PETE WILLIAMS: President Obama says he’s ready to strike back against Russia for meddling in the election, but Donald Trump says the criticism of Russia is post-election sour grapes. I’m Pete Williams. We look at what’s at stake, tonight on Washington Week.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: (From video.) What I can tell you is, is that the intelligence that I’ve seen gives me great confidence in their assessment that the Russians carried out this hack.
MR. WILLIAMS: The president vows to take some kind of action against Russia after American intelligence directly links Vladimir Putin to cyberattacks on government agencies and the DNC. Donald Trump calls the reports ridiculous, accusing the White House of complaining about the hacking only after Hillary Clinton lost. But Republicans in Congress are joining Democrats in calling for an investigation of Russia’s hacking.
SENATOR JOHN MCCAIN (R-AZ): (From video.) Cyberattacks, when you destroy or impact the ability of a nation to function, that is an act of war.
MR. WILLIAMS: While Donald Trump is downplaying Russia’s role in cyber hacking, he’s playing up the relationship that his nominee for secretary of state has with Putin, calling Exxon’s CEO Rex Tillerson a great dealmaker and diplomat.
PRESIDENT-ELECT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) Rex is friendly with many of the leaders in the world that we don’t get along with, and some people don’t like that. They don’t want him to be friendly. That’s why I’m doing the deal with Rex, because I like what this is all about.
MR. WILLIAMS: We’ll get analysis on the high-stakes war of words over U.S. intelligence, cyber espionage, and national security from Juliet Eilperin of The Washington Post, David Sanger of The New York Times, Kimberly Atkins of The Boston Herald, and Robert Costa of The Washington Post.
ANNOUNCER: This is Washington Week. Once again, from Washington, Pete Williams of NBC News.
MR. WILLIAMS: Good evening. President Obama says the U.S. has a goal for dealing with the cyberattacks on the American political system. He says the message to the Russians should be don’t do this because we can do this to you. In his last news conference of the year, Mr. Obama didn’t say what the response would be, and suggested that, in fact, the administration hasn’t decided yet what it should be. But he left no doubt that the U.S. believes Russia was behind it.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: (From video.) Some of the folks who have seen the evidence don’t dispute, I think, the basic assessment that the Russians carried this out. Not much happens in Russia without Vladimir Putin.
MR. WILLIAMS: President Obama confronted Russian President Putin about the cyber hacking during a private meeting at the G-20 summit in September. The intelligence community has been saying since October that Russia did it. So, Juliet, why did the president wait until now to publicly say it was the Russians?
JULIET EILPERIN: Well, he really was worried about the perception that he would have been seen as trying to influence the election in Hillary Clinton’s favor if he had come out more explicitly. That’s one of the reasons he gave. Also, White House officials were very worried that by calling Putin out it could undermine both people’s confidence in the electoral system here before going to vote, as well as the fact of potentially invite a more damaging attack on our ability to cast ballots.
MR. WILLIAMS: So, David, the election is over now. Why hasn’t the president taken some step, if he’s known about this for so long?
DAVID SANGER: Well, he has known about it for long. But it was – there was an interesting admission tucked away in his description because he said that as soon as he became aware of this in June, or early this summer, they began looking at the options and, of course, looking at the intelligence. Well, we published a fairly lengthy reconstruction this week of what had happened, and the FBI knew about this and first notified the DNC in September of 2015. So question number one is, why did it take nine months for the president of the United States to be told that somebody was hacking into the DNC? Because it’s not like the DNC had never been the subject of a third-rate burglary before. (Laughter.)
So what are his options? In the world of cyber, when you are attacked in cyber, you’ve got to make a fundamental decision: Do you respond with a cyberattack or do you respond in some other way? President Obama felt this acutely two years ago, when he had to make a decision about how to respond to the hack on Sony, which as you may recall was attacked by the North Koreans, who were upset by a truly terrible movie that was produced called The Interview about – (laughter) – a comedy about the assassination of Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader. And they destroyed about 70 percent of Sony’s computers and also released a lot of emails along the way, and in the end there were some sanctions, fairly light, issued against the North Koreans. Clearly, if he does that against Russia now, that’s not going to hack it. The Russians will not feel it.
MR. WILLIAMS: And he said today there already are sanctions.
MR. SANGER: There are sanctions. There are sanctions for their annexation of Crimea, their activities in Ukraine, many other things.
So he doesn’t have a whole lot of good options, Pete, and that’s part of the difficulty. He could do some more sanctions. He could do something that embarrassed Putin by revealing his financial ties with the oligarchs. But I think a lot of Russians will look around and say, wow, this is big news; Putin’s on the take from oligarchs. (Laughter.)
MR. WILLIAMS: Well, he said that he wants to wait till this report from the intelligence community is done. What’s that going to tell him that he doesn’t know already? And how is that going to help him make this decision about what to do?
MR. SANGER: I suspect he’s probably going to have to act before the intelligence report is done. It’s going to be done – he’s asked for it before he leaves office. That’s just 34 days away, so this is going to be a pretty rapidly done report. His best hope, most people in the White House who I’ve talked to about this say, is declassifying enough of this material that it leaves a paper record that can’t be ignored by Congress or even by the president-elect, by President-elect Trump.
The second is that it might create a commission that would begin to look at how we missed so many signals. This was a pretty big failure of intelligence. We were spending a lot of time thinking about the cyber Pearl Harbor and not about the lower-level attack that could have a broad political effect, similar to what Russia’s done in Europe.
MR. WILLIAMS: And as the president said today, Juliet, this wasn’t a really fancy, clever thing. This was a sort of garden-variety email phishing attack.
MS. EILPERIN: Yeah, I mean it’s extraordinary, you know, the information that’s come out of the idea that there might have been because of a typo in a response from someone in IT that John Podesta’s aide ending up responding. I mean, it is really something that, frankly –
MR. WILLIAMS: You have to change your password.
MS. EILPERIN: Yeah, people can relate to. And so, yeah, but – so this isn’t – this isn’t high-faluting, and he wasn’t saying it was, but obviously the way it reverberated was profound.
MR. WILLIAMS: So I want to get into some more about the – what the – Trump’s administration’s going to do. But let’s talk for a moment, Kimberly, about what Congress might do. Mr. Trump has been somewhat reluctant to buy into the Intelligence Committee’s assessment, but there are both Republicans and Democrats on the Hill saying they want to investigate this. So are we headed for something of a showdown between the incoming president and his party that controls Congress?
KIMBERLY ATKINS: I mean, we might be. I mean, it’s clear that Congress is going to move forward on this. It’s a pretty unified effort on that front. Exactly what Congress will do there’s not an agreement on. You have some people, like Senator John McCain, who want a commission or some sort of a select commission that’s going to really look at this and take a deep dive. It seems pretty clear from congressional leadership on the Republican side that they’re happy just to let the Intelligence Committees that are already in place take a look at this.
Now, Donald Trump is, as you said, really refusing to back this intelligence that’s coming out. I think he sees it as a slight, and his instinct is to counterpunch against it as well as against anybody who is supporting this. But Congress has a lot of leeway that they can go forward with this without him.
MR. WILLIAMS: Well, if you think about – Robert, about the last big commission after we were attacked, the 9/11 commission, everybody seemed to think that was a good idea to do that. But may we get into a position here where the Congress and the president are headed in opposite directions?
ROBERT COSTA: We already see the Congress moving in an opposite direction. Especially in the Republican Party, there is a changing of the guard with regard to Russia. The previous fringe figures in Republican foreign policy, like Dana Rohrabacher of California, who’s been very friendly to Putin, now they find themselves working hand-in-hand with people like General Flynn in President-elect Trump’s orbit. There’s a new thinking on Russia that’s emerging in the GOP that’s not hostile. You see it with the secretary of state pick, Rex Tillerson, and even the House Intelligence Committee chairman, Devin Nunes. There’s a limited interest in pursuing this line of investigation. There are, of course, the hawks – Senator Graham, Senator McCain – who continue to have real concern about Putin. But others in the party, they say the foe for this time, for the Trump era, is China.
MR. WILLIAMS: So, David and Juliet, help us out here a little bit. How much of Donald Trump’s response to this has been sort of instinctive, oh, you’re questioning the results of the election. And has he changed his position at all on buying into what the intelligence community says, or does it he still fight it?
MR. SANGER: He still fights it in early morning tweets, OK? But I have a funny feeling that after we’re past the vote of the Electoral College next week, he’s going to feel less threatened and thus may be able to go deal with this more forthrightly. What’s missing here is that, you know, we tend to focus – we’re Americans. We think only about an American election. Ask the Germans. They’re seeing the same techniques underway for a German election that’s still a year away. Ask the French, and they see many of these same techniques. Ask the Ukrainians, they’ve already been through this.
So the question – the fundamental question that President Trump and his team, and Rex Tillerson, assuming he is – he is confirmed, as I suspect he will be – will have to face is: How do you confront a revanchist Russia that is making its way through Europe, trying to destabilize it, trying to weaken NATO? And do you respond in the way that Republicans traditionally would have during the Cold War? Or do you basically begin to back off from our allies? And that’s a very big, fundamental decision about the relationship between the United States and Europe that is completely connected to now President-elect Trump deals with Russia.
MR. WILLIAMS: Robert.
MR. COSTA: I think some of the people around Trump are really important in the coming months. You pay attention to Steve Bannon, the chief strategist, not a foreign policy expert. But he has connected Trump with this global populism. He has not always – Bannon doesn’t talk to Trump about Western Europe as being some key ally with NATO. And then with General Flynn, who’s been friendly with Putin and the Russian government in the past, you get a whole new leadership coming in.
MS. EILPERIN: And, you know, it’s fascinating. You see – what I think is, you know, one of the things that’s interesting about what we saw today with President Obama he was basically pleading with Donald Trump to not get stuck into hard and fast foreign policy positions without getting all his briefings, without getting his team in place. You know, so there’s clearly this real concern. I mean, he sounded nostalgic for Ronald Reagan, saying he’s be turning over in his grave, you know, if he saw that more than – you know, roughly a third of Republicans look kindly on Putin. So, you know, he’s certainly trying to make sure that Trump doesn’t box himself in on some of these stands.
MR. SANGER: You know, I think what you heard in President Obama’s public advice to President-elect Trump today was: Don’t get so transactional that you’re not thinking about how each individual deal that you make interacts with the rest of the world. And his big fear is Donald Trump doesn’t think that way. He does straight-on property deals. And you do one and you move on to the next. Well, you know, you make your deal with Taiwan, and suddenly you have upended your relationship with the world’s second-largest economy and one of its great rising military powers in China. So he was asking him basically to sit down with his advisors and think this thing through many chess moves ahead.
MR. WILLIAMS: Didn’t – yeah, go ahead.
MS. ATKINS: I was just going to say, it’s also interesting that even with all of the sniping that’s taken place between the Trump transition team and the White House this week, you haven’t seen the president-elect go directly at the president or vice versa. And I think even in the press conference today, it seemed pretty clear that perhaps Donald Trump – perhaps the president, who is speaking on a regular basis with Donald Trump – wants to give himself a little bit of time to talk to him and perhaps convince him about a different path on Russian policy, or at least to accept publicly some of these intelligence reports in a way that is not, you know, perceived as self-deprecating to him and affect that policy.
MR. WILLIAMS: Well, and didn’t the president cut Donald Trump a little slack today by saying, you know, he’s still in campaign mode, he’s still making the transition.
MS. EILPERIN: Yeah, he’s really – he is really treating him with kid gloves. You know, there – you know, and in many ways –
MR. WILLIAMS: And why is that?
MS. EILPERIN: Well, really, you know, as Kim was mentioning, it’s really to try – he knows this is his window, where he can have some influence on Donald Trump. While he’s offered to provide counsel going forth, it’s unlikely that once Trump has all of his advisors in place and he actually is president he will be as reliant as he is right now. He is at least talking on a regular basis. The president either gets on the phone right away or calls him back very quickly. I’m sure Donald Trump enjoys that. And the president sees it as his best opportunity to really influence some key decisions.
MR. WILLIAMS: Well, you mentioned Rex Tillerson. And of course, the president-elect, as somebody who has no government experience, has chosen the CEO of ExxonMobil, who also has no government experience, to be his secretary of state. So what does Mr. Trump like about Rex Tillerson? And somebody he met, Robert, just a few weeks ago.
MR. COSTA: Tillerson was chosen late in the decision process over Mitt Romney, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Senator Corker of Tennessee, General David Petraeus. And he – Tillerson was someone who came highly recommended from Bob Gates, of course, of many administrations, of Condi Rice, the former secretary of –
MR. WILLIAMS: Bob Gates, the former CIA deputy director, the former national security advisor –
MR. COSTA: Secretary of defense.
MR. WILLIAMS: Former secretary of defense.
MR. COSTA: And Trump was intrigued. And Trump, as someone who’s a Washington outsider, takes counsel from bold-faced names very seriously. He has them up to Trump Tower. And in Tillerson, he saw someone who had the business background. But as Bob Gates has told The Washington Post, Tillerson’s an Eagle Scout. And Trump is someone who went to New York Military Academy. Don’t take – I’m not trying to make a light point. Trump reveres –
MR. WILLIAMS: Bob Gates, by the way, is the head of the Boy Scouts too, right?
MR. COSTA: Exactly right. And he and Tillerson have a deep relationship. And Trump reveres military figures, but he also has an affection for those who have kind of a Boy Scout patriotic mentality. And I hear Tillerson very much impressed the president-elect in the interview.
MR. WILLIAMS: So we’ve uncovered the hidden Boy Scout influence on this administration. (Laughter.) He’s been praised, hasn’t he, by some former Bush administration officials, in addition to Gates – Condi Rice, the former Secretary of State James Baker. But I’m wondering if – how he’s – how the Hill is going to respond to this. Is it for sure that he’ll be confirmed?
MS. ATKINS: I think he has a pretty good shot. I think that there was a lot of rumbling coming from some Republican senators that gave Democrats perhaps some hope that they have some chance to block him, some concerns voiced about his connections to Russia. But I think all in all, I think as long as some of them are – I think they can be convinced to go along with it, especially with the vote of confidence that comes from folks like Condoleezza Rice and Bill Gates.
MR. SANGER: I think that, you know, the upside of Rex Tillerson is nobody has dealt with more people around the world – more leaders around the world, in that group that President-elect Trump was interviewing, except maybe David Petraeus. And nobody has dealt with more dictators, because it turns out that when there’s a lot of oil under the ground, there’s usually a dictator sitting on top of it above ground – not always, but a high prevalence.
I think the question about Rex Tillerson is if you have spent more than 40 years, as he has, cutting deals on behalf of your shareholders, frequently in some cases, particularly in a deal he made in Kurdistan that angered the Iraqis, against the recommendations of the U.S. State Department, can you flip the switch and then say, you know, we are going to represent a set of interests for the United States that may mean standing up for human rights in this place over the oil that’s under the ground? It may mean going out to make a deal that you need to make because you need to build up an alliance, even if it’s not in your economic interest. And we simply don’t know yet how well he can make that shift.
MS. ATKINS: We also don’t know how well the president-elect can make that switch. Some of the very same things can be said about him and his interests and how they will affect his business, which we still don’t know as of yet exactly how he’ll separate himself from.
MS. EILPERIN: And I’m wondering, for confirmation, you know, where are the Democrats in this? Because it seems to me like, you know, there are some other people on that list, Giuliani would be at the top, who they absolutely don’t want in the secretary of state position. So even though they might have some reservations about Tillerson, I would imagine that they might be more comfortable with him than some of those possible other candidates.
MR. COSTA: One challenge I think Tillerson will face, if confirmed, is the same kind of challenge General Mattis will face at the Defense Department if confirmed, is how do you influence Trump? People close to Trump tell me they’re confident that Tillerson has the stature from his business experience to speak to Donald Trump as someone of Trump’s generation and give him candid advice. But the person who’s in Trump’s ear is usually the most important person to the president-elect, and that’s usually these days General Mike Flynn, who’s going to be running the National Security Council, national security advisor. And so there’s a concern of how will Mattis and Tillerson get their point of view to Trump.
MR. WILLIAMS: Well, you talked – the president talked today about Syria during his news conference. And the secretary-general of the U.N. summed up a sad turning point in Syria’s five-year-old civil war when he said: Aleppo is now a synonym for hell. Fierce fighting and airstrikes by the Syrian government have left the city in rubble and many residents, including children, dead. Here’s how Secretary of State John Kerry described the bombing.
SECRETARY OF STATE JOHN KERRY: (From video.) The Assad regime is actually carrying out nothing short of a massacre. And we have witnessed indiscriminate slaughter. Not accidents of war, not collateral damage, but, frankly, purposeful, a cynical policy of terrorizing civilians.
MR. WILLIAMS: During the past few days, waves of people have been evacuated from the last opposition-held areas of the city in an operation that has proceeded in fits and starts. Juliet, what was President Obama’s message to the people of Syria today?
MS. EILPERIN: His message was that he was working to get, for example, civilians out of Aleppo, and wanted to see whether he can do it. That he did feel some responsibility for their suffering, but that he concluded that it was not in America’s long-term interest and he couldn’t, in his words, do it on the cheap. And while he spent – he devoted a huge amount of his time to doing this, there’s no way he thought direct military intervention would happen.
MR. WILLIAMS: Robert, do we have any idea what Donald Trump’s policy toward Syria is going to be?
MR. COSTA: I think it will be heavily influenced by Putin and Russia, in the sense that Trump does not see Putin as a foe. And so how Trump approaches Syria, how he approaches ISIS, I think will be mixed at how he perceives global order and how he does not necessarily go along the traditional Republican hawkish lines. And while his instincts on the campaign trail were to be non-interventionist, he does have a militaristic side of him. And we’ll see how that plays out.
MR. SANGER: I think the big question here is militaristic in what direction? So Mr. Trump has said – I think he said to you in some of your interviews; he certainly said to me and Maggie Haberman when we saw him for a series of foreign policy interviews – that his view was that he would join up with Russia and Assad to fight ISIS. So that requires you to do two or three things.
First of all, suspend disbelief for a minute about who the Russians’ other ally is there – Iran, with whom President-elect Trump’s got some problems. Second, it means ignoring the fact that Assad is responsible for the deaths of nearly half a million of his own people. And you have to come to a conclusion at some point that even if you’re fighting ISIS, do you want to be seen propping up somebody of that – of that type? And thirdly, there is no plan right now over what happens once Assad is gone. And there’s no particular prospect that he’ll leave anytime soon. And this is, I think, what we saw President Obama struggling with today. President Obama knows that when the history of his presidency is written, Syria will be the one big open scar.
MR. WILLIAMS: And he seemed, Juliet, to sort of acknowledge that today.
MS. EILPERIN: He did. And he said he couldn’t admit that he’s been successful. Which, you know, President Obama doesn’t admit to failure easily. And I think, you know, he – and it was also the point in his press conference where he seemed the most emotional and upset.
MR. WILLIAMS: But he sort of said, what can I do?
MS. EILPERIN: Yeah.
MR. WILLIAMS: The American people didn’t want this. There were not good options. The military was tied down.
MS. EILPERIN: Yeah. He made – he made – you know, sometimes occasionally he talks about, you know, if I were smarter maybe I could have come up with something else. He kind of made an allusion to that. But he made it very clear that he’s revisited this decision again and again. He takes to bed at night. But he doesn’t change his mind.
MR. WILLIAMS: Kimberly, very briefly, of course, when President Obama was the president – during the time this was most heavily debated – there were Republicans in Congress saying we need to do more. Are we going to hear that in a Trump administration?
MS. ATKINS: It’s possible. I mean, it wasn’t just Republicans who said that. There were times that Secretary Kerry and President Obama disagreed in a public – unusually public way about that. I think this statement today by the president gives a lot of people pause, that there – this wasn’t just a – you know, a decision to do nothing; that there was a lot of deliberation going into this, that there are difficult factors, that this isn’t something that just demands more boots on the ground, that it’s a political solution that’s missing. And that’s the toughest part. And I think that’s something that folks on both sides of the aisle are coming to understand.
MR. WILLIAMS: All right. Thank you all. Thank you all for the insight. Our conversation continues on the Washington Week Extra, where we’ll talk about Donald Trump’s controversial choice for American ambassador to Israel and about the Electoral College’s meeting on Monday. You can find that at www.PBS.org/WashingtonWeek. And while you’re there, test your news knowledge on the Washington Week-ly News Quiz.
I’m Pete Williams. Thanks for tuning in. Have a great weekend.