WASHINGTON — Russia was emboldened by the lack of a decisive response by President Barack Obama’s administration during the 2016 presidential election and will seek to interfere in future elections, a former top U.S. official said.
Victoria Nuland, whose portfolio at the State Department made her a leading Russia official under Obama, made the comments June 20 during a hearing at the Senate Intelligence Committee, which is conducting a sweeping investigation of Russian actions in the United States.
Nuland’s remarks did not contain any bombshell revelations, but they added details to the response in 2016 and 2017 when U.S. intelligence agencies said they discovered a wide hacking-and-propaganda campaign to interfere in the election.
Nuland said that during a meeting in September 2016, Obama gave Russian President Vladimir Putin a “stern and personal warning” to stop its activities.
She said Russian actions appeared to wane for roughly a month, but then picked up by late October, just weeks before the November 8 vote.
“It’s probably the case that the Russians expected deterrent measures and didn’t see them, and so felt they could keep pushing,” she told the committee.
Nuland also echoed previous statements from Obama administration officials about the reluctance by the administration to speak out for fear of being accused by the Republican candidate, Donald Trump, of trying to sway the election.
“I think there was a concern that if this wasn’t handled properly, any move publicly would be seen as President Obama playing into those accusations,” she said.
Obama spoke publicly about the Russian effort in December 2016, and the U.S. intelligence community released more detailed conclusions in January 2017, just weeks before Donald Trump was inaugurated as president. Obama also announced the expulsion of Russian diplomats and the seizure of two Russian diplomatic properties.
Amid consistent Russian denials of interference, the Senate committee, and two other congressional committee, have been conducting various investigations into this question, including interactions between Russian officials and members of Trump’s election campaign.
Special Counsel Robert Mueller is also conducting a widening criminal investigation, which to date has brought indictments against 20 people and three companies on various related charges. That includes Trump’s first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, and Trump’s former campaign manager, Paul Manafort.
Five people have pleaded guilty to date, including Flynn and Manafort’s former business associate, Rick Gates.
Trump himself has repeatedly denied accusations of colluding with Russian officials, and he has stepped up his attacks against Mueller’s probe, calling the investigation a “witch hunt.”