After U.S. intelligence agencies and the Homeland Security Department publicly blamed Russia for a campaign of cyber espionage designed to interfere with the presidential election, the Obama administration promised a response “to protect [the country’s] interests at a time and place of our choosing.”
But that response seems unlikely to come before Election Day. The question of how to retaliate for Russia’s unprecedented meddling in the U.S. political system has been the subject of meetings among national security officials, but as of now those plans are still being worked out, according to four officials knowledgeable about the deliberations.
Rather, the administration is likely to work in concert with the president-elect to fashion a response, one official said, like the others speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive internal deliberations. It would, after all, fall to that new commander in chief to deal with the repercussions or retaliating against Russia.
If polls are predictive, that person is likely to be Hillary Clinton, who is sure to have her own thoughts on how to respond to an espionage campaign that was partly designed to undermine her candidacy. Handing her a cyber campaign in progress—without her input—wouldn’t be that wise. Nor would dumping a cyberwar in President Donald Trump’s lap be the brightest idea, considering he has consistently denied any link between the hackers and the Kremlin, despite 17 intelligence agencies’ claims to the contrary.
In an interview, Rep. Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said that he was not aware of the administration’s plans for responding to Russia or how it might coordinate with the president-elect. But he urged the White House to hold its fire until after Nov. 8.
“I wouldn’t want to take any step that might provoke [Russia] into a further escalation,” Schiff told The Daily Beast. That escalation, he said, would likely consist of Russia posting forged emails or documents online that couldn’t be easily refuted in the runup to the vote.
“I don’t think we want to take any steps in the next two weeks to provoke that response,” said Schiff, who added that the ultimate decision should be made soon after the elections are decided. “It’s not something I would want to see drag out too long.”
With Trump alleging that the election has been “rigged” against him, officials and experts fear that voters could be misled by false information. This so-called disinformation campaign may have already begun. Earlier this month, the person, or people, going by the name Guccifer 2.0 posted documents said to have been stolen from the Clinton Foundation, but officials there said the files weren’t theirs. And Clinton campaign staff have refused to verify the authenticity of some emails purportedly stolen from the account of John Podesta, the campaign chairman.
In an interview with NBC News, Vice President Joe Biden said the U.S. is “sending a message” to Russian President Vladimir Putin that there will be consequences for his country’s actions.
“He’ll know it,” Biden said. “And it will be at the time of our choosing. And under the circumstances that have the greatest impact.”
But there are no indications that the United States has taken any response, overt or covert.
Officials emphasized that Obama is not checking out early or shoving his problems off on his successor. Rather he is giving the next president a chance to gradually adjust to the role of commander-in-chief, at a time when the world that doesn’t stop for a peaceful transfer of power.
For the candidates’ part, Trump has said he would seek to repair deteriorating relations with Russia. And given that he doesn’t share the intelligence community’s view about the hacks, he would be unlikely to pursue punitive sanctions or other measures.
Clinton, on the other hand, has signaled a far tougher stance toward the Kremlin. Earlier this week, one of her advisers wrote a column spelling out a more aggressive Russia policy.
It is neither unprecedented nor particularly unusual for a serving president to consult with his successor. And that doesn’t shield him from the political implications of any decision.
“If the policy doesn’t turn out well, Obama would still be responsible,” said Lawrence Korb, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and a senior adviser to the Center for Defense Information, who has worked on political transition teams.
Past U.S. presidents have maneuvered the murky period between the election to Inauguration Day with mixed results. One month after the 1992 election, George H.W. Bush ordered 28,000 troops into Somalia as part of a humanitarian mission, even as he left the exit strategy to his successor, Bill Clinton.
Nine months after Clinton took office, 19 U.S. troops died during the Battle of Mogadishu, and with that U.S. support of the effort there quickly became unpopular. Clinton ordered U.S. troops to withdraw in March 1994.
Four months before the end of the Clinton administration, the USS Cole was attacked, killing 17 sailors. Some critics charged that the lack of a forceful response by Clinton, and subsequently by the George W. Bush administration, emboldened al Qaeda, which attacked the United States less than a year later, on Sept. 11, 2001.
President Carter communicated with his successor, President Reagan, about efforts to free U.S. hostages from Iran, which notably happened the moment Reagan took the oath of office Jan. 20, 1981.
More recently, both presidential candidates in the 2008 race said they supported President George W. Bush and economic bailout plan in October of that year. The effects of the bailout, and the economic crisis that emerged from that period, fell to Obama to address throughout much of his presidency.
Addressing the question of what to do about Russian hacking, Schiff, the intelligence committee member, said decisions of such great consequence ought not to be made without regard to who has to deal with them.
“It makes all the sense in the world to coordinate that response with the president who’s not only going to have to see it though but deal with the repercussions,” Schiff said.