. 29, two weeks after Johnson’s conference call with election officials, the Washington Post reported that hackers were targeting voter registration systems in Arizona and Illinois. The story said, “[T]he FBI alerted Arizona officials in June that Russians were behind the assault on the election system in that state.”
On Sept. 15, the Election Assistance Commission issued security tips for securing voter registration databases. A day later, Johnson issued a statement that warned about attacks on voter registration data.
“In recent months we have seen cyber intrusions involving political institutions and personal communications,” Johnson’s statement said. “We have also seen some efforts at cyber intrusions of voter registration data maintained in state election systems.”
On Oct. 1, Johnson issued another statement that warned about attacks on voting-related systems, including a few successful attacks. “In recent months, malicious cyber actors have been scanning a large number of state systems, which could be a preamble to attempted intrusions,” the statement said. “In a few cases, we have determined that malicious actors gained access to state voting-related systems. However, we are not aware at this time of any manipulation of data.”
The statement urged states to seek the department’s help to secure their voting data and equipment. “So far, 21 states have contacted us about our services,” the statement said. By Oct. 10, that number had risen to 33 states, the department said.
“I can tell you for certain that, in the late summer, fall, I was very concerned about what I was seeing, and this was on my front burner all throughout the pre-election period in August, September, October, and early November — to encourage the states to come in and seek our assistance,” Johnson testified. “And I’m glad that most of them, red and blue, did.”
In the end, there was no evidence that votes were changed, Johnson told the House committee.
Trump — as Democrats have done — can question whether the Obama administration did enough. That’s an opinion. But Trump is wrong to say Obama “did nothing” from early August to Nov. 8. In addition to directly raising the issue with Putin, Obama’s administration worked with state officials to secure voting machines and issued a statement identifying Russia as the state actor behind the cyberattacks.