WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama, after an intelligence report describing Russian hacking of the 2016 U.S. election campaign, said he's surprised by the extent to which false information has been able to influence the nation's democratic processes.
But Obama said he did not misjudge Russian President Vladimir Putin.
"I don't think I underestimated [Putin], but I think that I underestimated the degree to which, in this new information age, it is possible for misinformation, for cyber hacking and so forth, to have an impact on our open societies, our open systems," Obama said Friday in an interview that aired Sunday on ABC's This Week.
Obama said the ability of foreign countries to affect the U.S. political debate partly reflected the cynicism many people have toward mainstream news.
"In that kind of environment, where there's so much skepticism about information that's coming in, we're going to have to spend a lot more time thinking about how do we protect our democratic process," Obama added.
An unclassified version of the report directly tied Putin to election meddling and said Russia had a "clear preference" for eventual winner Republican Donald Trump over Democrat Hillary Clinton. The report said the Russian government provided hacked emails from the Democratic National Committee and Clinton's campaign chairman, John Podesta, to the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks. The website's founder, Julian Assange, has denied that it got the emails it released from the Russian government, though the report noted that the emails could have been passed through middlemen.
Russia also used state-funded propaganda and paid "trolls" to make hostile comments on social media services, the report said. The type of interference that U.S. intelligence agencies linked to Putin has been going on for some time, and could happen again during elections in Europe this year, Obama said.
"What is true is that the Russians intended to meddle, and they meddled," Obama said. "And it could be another country in the future."
There has been no official comment from Russia on the report, which was released as Russia observed Orthodox Christmas.
Reince Priebus, President-elect Trump's choice for White House chief of staff, criticized the timing of the report's release, saying on CBS' Face the Nation that it is "indisputable" that the rollout was "politically motivated to discredit" Trump.
But Priebus disputed the argument that Trump has rejected the report.
"He's not denying that entities in Russia were behind this particular campaign," Priebus said.
Trump has expressed skepticism about Russia's role and declined to say whether any meddling by Russia was done on his behalf, but "I think he accepts the findings," Priebus said.
Accepting the findings would be a positive step, but not enough, said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who is calling for more penalties against Russia.
"He's going to be the defender of the free world here pretty soon," Graham said of Trump. "All I'm asking him is to acknowledge that Russia interfered, and push back. It could be Iran next time. It could be China."
Graham said on NBC's Meet the Press that he and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., plan to introduce legislation for tougher sanctions against Russia, hitting the country in the financial and energy sectors "where they're the weakest."
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., noted on Face the Nation that Trump has sought better relations with Russia, but Trump has also submitted Cabinet nominees who believe that the Russians "are not our friends, and are a big problem." Those include retired Gen. James Mattis, Trump's choice for secretary of defense; retired Gen. John Kelly, picked to head the Department of Homeland Security; Rep. Mike Pompeo, R-Kan., named to take over the Central Intelligence Agency; and former Sen. Daniel Coats, R-Ind., chosen as the director of national intelligence.
"I don't think it's all that unusual for a new president to want to get along with the Russians," McConnell said. "I remember George W. Bush having the same hope. My suspicion is these hopes will be dashed pretty quickly. The Russians are clearly a big adversary, and they demonstrated it by trying to mess around in our election."
Defense Secretary Ashton Carter also called for a balanced response by the Trump administration that isn't reliant solely on the military.
"There has to be a response," he said.
Priebus and another Trump adviser, Kellyanne Conway, suggested Sunday that a decision on a response will be made at a later date.
Trump's approach to Russia is expected to be debated Wednesday at the confirmation hearing for Rex Tillerson, his choice for secretary of state, before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Panel members have said they'll press Tillerson, the former chief executive officer of Exxon Mobil, about his years of friendly business dealings with Putin.
While committee Chairman Bob Corker said Friday that Tillerson's views on Russia "are not in any way out of the mainstream," the Tennessee Republican added that Russia has done "very nefarious things."
Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said he understands why Trump would "want to be buddies" with Putin, saying it was no different than Obama, Bush and President Bill Clinton.
But Nunes, a member of Trump's transition team, said on Fox News Sunday that he has "cautioned this administration to be careful with Putin, because I think he is a bad actor. It is true we'd like to be friends with Russia, but I'm just not sure it's possible."
Trump has tweeted that when he is president, "Russia will respect us far more than they do now and ... both countries will, perhaps, work together to solve some of the many great and pressing problems and issues of the world!"
In other recent tweets he has hinted he'd like to change decades of policy on nuclear weapons and said the United Nations was a "club for people to get together."
Obama said he warned Trump about the dangers posed by unfiltered use of social media after his inauguration on Jan. 20: "The day that he is the president of the United States, there are world capitals and financial markets and people all around the world who take really seriously what he says, and in a way that's just not true before you're actually sworn in as president."
Obama said the warning came during a recent conversation with Trump, whom he termed "very engaging and gregarious."
The president also predicted that the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, his signature health care law, would survive in some form.
"It may be called something else," he said of the law popularly called Obamacare. "I don't mind."
On health care and other initiatives, "my hope is that the president-elect, members of Congress from both parties look at where have we objectively made progress, where are things working better. Don't undo things just because I did them," he said.
Republicans have suggested it's a question of when, not if, the health care law will be repealed.
"There ought not to be a great gap" between repealing the measure -- the first steps toward which could happen as soon as this week -- and replacing it, McConnell said Sunday.
Priebus said Sunday that "it would be ideal" if repealing and replacing the law could be done "in one big action."
Looking back on the Democratic Party's losses during Obama's two terms in congressional and state legislative elections, the president said he takes "some responsibility."
"I couldn't be both chief organizer of the Democratic Party and function as commander-in-chief," Obama said. "We did not begin what I think needs to happen over the long haul, and that is, rebuild the Democratic Party at the ground level."
Information for this article was contributed by Ros Krasny and Nafeesa Syeed of Bloomberg News; by David Nakamura of The Washington Post; and by Laurie Kellman, Jill Colvin and Jim Heintz of The Associated Press.
A Section on 01/09/2017
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