By: Ben Jacobs / The Guardian.com
The US president held his final press conference of 2016, criticizing the media for its coverage of Hillary Clinton’s emails, and discussing Russia and Syria
Barack Obama pointed a finger at Vladimir Putin for hacking the US election, admitting he directly told his Russian adversary to “cut it out”.
Obama also used his final press conference of 2016 to criticize the media for its coverage of Hillary Clinton’s emails, insisting “I don’t think she was treated fairly during the election.”
In a session which was also dominated by questions over Syria, the outgoing president said he had “great confidence” in the the intelligence agencies’ assessment “that the Russians carried out this hack”.
Blaming Moscow for hacking the Democratic National Committee and the email account of Clinton’s campaign chief, John Podesta, he said he wanted the report he has ordered into the affair out before he leaves office on 20 January.
He dodged whether Putin personally directed the operations but pointedly noted “not much happens in Russia without Vladimir Putin”.
The president said that he had told his Russian counterpart in person in September “to cut it out” with regard to hacks to influence the election and added “there were going to be some serious consequences if he did not”.
Obama thought that this intervention was at least somewhat successful as “we did not see further tampering of the election process. But the leaks through WikiLeaks had already occurred”.
Obama repeatedly weighed in on what he saw as increased polarization in the United States. “Over a third of Republican voters approve of Vladimir Putin, the former head of the KGB. Ronald Reagan would roll over in his grave. How did that happen?”
Obama said he believed that unless events were viewed through a less partisan framework “we’re going to continue to be vulnerable to foreign influence because we’ve lost track of what it is that we’re about and what we stand for”.
He concluded that there was no evidence of wrongdoing in the way the election was tallied, adding that “the votes that were cast were counted, they were counted appropriately”.
Turning to his own relationship with President-elect Donald Trump, he said he had last spoken to him a few days ago in a “cordial” conversation. Obama said he gave Trump “specific suggestions about … maintaining the effectiveness, integrity, cohesion of the office, our various democratic institutions”.
However, turning to the political faultline in the US, he said: “What I worry about – more than anything – is the degree to which, because of the fierceness, because of the partisan battle, you start to see certain folks in the Republican party and Republican voters suddenly finding a government and individuals who stand contrary to everything that we stand for, as being OK, because ‘that’s how much we dislike Democrats’.”
He added that American vulnerability to cyber-attacks was “directly related to how divided, partisan and dysfunctional our political process is”. He added: “If fake news is being released by some foreign government that is almost identical to reports that are being issued through partisan news venues, then it’s not surprising that that foreign propaganda will have a greater effect, because it doesn’t seem so far-fetched.”
As Obama put it Russia “doesn’t produce anything that anybody wants to buy except oil and gas and arms. They don’t innovate.”
Outgoing president says US will respond to cyberattacks by Moscow ‘at a time and place of our choosing’, as Donald Trump rejects reports of interference
However, he warned “they can impact us if we abandon our values. Mr Putin can weaken us just like he’s trying to weaken Europe if we start buying into notions that it’s OK to intimidate the press, or lock up dissidents, or discriminate against people because of their faith or what they look like.”
Obama also criticized media coverage of hacked emails from the DNC and Podesta. “This was an obsession that dominated the news coverage,” he said. He asked mournfully how the election “with so many big issues at stake and such a contrast between the candidates came to be dominated by a bunch of these leaks”.
Speaking before he set off for a family Christmas vacation in Hawaii, Obama also expressed the hope that hacks could be examined in a non-partisan manner and urged President-elect Trump to welcome “a bipartisan independent process” to investigate them.