During one of his recent tweetstorms, the 45th president asked this question about his predecessor:
A new blockbuster report from the Washington Post offers a pretty clear answer. The Obama administration had a lot of intelligence about Russian meddling in the election, its sources in the Kremlin, and its objectives. But it didn’t “stop it,” because some tampering had already happened; the administration was running into Republican obstacles in Washington and the states; and ultimately, the White House feared being accused of its own interference in an election they were sure Hillary Clinton was going to win. The subsequent postelection measures to punish Russia were literally too little and too late, because by then Putin’s apparent goal — the elevation of Donald Trump to the presidency — had already been achieved.
The Post account begins with a closely guarded August 2016 CIA intel report to Obama that argued Putin himself was orchestrating an intervention in the U.S. elections plainly intended to elect Trump. Over the next few weeks, Obama confronted Putin personally, while the White House reached out to GOP congressional leaders and state election administrators (many of them Republicans) with warnings of Russia’s evil intentions. These distress signals in Moscow, Washington, and U.S. state capitals were largely rebuffed.
Obama also considered strong unilateral measures against Russia, including cyber-retaliation. But he held back, and didn’t go public with his personal understanding of what was going on, because he figured anything he said would be interpreted as designed to help his intended successor Hillary Clinton.
And when, a month before the election, the intelligence community did unveil its consensus conclusion that Russia was trying to control an American election, it happened on the same day as the first WikiLeaks dump of John Podesta emails and the appearance of the Access Hollywood video of Trump talking crudely about his ability to sexually assault women. It was a media triple witching hour that robbed the intelligence report of much of its punch.
There is a lot in the Post story about the retrospective remorse among Obama advisers concerning the administration’s failure to more aggressively describe and deal with what Russia was doing. But here is the simple explanation:
“Our primary interest in August, September and October was to prevent them from doing the max they could do,” said a senior administration official. “We made the judgment that we had ample time after the election, regardless of outcome, for punitive measures.”
The assumption that Clinton would win contributed to the lack of urgency.
Yes, the Obama administration took “punitive measures” right before it left office, but there was little or no follow-up from the Trump administration. You don’t have to believe the Trump campaign colluded with the Russians to understand why the new administration did not want to “go there”: Why should it undermine its own electoral legitimacy?
And so, Russia interfered, Obama couldn’t stop it, and Putin was rewarded for his very bad behavior. Will the Trump administration and its allies in Congress do anything other than wish the whole thing away? Probably not. And that is a travesty, even if Team Trump was an innocent beneficiary of the Kremlin’s intervention.