President Barack Obama on Tuesday wouldn’t rule out the possibility that Russian President Vladimir Putin could be attempting to tip the US presidential election toward Donald Trump.
“Anything’s possible,” Obama responded when asked during an interview whether Russians could be working to influence the contest between Republican nominee Trump and Democratic rival Hillary Clinton.
“Donald Trump has repeatedly expressed admiration for Vladimir Putin,” Obama said during the sit-down with NBC News. “And I think that Trump’s gotten pretty favorable coverage back in Russia.”
Democrats have been alleging that Putin is seeking to alter the White House race after a massive hack of the Democratic National Committee and subsequent release of damaging emails from the organization’s staff. Private cybersecurity experts have pinned the breach on Russia, and the FBI is investigating.
Obama said in the NBC interview, “What we do know … is that the Russians hack our systems. Not just government systems, but private systems.” He couldn’t identify yet the motive behind the cyber intrusion.
The President’s comment was the furthest the US government has gone in publicly blaming Russia for carrying out cyber attacks on the US.
In a bid to discourage cyber attacks by foreign governments, the administration in recent years has pursued a “name and shame” policy, publicly attributing computer intrusions to government entities in China, North Korea and Iran. But not Russia.
White House homeland security adviser Lisa Monaco, appearing Tuesday at a cyber-security conference hosted by the FBI and Fordham University in New York, said there wasn’t a reluctance to name Russia. Determining attribution takes investigative work, which is ongoing, she said.
The Obama administration has declined to label Russia the perpetrator in the DNC hack, but Secretary of State John Kerry said he had raised the issue with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov after WikiLeaks posted emails from the hack online.
Earlier Tuesday, Clinton’s campaign manager suggested Russia was attempting to damage Democrats as they begin their nominating convention in Philadelphia.
“I don’t think it’s coincidental that these emails were released on the eve of our convention here, and I think that’s disturbing,” Robby Mook said.
Trump has expressed admiration for Putin as a leader, even as the Russian president remains deeply at odds with the US following his incursion into Ukraine and his support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whom the US has called on to leave office as a bloody civil war rages in his country.
Meanwhile, the Republican’s skepticism of NATO — intended as a line of defense against further Russian aggression in Europe — is said to appeal to Putin. Clinton has vowed a tough approach to territorial disputes involving Russia.
“I wouldn’t put anything past the Kremlin,” said Rep. Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, calling Trump “a dream candidate for Moscow” and describing the Russians as “very afraid of Hillary Clinton.”
“The Russians have the motive, they have the means certainly,” Schiff told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer.
Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort told CNN that those suggestions were “crazy.”
Trump himself tweeted a similar sentiment on Tuesday.
“In order to try and deflect the horror and stupidity of the Wikileakes disaster, the Dems said maybe it is Russia dealing with Trump. Crazy!” he wrote. “For the record, I have ZERO investments in Russia.”