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Obama Suggests Putin Had Role As U.S. Recasts Antagonistic Relationship With Russia

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

President Obama's spending his last days in office railing against Russia. At his final press conference of the year, the president repeated that Russia interfered in the U.S. presidential election and said Vladimir Putin is personally responsible.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

PRES BARACK OBAMA: What I can tell you is that the intelligence that I've seen gives me great confidence in their assessment that the Russians carried out this hack.

SIMON: And he told our colleague Steve Inskeep this week the U.S. government will take action against Russia. We're joined now by Washington Post columnist David Ignatius. David, thanks so much for being with us.

DAVID IGNATIUS: Good morning, Scott.

SIMON: President Obama came into office notably pledging a reset on the U.S. relationship with Russia. As - even four years ago, he rather mocked Mitt Romney for saying Russia was the biggest threat to America. What happened?

IGNATIUS: Well, I think Obama was astonished by the ways in which this weak, weak Russia found opportunities to destabilize the United States, also to invade Crimea, also to send military forces into into Syria. It ended up being a much more potent Russia than Obama had thought. And now this year, as the evidence mounted that the Russians were running a covert action against our political system, I think Obama has struggled to figure out what to - what to do about it. He finally really laid his cards on the table with this press conference yesterday. But what was striking was if he'd known so much, why didn't he do more after he begin to learn of the details in August, September, October, before the election.

SIMON: He seemed to pledge in that interview with Steve Inskeep that the U.S. government would take some action against Russia. What's the range of action? Or is - or is that kind of brave talk at this point?

IGNATIUS: I don't think presidents say things like that without meaning it, intending to deliver, but we have no idea what actions there might be. Certainly, there's a range that would include responding in kind. We've said that Russia attacked our political process - that they interfered with our political process. And you could do something similar. You could release information about Vladimir Putin. You could release information about his finances, his friends, his circle. That would be, you could argue, in kind. When I talk to officials, they say, we're so vulnerable in the cyber area ourselves that it's - there's a strong argument that we should respond in some other space - through financial sanctions, through other means - where we're not sitting in the glass house as we throw the rocks.

SIMON: Is this a new Cold War? You covered the last one.

IGNATIUS: It's looking like one. I must say, there's a kind of - a feeling of hubris. This is the kind of thing United States used to do to other countries. We were famous for our covert actions, destabilizing their political systems. A CIA official in the Cold War bragged that our propaganda assets around the world have the ability to manipulate other people's space was like a mighty Wurlitzer. You could sit at the keyboard and play all the notes you wanted. I saw a little piece from a Cuban who lived during the time when the CIA destabilized the Cuban president, Allende. So this was what we did to other people. Russia was doing it to us, but not effectively. The point I thought that was most...

SIMON: Chilean president - Allende - I think. Yes. OK.

IGNATIUS: Yes. Forgive me. Yes, the Chilean president.

SIMON: Nothing undermined the Cuban president (laughter).

IGNATIUS: No, that's right. Forgive me. I thought the most touching, chilling moment of Obama's press conference was he said these tactics will work against us to the extent that we are divided and vulnerable - that we're a soft target when we're arguing with ourselves. He made almost a plea to Congress to do a bipartisan unified report as a way of defending against this attack. If the country's together, the attacks going to be less successful.

SIMON: Fifteen seconds left. Was the president naive about Russia, or are Republicans in Congress naive now?

IGNATIUS: I think the president had overly generous hopes about what Russia could do in Syria. He always said let's leave for an exit ramp for them in Ukraine. Yes, that was naive. Now today as Republicans in Congress or Republicans around Donald Trump say no, no, no, it's not possible. Russia couldn't have done that. Baloney - the intelligence evidence is said to be very clear.

SIMON: Thank you. David Ignatius, thanks so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.