President Barack Obama addressed Russian hacking, Donald Trump and the crisis in Syria in what was likely to be his last news conference of the year. Below are some of the highlights of his exchange with reporters.
• The president revealed that he told Russian President Putin to “cut it out” during a one-on-one meeting in China in early September, warning of “serious consequences” if the hacking continued. “We did not see further tampering of the election process but the leaks through WikiLeaks had already occurred,” he said. “So when I look back in terms of how we handled it, we handled it the way it should have been.” [Read more]
• In response to a question from ABC’s Martha Raddatz, the president confirmed publicly for the first time that he believed Putin personally directed the hacks. “[N]ot much happens in Russia without Vladimir Putin,” he said. “I mean, this is a pretty hierarchical operation last I checked. There’s not a lot of debate and democratic deliberation, particularly when it comes to policies directed at the United States. We have said and I will confirm that this happened at the highest levels.” It’s not in the habit of Russian officials, Obama said, to “go off rogue and decide to tamper with the U.S. election process without Vladimir Putin knowing about it.“
• Obama hinted at “offensive capabilities” the U.S. possesses, but spoke broadly about his approach to preventing “some sort of cyber arms race.” His goal, the president said, was to put “some guardrails around the behavior of nations and states and our adversaries so they understand that whatever they do to us we can potentially do to them.”
• Obama would not commit to declassifying evidence that would prove that Russia was behind the pre-election hacks. “We will provide evidence that we can safely provide, that does not compromise sources and methods,” he said. “But I’ll be honest with you, when you’re talking about cybersecurity, a lot of it is classified and we’re not going to provide it because the way we catch folks is by knowing certain things about them that they may not want us to know — and if we’re going to monitor this stuff effectively going forward, we don’t want them to know that we know.”
• Asked if Clinton lost because of the hacking, Obama demurred. “I’m going to let all the political pundits in this town have a long discussion about what happened in the election,” he said. But he took a shot at the media, which he has faulted for focusing too much on trivia and pseudo-scandals. “I don’t think she was treated fairly during the election. I think the coverage of her and the issues was troubling,” he said.
• He also chided the press for its coverage of the hacked documents. “I am finding a little curious that everyone is acting surprised that this looked like it was disadvantaging Hillary Clinton,” he said, “because you guys wrote about it every day. Every single leak about every little juicy tidbit of political gossip, including John Podesta’s risotto recipe. This was an obsession that dominated the news coverage.” [Read more]
• Obama explained why he hadn’t been more vocal in calling out Russian hacking before the Nov. 8 election. “In this hyperpartisan atmosphere,” he said, noting the charged political environment surrounding the election, “I wanted to make everybody understood we were playing this thing straight.” He grew defensive in explaining why he didn’t react more strongly to the hacks. “Part of why the Russians have been affected by this is they don’t go around announcing what they are doing. It is not like — Putin’s going around the world publicly saying look what we did,” Obama said.
• Minutes before Obama began speaking, U.S. officials confirmed that the FBI and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence had signed on to the CIA’s finding that Russia had hacked into Democratic institutions and political figures to help elect Trump. In recent days, as reports have emerged about the agency’s conclusions, the president-elect has expressed skepticism. Trump tweeted on Thursday: “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?” [Read more]
• On Syria, Obama called the situation in Aleppo, where the Syrian regime has crushed a pocket of rebel resistance in recent days, “one of the human hardest issues that I faced as president.” He called for “an impartial international observer force,” full access to humanitarian aid, and a broader cease-fire agreement — blaming Russia, Iran and the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad for the ongoing violence. “The Assad regime cannot slaughter its way to legitimacy,” he said. “The world shall not be fooled, and the world will not forget.” [Read more]
• Pressed on whether he felt any personal responsibility for the bloodshed in Syria, a somber Obama said, “I always feel responsible.” He added: “I ask myself every single day: Is there something I could do every day to save lives and make a difference?” He compared the feeling to his efforts to revive the U.S. economy after the Great Recession, when he said he was constantly reassessing whether he was doing everything he could to create and save American jobs. But ultimately, he said, he decided he had done all he could in Syria “short of putting large numbers of U.S. troops on the ground, uninvited” and without the support of the international community and Congress. “It was going to be impossible to do this on the cheap,” he said.
• Obama downplayed the tensions between his White House and the Trump team, which have grown as the two sides have argued over the Russian hacks. “There’s still feelings that are raw out there,” he acknowledged. But he expressed confidence that “when Donald Trump takes the oath of office and is sworn in as the 45th president of the United States,” he’ll change his behavior. ”There is a sobering process when you walk into the Oval Office,” he said. Obama said his conversations with Trump had been “cordial,” noting that he had made a number of “pretty specific suggestions about how to ensure that regardless of our obvious disagreements about policy, maybe I can transmit some thoughts about maintaining the effectiveness, integrity, cohesion of the office” and “our various democratic institutions.” Trump, he said, had “listened.”
• While the president didn’t endorse his labor secretary, Tom Perez, to be the next Democratic National Committee chairman, he came as close as possible without saying the actual words. He singled out Perez, who announced his bid this week, as “one of the best secretaries of labor in our history” and described him in terms that would appeal to Bernie Sanders’ supporters — the core constituency of Perez’s main opponent for the post, Rep. Keith Ellison. “He is tireless. He is wicked smart. He has been able to work across the spectrum of, you know, labor, business, activist. He’s produced.” Obama ended his answer by praising the other candidates as well. “Now, others who have declared are also my friends, and are fine people as well, and the great thing is, I don’t have a vote in this. So we’ll let the process unfold.”
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