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President Barack Obama on Friday defended his early response to suspicions that the Russian government attempted to influence the 2016 election and appeared to threaten retaliation against those plotting cyberattacks against America.
"Our goal continues to be to send a clear message to Russia, and others, to not do this," he said, adding "Because we can do stuff to you."
He urged that U.S. investigations of cyberattacks should not become a "political football."
"I think we handled it the way it should have been handled," he said during his final scheduled news conference of 2016.
Breaking News Emails
Saying that he was most concerned with the possibility that Russian hackers would undermine the vote count itself, Obama said that he told Russian President Vladimir Putin to “cut it out” when they met face-to-face in the fall.
“In early September when I saw President Putin in China, I felt that the most effective way to ensure that that didn't happen was to talk to him directly and tell him to cut it out and there were going to be serious consequences if he didn't,” he said. “And in fact we did not see further tampering of the election process."
Obama blamed "the highest level" of the Russian government for the hacks, noting that "not much happens in Russia" without Putin giving the green light.
The president said that neither he nor U.S. intelligence agencies initially ascribed motives for the Russian hacks but merely confirmed that they occurred.
"In this hyperpartisan atmosphere, at a time when my primary concern was making sure that the integrity of the election process was not in any way damaged, at a time when anything that was said by me or anyone in the White House would immediately be seen through a partisan lens, I wanted to make sure that everyone understood that we were trying to play this thing straight," he said.
While he opened the press conference by urging that the hacks should not be a partisan issue, Obama did note recent polling that showed a jump in Republicans' approval ratings of Putin.
"Ronald Reagan would roll over in his grave," he said.
Obama also suggested that Russia is "a weaker country" than the United States but added "they can impact us if we lose track of who we are. They can impact us if we abandon our values."
Obama's statements on Russia comes amid a stark disagreement with his Republican successor over the Russian government's efforts to influence the election results.
In the minutes before the press conference began, the Washington Post reported — and NBC News confirmed — that the FBI now says it concurs with the CIA’s assessment that Russia did interfere in the election in part to help Trump win the White House.
But Trump so far has rejected intelligence assessments blaming Moscow for cyberattacks that targeted organizations including the Democratic National Committee. This week, Trump also questioned why the White House "only complain[ed] after Hillary lost."
The Obama administration, in fact, formally accused the Russian government of the hacking on October 7, a month before the election. In an interview with NPR on Thursday, Obama said that the United States will retaliate for the cyberattacks.
"I think there is no doubt that when any foreign government tries to impact the integrity of our election, we need to take action,” Obama told NPR. "And we will — at the time and place of our choosing."
Obama on Friday declined to discuss whether the Russian hacks contributed to Hillary Clinton’s unexpected loss to Republican Donald Trump, but he did admonish the media for the way the presidential contest was framed.
"I don’t think she was treated fairly during the election," he said. "I think the coverage of her and the issues was troubling."
Asked about the fairness of the electoral college, Obama stopped short of saying it should be phased out but called the system “a vestige, or a carryover, from an earlier vision of how our federal government was going to work.”
The president also spoke candidly about the ongoing situation in Syria amid renewed criticism as the embattled city of Aleppo falls to the government forces of Bashar Assad. The massive operation to evacuate remaining civilians and rebels inside the city stalled Friday amid a new outburst of violence.
"I cannot claim that we’ve been successful ... But I continue to believe it was the right approach," Obama said.
The president said he weighed a number of options since the bloody conflict began in 2011, but none would have stopped the violence without endangering the long-term security interests of the United States.
In 2012, Obama called the use of chemical weapons by Syrian government forces a “red line” but did not enforce that policy after evidence indicated that such weapons had, in fact, been used. But the brutality, Obama contended, could not have been fully dealt with without U.S. troops on the ground and full-scale U.S. involvement.
"Unless we were all in and ready to take over Syria, we were going to have problems ... It was going to be impossible to do this on the cheap," Obama said.
Despite that, Obama said he feels a responsibility for the brutal violence that has been captured by both journalists and on social media.
"I always feel responsible ... There are places around the world where horrible things are happening and because of my office, because I am the president, I feel responsible," Obama said.
Trump’s arrival to the White House could prompt a major shift in U.S. policy towards Assad and his ally, Russia.
"I don't like Assad at all," Trump said during a presidential debate in October. "But Assad is killing ISIS. Russia is killing ISIS."
Obama acknowledged it's good for an incoming president to view U.S. foreign policy with “fresh eyes,” but that he needs to take a "systematic, deliberate" approach to dealing with America’s alliances around the world.
Trump angered Chinese leaders by holding a call with the Taiwanese president that bucked the well-established “One China” policy that does not acknowledge Taiwan as own government.
"Their reaction on this issue could end up being very significant. That doesn’t mean that you have to adhere to everything that’s been done in the past, it does mean that you got to think it through and have planned for potential reactions that they may engage in," Obama said.