Obama on Russian hacking: 'We were playing this thing straight'

At a press conference Friday, the president declined to speculate on Russia's motives for hacking.

Laura Hautala Former Senior Writer
Laura wrote about e-commerce and Amazon, and she occasionally covered cool science topics. Previously, she broke down cybersecurity and privacy issues for CNET readers. Laura is based in Tacoma, Washington, and was into sourdough before the pandemic.
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Laura Hautala
2 min read

President Barack Obama speaks during a news conference at the White House on Friday.

Chip Somodevilla, Getty Images

Why didn't President Barack Obama say that Russia was trying to sway the election toward Republican President Donald Trump before the election? That was one of the questions reporters pushed him to answer at a press conference Friday.

"It would have become immediately just one more political scrum," Obama answered.

The president's comments capped off a week marked by debate over Russia's role in the hacks of the Democratic National Committee and other party representatives. Reporters pressed him Friday on how much intelligence he would declassify to show why the government believes Russia was behind the hacks, what the US would do to retaliate against Russia, and whether the president believes Russia President Vladimir Putin was personally involved in the hacking and leaking of Democratic emails and documents. In his responses, Obama defended his decision not to reveal everything the government knows.

He started with his approach to sharing information with the public about the hacks during the lead-up to the election, especially his decision not to speculate as to why the Russians were carrying them out.

"I wanted to make sure that everyone understood we were playing this thing straight," Obama told reporters. "I think we handled it the way it should have been handled."

The White House's approach left it up "to you and the American public as to how to make an assessment," Obama told reporters.

When another reporter pressed him on why he didn't say Russia was trying to help Republican candidate Donald Trump beat Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, Obama retorted, "Well, come on."

Indeed, it seems we won't see the full scope of Obama's thinking and actions in response to the hacking attacks. Obama told NPR last week that the US would respond to Russia's actions "at the time and place of our own choosing," and he doubled down on that promise Friday. But he also said it won't necessarily be a public response. What's more, Obama said he'll have to decide what intelligence about the hacks to declassify judiciously.

"We will provide evidence that we can safely provide, that does not compromise sources and methods," Obama said.

For his part, Trump continues to say it's not clear whether Russia is indeed responsible for the hacking. On Friday, Obama chalked the president elect's behavior up to being in "transition mode."

"But when Donald Trump takes the oath of office and becomes the 45th president of the United States," Obama said, "he's got a different set of responsibilities and considerations."