WASHINGTON (CNN) — President Barack Obama on Thursday vowed retaliatory action against Russia for its meddling in the US presidential election.
“I think there is no doubt that when any foreign government tries to impact the integrity of our elections that we need to take action and we will at a time and place of our own choosing,” Obama told NPR.
Describing potential countermeasures by the US, the President said “some of it may be explicit and publicized; some of it may not be.”
His remarks suggested Obama was planning to act in the final weeks of his administration to punish Russia for its cyber intrusion into US political institutions in a bid to influence the US vote.
Options for Obama include scaling up financial sanctions on Russia or engaging in an online counterattack, though Obama has warned against ratcheting up tensions into a full-scale cyberwar.
Obama said in the interview the US government was already working to ensure the response was “proportional” and “meaningful,” suggesting that plans for a response were being laid. But didn’t detail any specific options.
He said he directly confronted Russian President Vladimir Putin about a potential US response, and said his counterpart acknowledged his stance.
“Mr. Putin is well aware of my feelings about this, because I spoke to him directly about it,” Obama told NPR’s Steve Inskeep.
Obama and Putin conferred on the sidelines of the G20 meeting in China in September. Afterwards, Obama told reporters he raised cybersecurity with the Russian leader.
Officials have said since then that Obama spelled out potential responses in his conversation with Putin.
If Obama does choose to impose sanctions, it would add to a list of previous restrictions on Russian individuals and entities enacted following Moscow’s incursion into Ukraine.
Trump, when he assumes office, could choose to reverse the punishment. His secretary of state nominee Rex Tillerson has spoken against US sanctions on Russia.
Obama acknowledged he had little control over Trump’s punitive actions against Russia. But he said he had encouraged the President-elect during private conversations to uphold US ideals in his foreign policy decision-making.
“I can’t look into my crystal ball,” Obama said.
“I can say I had a conversation with the President-elect about our foreign policy generally,” he went on. “Our indispensability in the world in part draws from our values and ideals.”
He insisted the issue be separated from partisan politics, striking a less combative tone that his Press Secretary Josh Earnest, who has been escalating his rhetoric on Trump after the President-elect dismissed US intelligence reports that tied Russia to the election interference.
“It’s very important that we do not let the interfamily argument between Americans — the domestic political differences between Democrats and Republicans — obscure the need for us to stand together,” he said. “It requires us not to relitigate the election, it requires us not to point fingers.”
Intelligence agencies in October pinned blame on Russia for election-related hacking. At the time, the White House vowed a “proportional response” to the cyberactivity, though declined to preview what that response might entail.
Officials have said US actions against Russia may not be revealed publicly.
Russian presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Friday that it is ‘indecent’ of the United States to “groundlessly” accuse Russia of intervention in its elections.
“They should either stop talking about that or produce some proof at last. Otherwise it all begins to look unseemly,” he said.
Speaking Thursday at the White House, Press Secretary Josh Earnest declined to say whether the US had already begun its response to Moscow’s actions.
“The President determined once the intelligence community had reached this assessment that a proportional response was appropriate,” Earnest said. “At this point, I don’t have anything to say about whether or not that response has been carried out.”
In the interview with NPR, Obama said it was plainly clear that Russia was attempting to boost Trump.
“There are still a whole range of assessments taking place among the agencies. And so when I receive a final report, you know, we’ll be able to, I think, give us a comprehensive and best guess as to those motivations,” Obama said. “But that does not in any way, I think, detract from the basic point that everyone during the election perceived accurately — that in fact what the Russian hack had done was create more problems for the Clinton campaign than it had for the Trump campaign.”
He said that fact was clear even to Trump’s own team.
“(Trump’s campaign) understood what everybody else understood, which was that this was not good for Hillary Clinton’s campaign,” Obama said.