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'Washington Post' Reporter Describes Obama's Reaction To Russia Hacking


President Trump's opinions on the Russian hacking of the November elections have changed again. In statements posted online, the president is finally now allowing that Moscow meddled. One reads, since the Obama administration was told way before the 2016 election that the Russians were meddling, why no action? Focus on them, not T.

Well, that's not an either/or. And right now we'll take up the valid questions about the Obama administration's knowledge of and reaction to Moscow's interference. Greg Miller is reporting on that along with his Washington Post colleagues Adam Entous and Ellen Nakashima. Greg Miller, welcome to the program.

GREG MILLER: Thank you. Good morning.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: President Trump seems to be citing your piece in the Post in his tweets. And in that big report, you say, the Obama administration in August knew about Russia's meddling in the election and really its extent. So why did they respond to what you call a modest package of measures?

MILLER: Well, there's a number of reasons. I think that before the election, that there were one set of reasons. And then those reasons changed a bit afterward. But they come down to these, basically - one, that there was profound concern among senior Obama administration officials that if they had acted before the election, there would be two things that would be of consequence.

One, Russia might escalate. And they were very worried that Russia would go after voting systems on Election Day. They regarded a cyberassault on Election Day as the worst possible outcome, and they were trying to avert that. And that was their first priority. But secondly, there was also this political layer that influenced all of their decisions through this period. They were very worried that if they took action, they would be depicted as trying to tip the scales in favor of Hillary Clinton in this campaign. Trump's complaints or warnings that oh, this whole vote is going to be rigged, you watch - that fed into those concerns.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Let's talk about the political reaction at the time. You talk about how Republican congressional leaders discussed the information about Russia's activities and how that might have dissuaded Obama.

MILLER: Yes. So one of the things that the administration tries to do to avoid the appearance of politicizing their response to Russia, is to enlist bipartisan action. They go to the Hill repeatedly. They're briefing them - senior members of Congress - almost as soon as they get this first blockbuster piece of intelligence from the CIA. And then they go to - then they arrange a meeting with the Gang of Eight, it's called. These are senior leadership members of Congress.

And they go in to lay out the intelligence and to ask for something they think is pretty straightforward. We need a statement condemning what Russia is doing and urging state officials to enlist federal help, make sure their systems are secure for voting day. And they run into obstacles at every turn. The Democrats are eager to do this. They've been waiting for Obama to say something. But the Republicans are pushing back, saying that if we do this, it will just feed into Russia's agenda. It will make it seem like our voting system is too vulnerable.

And then Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, goes even further. He questions the underlying intelligence, not quite convinced that the intel supports what the Obama people are saying and asking for here. And the Democrats are stunned. The administration is stunned. And it just sort of paralyzes them.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You write in this that Russia's interference was the quote, "crime of the century." But because of the divergent ways Obama and Trump have handled the matter, Moscow appears unlikely to face proportionate consequences. And it's not just Moscow in the general sense. You report that it's clear the orders came from Putin himself. So looking forward, if he's not punished somehow, does that guarantee this will happen again?

MILLER: Well, I mean - it's already - we've seen further Russian interference in European elections. U.S. intelligence agencies have already said they think it's a foregone conclusion that Russia will learn from this, in fact, and adapt its methods and become even better at it in seeking to influence outcomes in the future. So I just don't think there's much doubt among those who are really smart on these issues that this is not the end of Russian interference in American elections.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And the reaction of President Trump and congressional Republican leaders now that the evidence seems overwhelming, has that changed?

MILLER: Well, Trump's reaction goes all over the place. I mean, half the time, he's saying it's a hoax. This - none of this really happened. The Democrats are all making this up. But when he can use it as a club to come after Obama, then suddenly he believes that the Russian hacking or interference was real. But Trump has been president for quite some time now. And I think it would be hard for his administration to point to any action that they've taken to safeguard future elections.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Greg Miller of The Washington Post. His piece is titled "Obama's Secret Struggle To Punish Russia For Putin's Election Assault." Thank you so much.

MILLER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.