Several Republicans used a Senate hearing Wednesday to admonish former President Barack Obama for failing to stop Russia’s hacking of the 2016 presidential campaign, echoing a narrative that President Donald Trump has promoted in recent days.
A number of lawmakers went after Obama for not being more publicly vocal about the Russian-ordered hacking, which U.S. intelligence agencies said targeted campaigns, Democratic Party organizations and state election databases in the months before Election Day.
“He stood idly by in the 2016 election,” said Arkansas Republican Sen. Tom Cotton during the Senate Intelligence Committee hearing, which focused on Russian attempts to meddle in European elections.
“I’m talking about somebody that could have done something while this was going on,” said Sen. Jim Risch, an Idaho Republican.
The attacks are not new — lawmakers on both sides of the aisle chastised Obama for inaction during the run-up to the election. But the accusations have gained additional steam following a recent Washington Post report that detailed the Obama administration’s thought process behind the decision not to officially punish Moscow until the White House imposed sanctions in December.
The Obama administration did, however, publicly blame Russia for the digital intrusions at the DNC in October, one month after Obama privately scolded Russian President Vladimir Putin over his alleged actions.
The Post also reported that GOP leaders in Congress "resisted" the administration’s pleas to join in warning the public about the Russian efforts, with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) "voicing skepticism that the underlying intelligence truly supported the White House’s claims." And Trump has repeatedly expressed doubts that Russia was necessarily involved, speculating at one point that the cyberattacks on the Democrats could be the work of "somebody sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds.”
Still, Trump quickly picked up on the Post story. “Since the Obama Administration was told way before the 2016 Election that the Russians were meddling, why no action?” he tweeted.
The president repeated the attacks on Twitter over the next few days.
Witnesses at Wednesday’s hearing mostly agreed that, in retrospect, Obama could have done more.
“If you go back and look at it, the American people, in my judgment, deserved to know what was happening,” said Nicholas Burns, a top State Department official during the Obama era and a former ambassador to NATO during the George W. Bush administration. “We should have had a more immediate response that was more painful to the Russians.”
But not all Republicans said Obama was singularly to blame.
Maine Sen. Susan Collins argued that while Obama’s reaction was “behind-the-scenes, ineffective and tardy,” Trump has not been any better.
His administration, Collins said, “does not seem to have any strategy to deal with this.”
Collins’ remarks mirror a line of attack Democrats have been using in recent weeks — that Trump has repeatedly failed to take the necessary steps to harden the country’s election systems against hacking in 2018 or 2020.
Burns strongly agreed, telling Risch that “the more pertinent question” is why Trump isn’t taking action now.
“To me,” Risch countered, “what’s more pertinent is what should have been done by the commander in chief at the time.”