The Obama administration is under fresh scrutiny for its response to Russian meddling in the election after new details emerged this week about how the White House weighed its actions against the 2016 political environment.
Then-President Obama was too cautious in the months leading up to the election, frustrated Democratic lawmakers and strategists say.
“It was inadequate. I think they could have done a better job informing the American people of the extent of the attack,” said Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.), a member of the House Intelligence Committee who co-chairs the Democratic Steering and Policy Committee.
And even after the election was over, they say, the penalties Obama levied were too mild to appropriately punish what by all accounts was an unprecedented attack on a U.S. election.
Rep. Jim Himes (D-Conn.), another House Intelligence member, called the penalties “barely a slap on the wrist.” Sen. John McCainJohn McCainFrustrated Dems say Obama botched Russia response Coats: Trump seemed obsessed with Russia probe The Hill’s Whip List: Senate ObamaCare repeal bill MORE (R-Ariz.), who supports tougher sanctions Russia, said in a statement Friday that the administration “abjectly failed to deter Russian aggression” and “failed to impose any meaningful costs on Russia.”
Some Republicans argue the Obama administration only started to take the Russia threat seriously after President Trump had won the election.
Trump has called the influence operation a “hoax” and dismissed the various inquiries into Russian interference in the election — which include looking for possible collusion between his campaign and Moscow — as a “witch hunt.”
“By the way, if Russia was working so hard on the 2016 Election, it all took place during the Obama Admin. Why didn’t they stop them?” Trump tweeted Thursday.
The Obama administration announced on Oct. 7 that the theft and release of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) emails was part of a widespread campaign “intended to interfere with the U.S. election process.”
But it was not until January that it issued a separate declassified intelligence report that assessed Moscow was attempting to tip the election in t Trump’s favor — and only in December did Obama approve a modest package of retaliatory sanctions and expel a compound of Russian diplomats.
Former Homeland Security secretary Jeh Johnson on Wednesday told lawmakers that the White House held back on responding to Russia because it didn’t want to play into fears, propagated by then-candidate Trump, that the election would be “rigged.”
“One of the candidates, as you’ll recall, was predicting that the election was going to be rigged in some way,” Johnson said. “And so we were concerned that, by making the statement, we might in and of itself be challenging the integrity of the election process itself.”
Trump had repeatedly claimed that the outcome of the election would be “rigged” against him, alleging widespread voter fraud and inaccurate polling. He provided no evidence to back up his claims, but critics feared that his rhetoric could undermine public trust in the outcome of the election.
On Friday, The Washington Post published a detailed post-mortem of the administration’s decision-making process that showed the former president agonizing over how to prevent politicization of the threat — and arguably failing, critics say.
While Democrats appreciated Obama’s sensitivity to the potential appearance of partisanship, they say the Russian influence campaign should have been treated like any other national security threat, without respect to politics.
“I understand the analysis, but look where we are right now. This was the worst mess our democracy has been in since the Civil War,” Swalwell said.
Other onlookers point to then-ongoing and extremely delicate negotiations with Russia over a ceasefire in Syria. The Obama administration publicly levied blame on Russia for the DNC hack and the wider interference campaign just a few days after former Secretary of State John KerryJohn KerryFrustrated Dems say Obama botched Russia response Budowsky: Dems madder than hell Tillerson: ‘My view didn’t change’ on Paris climate agreement MORE officially suspended those talks.
“I think the Obama administration figured, we have to deal with the Russians in the Middle East and they didn’t want the stuff with the hacking to interfere with that,” said Democratic strategist Brad Bannon. “But I think that was a mistake because if voters don’t trust the integrity of the electoral system, we’ve got nothing left.”
Johnson defended the White House’s response, arguing the administration repeatedly banged the drum on election cybersecurity throughout the summer and fall but was appropriately leery of undermining trust in the integrity of the election.
The Oct. 7 statement, Johnson said, was one in a series of public statements — but it was overshadowed in the media by the leak of the “Access Hollywood” tape in which Trump spoke of grabbing women by the genitals.
Other former officials are less confident that Obama went far enough in his response.
“It is the hardest thing about my entire time in government to defend,” a former senior official involved in the deliberations on Russia told The Post. “I feel like we sort of choked.”