President Barack Obama is promising that the US will retaliate against Russia for its suspected meddling in America’s election process, an accusation the Kremlin has vehemently denied.
Amid calls on both sides of the political aisle on Capitol Hill for a congressional investigation, including assertions president Vladimir Putin was personally involved, Mr Obama said in an interview that anytime a foreign government tries to interfere in US elections, the nation must take action “and we will at a time and place of our own choosing.”
“Some of it may be explicit and publicised, some of it may not be,” he told NPR News.
“But Mr Putin is well aware of my feelings about this, because I spoke to him directly about it.”
White House officials said it was “fact” that Russian hacking helped Donald Trump’s campaign against Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton. Administration officials also assailed Mr Trump himself, saying he must have known of Russia’s interference.
No proof was offered for any of the accusations, the latest to unsettle America’s uneasy transition from eight years under Mr Obama to a new Republican administration led by Mr Trump.
The claims of Russian meddling in the election also have heightened already debilitating tensions between Washington and Moscow over Syria, Ukraine and a host of other disagreements.
In the NPR interview, Mr Obama sought to contrast the current incident with “a traditional understanding that everybody’s trying to gather intelligence on everybody else.”
“One of the things we’re going to have to do over the next decade,” he said, is find an international understanding on rules involving what has become “a new game”. Mr Obama said that US officials should not let “the inter-family argument between Americans” obscure the need for people to “stand together” on this issue.
“My view is that this is not a partisan issue,” the president said, exhorting people to “take it out of election season and move it into governing season.”
Speaking to reporters, presidential spokesman Josh Earnest said that “only Russia’s senior-most officials could have authorised these activities.”
Mr Obama’s deputy national security adviser, Ben Rhodes, connected the dots further, saying it was Mr Putin who was responsible for the Russian government’s actions.
“I don’t think things happen in the Russian government of this consequence without Vladimir Putin knowing about it,” he told MSNBC.
The explosive accusation paints Mr Putin, the leader of perhaps America’s greatest geopolitical foe, as having directly undermined US democracy. US officials have not contended, however, that Mr Trump would have been defeated by Mrs Clinton on 8 November if not for Russia’s assistance. Nor has there has been any indication of tampering with the vote-counting.
The Kremlin rejected the claim of Mr Putin’s involvement, with Mr Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov dismissing it as “laughable nonsense.”
There has been no specific, persuasive evidence shared publicly about the extent of Mr Putin’s role or knowledge of the hackings. That lack of proof undercuts Democrats’ strategy to portray Mr Putin’s involvement as irrefutable evidence of a directed Russian government plot to undermine America’s democratic system.
The dispute over Russia’s role is fueling an increasingly public spat between Mr Obama’s White House and Mr Trump’s team that is threatening to spoil the delicate truce that the two men have forged since Election Day to smooth the billionaire businessman’s move to the White House in little over a month.