WASHINGTON — U.S. President Barack Obama, in the wake of a U.S. intelligence conclusion that Russia meddled in the presidential election, says he “underestimated” the impact of the misinformation campaign and computer hacking on a democracy.
Obama, as he leaves office in 12 days, told ABC News (This Week) that he doesn’t think that he underestimated Russian President Vladimir Putin, alleged by the U.S. intelligence community to have ordered the effort to undermine the American system of democratic elections and the candidacy of President-elect Donald Trump’s unsuccessful opponent, Democrat Hillary Clinton.
But Obama said, “I think that I underestimated the degree to which, in this new information age, it is possible for misinformation for cyber hacking and so forth to have an impact on our open societies, our open systems, to insinuate themselves into our democratic practices in ways that I think are accelerating.”
He said he released an abbreviated version of the U.S. intelligence report on the Russian hacking “to make sure that we understand this is something that Putin has been doing for quite some time in Europe, initially in the former satellite states where there are a lot of Russian speakers, but increasingly in Western democracies.”
The U.S. intelligence community concluded that Russia hacked thousands of emails of Clinton campaign chief John Podesta and released them through transparency advocate WikiLeaks in the month leading up to the November 8 election. Many of the emails revealed embarrassing details of Democratic operatives seeking to help Clinton defeat her challenger for the party’s presidential nomination, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders.
The report made no assessment that the leaks changed the outcome of the election, a point Trump has noted in a string of Twitter comments since receiving the intelligence briefing Friday.
“Intelligence stated very strongly there was absolutely no evidence that hacking affected the election results,” Trump said. “Voting machines not touched!”
He said, “Gross negligence by the Democratic National Committee allowed hacking to take place. The Republican National Committee had strong defense! Only reason the hacking of the poorly defended DNC is discussed is that the loss by the Dems was so big that they are totally embarrassed!”
Obama warned against too close relations with Moscow.
“One of the things that I am concerned about is the degree to which we’ve seen a lot of commentary lately where there were, there are Republicans or pundits or cable commentators who seemed to have more confidence in Vladimir Putin than fellow Americans because those fellow Americans were Democrats,” he said. “That cannot be.”
President Obama added, “We have to remind ourselves we’re on the same team. Vladimir Putin’s not on our team. If we get to a point where people in this country feel more affinity with a leader who is an adversary and view the United States and our way of life as a threat to him, then we’re gonna have bigger problems than just cyber hacking.”
Obama had one face-to-face meeting with Trump shortly after the election and has talked with him several times.
“The main thing that I’ve tried to transmit is that there’s a difference between governing and campaigning,” Obama said, “so that what he has to appreciate is as soon as you walk into this office after you’ve been sworn in, you’re now in charge of the largest organization on Earth.”
Obama said he has talked to the president-elect about trust in the U.S. intelligence agencies.
“When I talked to him about — our intelligence agencies, what I’ve said to him is that there are going to be times where you’ve got raw intelligence that comes in and in my experience, over eight years, the intelligence community is pretty good about saying, ‘Look, we can’t say for certain what this means.'”
But Obama added, “There are going to be times where the only way you can make a good decision is if you have confidence that the process is working. And the people that you put in charge are giving you their very best assessments.”
Obama said he also has talked to Trump about his penchant for tweeting an array of taunts and messages on Twitter.
“I’ve said to him, and I think others have said to him that the day that he is the president of the United States, there are world capitals and financial markets and people all around the world who take really seriously what he says, and in a way that’s just not true before you’re actually sworn in as president,” Obama said.