President Obama said Thursday that the U.S. needs to “take action” in response to cyberattacks on Democratic officials during the recent presidential campaign, hours after his administration insisted — without offering proof — that President-elect Donald Trump “obviously knew” of the breaches, and suggested that Russian President Vladimir Putin had personally authorized them.
“I think there is no doubt that when any foreign government tries to impact the integrity of our elections … we need to take action,” Obama said in an interview scheduled to air Friday on National Public Radio. “And we will — at a time and place of our own choosing. Some of it may be explicit and publicized; some of it may not be.”
Earlier Thursday, Press Secretary Josh Earnest told reporters during the daily White House briefing that “Mr. Trump obviously knew that Russia was engaged in malicious cyber activity that was helping him, [and] hurting [Democrat Hillary] Clinton … “These are all facts that are not in dispute.”
Earnest pointed out that Trump had encouraged Moscow during a news conference to find missing emails from Clinton’s private server. Trump has said he was joking.
“I don’t think anybody at the White House thinks it’s funny that an adversary of the United States engaged in malicious cyber activity to destabilize our democracy,” Earnest said. “That’s not a joke.”
Earnest, without mentioning Russian President Putin by name, also said “only Russia’s senior-most officials could have authorized these activities,” repeating the words from an October U.S. intelligence assessment.
Obama’s deputy national security adviser, Ben Rhodes, connected the dots further, saying it was Putin who was responsible for the Russian government’s actions.
“I don’t think things happen in the Russian government of this consequence without Vladimir Putin knowing about it,” Rhodes said on MSNBC.
Trump fired back Thursday evening, calling Earnest “foolish” during a “Thank You” rally in Hershey, Pa.
“I don’t know if he’s talking to President Obama,” Trump said of Earnest, without addressing the hacking controversy directly. “You know, having the right press secretary’s so important. Because he is so bad, the way he delivers a message … The president is very positive, but he’s not positive. And I mean, maybe he’s getting his orders from somebody else? Does that make sense? Could that be possible?”
Are we talking about the same cyberattack where it was revealed that head of the DNC illegally gave Hillary the questions to the debate?
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 16, 2016
The White House officials’ comments only escalate the feud between Trump allies and Democratic figures over Russia’s alleged hacking.
U.S. intelligence officials have linked the hacking to Russia’s intelligence agency and its military intelligence division. Moscow has denied all accusations that it orchestrated the hacking of email accounts of Democratic Party officials and Clinton’s campaign chief, John Podesta, and then leaked them to the anti-secrecy website WikiLeaks.
But lawmakers seeking a briefing this week on potential conflicts in the record about Russia’s role were rebuffed, fueling GOP concerns on Capitol Hill about what the intelligence says.
If Russia, or some other entity, was hacking, why did the White House wait so long to act? Why did they only complain after Hillary lost?
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 15, 2016
U.S. officials have not contended that Trump would have been defeated by Clinton on Nov. 8 if not for Russia’s assistance. Nor has there has been any indication of tampering with the vote-counting.
The Kremlin flatly rejected the claim of Putin’s involvement, with Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov dismissing it Thursday as “laughable nonsense.”
The dispute over Russia’s role is fueling an increasingly public spat between Obama’s White House and Trump’s team that is threatening to spoil the delicate truce that Obama and Trump have forged since Election Day.
Although the president and president-elect have avoided criticizing each other publicly since Trump’s win, their aides have been more openly antagonistic. Kellyanne Conway, Trump’s senior transition adviser, said it was “breathtaking” and irresponsible that the White House had suggested Trump knew Russia was interfering to help his campaign.
Trump and his supporters insist the Democrats’ outrage about Russia is really an attempt to undermine the validity of his election victory. Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., a Trump ally, called it “disgraceful” as he spoke to reporters amassed in Trump Tower after meeting with the president-elect.
“Right now, certain elements of the media, certain elements of the intelligence community and certain politicians are really doing the work of the Russians,” King said.
There has been no specific, persuasive evidence shared publicly about the extent of Putin’s role or knowledge of the hackings. That lack of proof undercuts Democrats’ strategy to portray Putin’s involvement as irrefutable evidence of a directed Russian government plot to undermine America’s democratic system.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.