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Obama Holds Final News Conference Of 2016; Obama: Russians "Responsible for Hacking the DNC". Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired December 16, 2016 - 16:00   ET


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA: -- long-term with respect to the electoral college -- the electoral college is a vestige, it's a carryover from an earlier vision of how our federal government was going to work that put a lot of premium on states and it used to be that the Senate was not elected directly, it was through state legislatures.

And it's the same type of thinking that gives Wyoming two senators and with about half a million people and California with 33 million get the same two, so there are some structure structures in our political system, as envisioned by the founders, that sometimes they're going to disadvantage Democrats.

But the truth of the matter is, is that if we have a strong message, if we're speaking to what the American people care about, typically you know, the popular vote and the Electoral College vote will align.

And I guess part of my overall message here as I leave for the holidays is that if we looked for one explanation or one silver bullet, or one easy fix for our politics, then we're probably going to be disappointed.

There are just a lot of factors in what's happened, not just over the last few months, but over the last decade that has made both politics and governance more challenging, and I think everybody's raised legitimate questions and legitimate concerns.

I do hope that we all just take some time, take a breath, this is certainly what I'm going to advise Democrats, to just reflect a little bit more about how can we -- how can we get to a place where people are focused on working together, based on at least some common set of facts?

How can we have a conversation about policy that doesn't demonize each other? How can we channel what I think is the basic decency and goodness of the American people so it reflects itself in our politics as opposed to it being so polarized and so nasty.

That in some cases, you have voters and elected officials who have more confidence and faith in a foreign adversary than they have in their neighbors. You know? And those go to some bigger issues.

You know, how is it that we have some voters or some elected officials who think that Michelle Obama's healthy eating initiative and school nutrition program is a greater threat to democracy than our government going after the press if they're issuing a story we don't like.

I mean, that's an issue that I think we've got to wrestle with and we will. People have asked me, how do you feel after the election and so forth? I say well, look, this is a clarifying moment. It's a useful reminder that voting counts, politics counts.

What the president-elect is going to be doing is going to be very different than what I was doing, and I think people will be able to compare and contrast and make judgments about what worked for the American people.

And I hope that building off the progress we've made that what the president-elect is proposing works. What I can say with confidence is that what we've done works. That I can prove.

[16:05:08]I can show you where we were in 2008, and I can show you where we are now, and you can't argue that we're not better off. We are. And for that, I thank the American people and more importantly I thank, well, not more importantly, as importantly I was going to say Josh Earnest, for doing such a great job.

For that I thank the American people, I thank the men and women in uniform who serve. I haven't gotten to the point yet where I've been overly sentimental. I will tell you when I was doing my last Christmas party photo line, many of you have participated in these. They're pretty long.

Right at the end of the line, the president's Marine Corps band comes in, those who have been performing and I take a picture with them, and it was the last time that I was going to take a picture with my Marine Corps band, after an event, and I got a little choked up.

I was in front of Marines so I had to like tamp it down, but it was just one small example of all the people who have contributed to our success. I'm responsible for where we've screwed up, the successes are widely shared with all the amazing people who have been part of this administration. OK, thank you everybody. Mele kalikimaka.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper. We are going to start with the breaking news. President Obama leaving the press room right there. He said that he told Vladimir Putin to cut it out. In his final press conference of 2016, President Obama blaming Russia for interfering in the U.S. elections and holding Russia responsible for hacking the Democratic National Committee as well Clinton campaign chairman, John Podesta.

Let's go right to CNN's Michelle Kosinski. She is at the White House. Michelle, the president said there was evidence of Russian hacking before the election, but this is really the first time he has spoken so fully about the charge.

MICHELLE KOSINSKI, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Yes, and I think as we expected he didn't say very much about this proportional response, that we know the government has been working on, but he went sort of more into the thinking, and also this warning that he said he gave Vladimir Putin back when they met face to face when Russia was suspected in these hacks, in September. Listen to some of what he said there.


PRESIDENT OBAMA: In early September, when I saw President Putin in China, I felt that the most effective way to ensure that that didn't happen was to talk to him directly, and tell him to cut it out, and there were going to be some serious consequences if he didn't.


KOSINSKI: OK, now that warning and there will be consequences, obviously that didn't stop this process of selective leaks, of continued hacks that we know from intelligence officials still continue to this day.

So obviously that warning of consequences was ineffective and the president didn't really address that aspect of it, but I think what he tried to do throughout this press conference was explain his behavior, his choices in great detail, and also defend them, and we saw a defense of how he handled the hacking initially.

We saw a defense of the FBI and how they acted, a defense of the timing of the release of that information, and also an extensive defense on how the U.S. has handled the situation, the absolutely wrenching situation ongoing in Aleppo. Listen to some of that.


PRESIDENT OBAMA: Part of the goal here was to make sure that we did not do the work of the leakers for them by raising more and more questions about the integrity of the election right before the election was taking place, at a time, by the way, when the president- elect himself was raising questions about the integrity of the election.


KOSINSKI: So there you heard his defense of the timing, of naming Russia, of the political forces involved. Of course, you know, how that happened, how it all played out ultimately is the open debate that's raging right now.

I mean, there has been criticism of how that happened coming not just from Republicans, from Democrats. So the president wanted to lay out why they felt -- in fact he spelled it out in those words.

He said that he felt that he did what he should have done, how his administration handled it. He feels that his administration allowed the intelligence community to do their jobs, and he kind of left it at that.

[16:10:07]He also didn't want to wade too far into other, you know, really difficult issues right now like the electors, who might not vote, cast their votes for Donald Trump. The criticism of the FBI and coming from Democrats that that may have contributed to the outcome of the election. So there are things that, you know, as expected, he didn't want to go into too much detail on, but you saw him here wanting to fully take this opportunity at length to explain his decisions.

And once again maybe for the last time try to make the case to the American public of why he felt he was doing, you know, the best under the circumstances, and trying to protect them -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right, Michelle Kosinski at the White House, thank you so much.

Now to how the U.S. came to point fingers at Russia. Sources now confirming an internal message sent from CIA Director John Brennan that the FBI and U.S. intelligence, the National Security director, as well, sorry, the director of National Intelligence as well as the director of the CIA.

That all of them including the FBI Russia tried to undermine U.S. politics and this is important, this is significant, and that one of their motivations was to try to help Donald Trump win the election.

Joining me now CNN chief national security correspondent, Jim Sciutto. Jim, there has not been unanimity on what the motivation of Russia was. The news that the FBI now agrees with CIA Director Brennan that seems significant.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Well, it is. I think one point to make is that there was less disagreement than some reporting and then some GOP lawmakers have been saying, speaking to multiple officials both in the intelligence agencies and in law enforcement.

This is what is new today. The CIA Director John Brennan feeling the need in effect to write the entire CIA staff an internal message that said the following, "There is strong consensus on the scope, nature and intent," that word, of course, as Jake noted key of Russian hacking.

What is the intent? What they assessed the intent to be? Let me add this caveat. You never know intent for sure, that's looking into the minds of President Vladimir Putin and people who work for him.

But their analysis is based on what they know that there were multiple intents here, one, just undermine the political process, so doubts here in America about the presidential election.

But in addition to that weaken Hillary Clinton through these releases of emails and internal communications and thereby help Donald Trump. My understanding from speaking to multiple intelligence officials is that early on, even Russia may not have judged that Donald Trump was going to win this election.

But as he continued to improve his chances, there is a perception, a judgment and assessment inside the CIA that they believe Russia went, in effect, all-in for Donald Trump. Again, that's their assessment with the necessary caveats that they can't know for sure but another thing here. There have been reports out there, also been charges you might say from lawmakers that the FBI and the CIA are disagreeing that the CIA is alone in making this assessment, that the intention may very well have been to help Donald Trump.

In fact I'm told by people on both sides of the river that, is from law enforcement and intelligence agencies that that disagreement is overblown. They maybe nuances there, but in general, they find that very plausible and the CIA believes it has more and more evidence that that was indeed the case.

One final note I would just make, Jake, I've spoken to a lot of people inside the agencies. There is enormous frustration and anger among intelligence agents and analysts and the CIA, and a number of things, attacks on them.

Questioning of the work that they do, charges that they are politicizing the intelligence here, going in for Hillary Clinton, say by making this assessment. Enormous frustration there.

They're trying to do their job and what you're hearing in this communication from the CIA director to them, listen, we're on the same page. Don't believe what you hear about disagreement between us and the CIA. We like what you're doing. We respect what you're doing, unnecessary message based on the anger and frustration I'm hearing from inside those buildings.

TAPPER: Very interesting. Jim Sciutto, thank you so much.

Let's bring in our panel now to talk about the president's press conference. We have with us "USA Today" columnist, Kirsten Powers, Republican pollster, Kristen Soltis-Anderson, CNN senior political analyst, David Gergen also joins us as well as CNN senior political commentator, David Axelrod.

And let me start with you, Kirsten. The president coming out making a very strong defense of himself, of his administration, of the decisions he's made and very specifically criticizing not just the Russians, but things that Donald Trump, the president-elect, has said and done regarding Russia.

KIRSTEN POWERS, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes. Well, and he also was pretty critical I think of the media as well. He felt the media didn't do their job covering the issue appropriately.

[16:15:02] That the media went overboard in covering things that were -- he referred to what was in the WikiLeaks emails basically sort of routine information that was embarrassing, but wouldn't necessarily -- shouldn't have been getting the sort of front page coverage that it was getting and basically saying we put the information out there and you guys didn't do enough with it.

And I think that -- I actually agree with him on sort of the coverage of the more salacious or silly stuff that wasn't relevant. I don't necessarily agree on the other side. I think it's really the job of the people in power to sort of make issues for people, for the press to follow them and highlight them for being important. That's how things often get covered, and that's how people often know what's important.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: And, Kristen, President Obama citing a poll that suggests that 37 percent of Republicans in the United States have a favorable impression of Vladimir Putin. I believe that's a higher favorable rating among Republicans than President Obama has, and his point being was that Donald Trump, the president-elect, has been cozying up for want of a better word, praising Putin.

KRISTEN SOLTIS ANDERSON, WASHINGTON EXAMINER COLUMNIST: Well, this is -- we have become a very tribal nation. And so, when people are listening to these poll questions, they're responding from sort of partisan instincts. You've seen not only improvements in the favorability toward Vladimir Putin but for WikiLeaks, where three years ago, Democrats more favorable to WikiLeaks than Republicans, those numbers have completely flipped. Republicans now are slightly more positive toward WikiLeaks.

And I think a lot of this was in part aided by much of the discussion before the election about the need for this election to be taken seriously and be treated as legitimate, and now, Republicans, having won the election are feeling a little bit like well you told us we needed to accept these results. Now, we're being told this election was illegitimate. And I think that's some of the emotional response you're seeing with them now saying, maybe we like Vladimir Putin and maybe we like WikiLeaks.

But it's not all Republicans and you'll see in some of the confirmation hearings for the secretary of state, et cetera, some of these Republican senators who still hold a very hawkish view on Vladimir Putin, very opposed to what Russia is doing, some of these conflicts between existing Republican senators and the new president- elect potentially coming out.

TAPPER: At one point, President Obama talking about whether or not Putin knew about these hacks, suggested that, of course, he did. Take a listen to that.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The intelligence that I've seen gives me great confidence in their assessment that the Russians carried out this hack. Not much happens in Russia without Vladimir Putin.


TAPPER: Let me go to David Axelrod now.

And, David, did anything President Obama say surprise you? It seemed to me that he was very aggressively linking Donald Trump and the Russians and I don't know that that's going to help make the case to the country, which -- you know, some of whom did vote for Donald Trump, the president-elect, that this Russian hack should be taken very seriously.

DAVID AXELROD, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Yes. You know, I think that, first of all, on the previous point about the poll, I think the point he was trying to make is not that a third of the Republicans are soft on Putin, but the point that Kristen made, which is that we have become so polarized, that even on something like Putin, partisan tribal instincts kick in and you see these great shifts and what he was making the case that we shouldn't do that.

I actually thought, Jake, that he was trying not to be, to condemnatory of Donald Trump, but he was making a point that Trump, throughout the campaign, has or throughout this issue has minimized and dismissed this, and there's a danger in that. His overarching point it seemed to me was this was an incursion on our national sovereignty. This is not a Democratic issue or a Republican issue. Setting aside of what the intent or motivation was, it was an alarming intrusion on our political process by Vladimir Putin, and that should be a source of concern to everyone.

And on this point, Jim Sciutto mentioned earlier how dismayed the intelligence community, I assume the FBI is about the characterization of their roles in this. I thought one important part of this press conference was the president's stout defense of those people who do that work. He was talking about the FBI and he said, they work hard, they save lives.

It's important for the president of the United States to stand up for our institutions, and I think the president was trying very hard to do that in this press conference.

TAPPER: David Gergen, let's talk about that last point, because obviously the FBI just in the last 4 hours has really been under fire by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who in a room full of donors faulted James Comey for the letter and her per -- what she perceives to be his interference in the election, costing her the election, and then John Podesta, Hillary Clinton's campaign chairman, today in "The Washington Post" laying out in an op-ed how he thinks the FBI is really performing in a subpar manner and its behavior during the election was indefensible in John Podesta's view.

[16:20:13] And as David Axelrod pointed out, President Obama, a strong defender of the FBI today.

DAVID GERGEN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: He was a very strong defender of the FBI, and I think, Jake, his whole press conference underscored just how dramatic a change we are having in American government. Ever since the end of World War II when one president has succeeded another, the two presidents, the old one and new one almost always agree on the nature of the threat we face as Americans, but disagree sometimes on the means of dealing with it.

In this case, President Obama has a completely different view of the threat we face from Russia than Donald Trump does. He lay squarely on the Russia, at the Russian's feet, blamed for what's happening in Aleppo we wouldn't have this slaughter were it not for the Russians bringing in armaments and saving Assad, and then on the whole question of this election and the hacking. You know, the Russians are squarely behind that, and here we've got Donald Trump coming in with a completely different sense of reality, you know, in effect going we want to cozy up to the Russians. Vladimir Putin can be our friend. He's the strong man I admire. I admire him and, by the way, now, 37 percent of the American people follow along with Trump and say that, too.

We're in new territory here on so many different fronts, and I think it makes the Trump presidency not just fascinating but it also makes it, you know, very, very, people -- makes people feel very uneasy in Washington in places like the FBI and the CIA, where they want to do their jobs and they fear they have a president who comes in, who is coming in, who is hostile toward them, who has a very different sense of reality and they don't know where that goes.

TAPPER: Of course, at home you might be forgiven for wondering if Russia did all of this as the U.S. intelligence agencies and President Obama allege Russian officials did. What is the United States going to do about it? President Obama did briefly address that. Take a listen.


OBAMA: I told Russia to stop it, and indicated there will be consequences when they do it. Our goal continues to be to send a clear message to Russia or others not to do this to us because we can do stuff to you.


TAPPER: Let's bring in CNN international correspondent Clarissa Ward who is now live in Moscow.

And, Clarissa, President Obama saying there will be consequences for Russia's actions. Has Moscow reacted to that threat yet and do they worry at all, given the fact that they are so overjoyed, according to your reporting and others, with the election of Donald Trump?

CLARISSA WARD, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, there's been no official response yet, and I wouldn't hold your breath in terms of any major shift in the Russian party line which has been this is ludicrous, this is nonsense, prove it or move on. It's indecent, was the word the Kremlin spokesperson used today to describe these constant accusations.

But I think you also heard President Obama during that press conference really illuminating the two main reasons that it is so difficult to respond to Russia and to respond to President Putin in particular. The first one being that naming and shaming don't work. Naming Russia doesn't work because Russia just denies it, whether it's hacking, whether it's when the little green men first appeared in Crimea, you might remember president Putin initially denied there was anything going on there. Shaming, we've seen clearly doesn't work as in Aleppo particularly, in that example.

So, there's a sense that you have a tough situation on your hands as a U.S. president, when you're trying to respond to something like this, because you can't name, you can't shame and the second difficulty becomes that because Russia is engaging in what is essentially hybrid warfare, you can't really respond in a conventional way and you certainly can't respond in a public way.

And unlike President Vladimir Putin, who doesn't really have to answer to his voters, I think the U.S. president does feel some pressure from the American people to answer to them to explain what is being done to punish Russia or to retaliate or to ensure something like this never happens again. And what President Obama was essentially saying there is, you can't really do that in this type of situation.

So, he then says, I can't illuminate for you, I can't tell you exactly how I'm going to respond, and I'm sure that's bound to leave some people feeling was that a weak answer, is it a copout? Why won't he name President Putin directly? Why won't he say exactly what's going to be done in terms of retaliation?

So, it just struck me it illustrates some of the ways in which it is so difficult to respond to the unique set of threats that Russia and President Putin present to the U.S., Jake.

[16:25:00] TAPPER: And, Clarissa, while I have you, let me ask you with your senior international correspondent hat, as somebody who has covered what's going on in Syria, from the front lines of Syria, President Obama said that he feels responsible every time he sees images from Syria, whether it's children being killed by sniper fire or anyone being slaughtered. But that ultimately, he said I understand the impulse to try to do something, but then ultimately when it came to a decision and finding a decision on what to do about Syria and the civil war, finding a solution that was sustainable and realistic and good for the United States, that he ended up where he ended up and he doesn't know that it's successful, but he doesn't know that he would arrive at a different decision.

Having covered what's going on in Syria, what was your response when you heard him say that?

WARD: I think my response was, it's clear that President Obama, that this does weigh on him heavily. He has said this a number of times, that it keeps him up at night, that he does feel some sort of responsibility.

I think maybe privately he might acknowledge that there was a window at some point where the U.S. probably could have done more, where the U.S. potentially could have saved more lives, but what we've seen the president do over and over again is try to present Syria as a situation where there were only two options open to the U.S. do a little bit of not that much, which is what the U.S. ultimately went for, or go full scale boots on the ground, hundreds of thousands of troops invasion.

Personally, from what I have seen on the ground, from what I have heard from allies who were supporting the rebels, I do believe there was a middle ground option, although I do not think anyone would argue that there have ever been any easy answers in Syria. But certainly we've seen President Obama repeatedly try to present this as it was a choice between what we did or a full scale invasion and I still think I did the right thing by doing what we did.

Obviously, he's interested in preserving his legacy, but I do think you heard there as he talked about the ways in which he's haunted by what is happening in Syria that he is aware history may not be so kind, that it may be a stain on his legacy, Jake.

TAPPER: Clarissa Ward in Moscow.

And, David Axelrod, let me go to you, to comment on that, because, obviously, there are no easy answers about Syria, but do you accept that President Obama largely tries to present this as the two choices, either not really do much of anything, which is what's going on right now, or full scale invasion, and he kind of leaves out the fact that there were other options, including more fully arming Syrian moderate rebels, creating a no fly zone, trying more emphatically to get Arab nation troops on the ground there.

What's your insight?

AXELROD: Well, first of all let me say, just knowing him as I do, when he says he anguishes over this, I know that to be true. I don't think there's anything that impacts him as a human being more than children. I remember when the Newtown slayings happened and he emailed me, he said this is the first time I cried in the Oval Office.

And, you know, when any -- whenever a child is in distress or a child is being wronged, that's something that really does get to him. And I think he does anguish about this. But he's also someone who tends to ask the question, then what? The question that wasn't asked when the invasion of Iraq took place, so -- and you heard him articulate it here.

I don't think he was particularly defensive today. He was laying out his reasoning and history will judge whether it was right or it was wrong. But his reasoning this would have sucked us into conflict that would have grown and would have enveloped us in the way these past conflicts did and the country could not afford that, couldn't stand that.

And, you know, whether he would disagree I'm sure there was a viable middle ground and that again will be debated by history. But I don't think anyone should conclude that he was looking for a way not to solve this problem I think that he desperately wanted to find a seclusion. And if you talk to people around the White House, this is something that does haunt them.

TAPPER: And, David Gergen, let me ask you as somebody with experience in many White House, as it does seem as though presidents and historians judge themselves harshly when it comes to inaction in situations such as this, I'm thinking specifically right now about President Bill Clinton and Rwanda. But ultimately, the public doesn't not hold them responsible, because the public doesn't really have much interest in getting involved in foreign wars or better or worse, often for worse when it comes to these innocent lives being slaughtered. GERGEN: That's a very good point, Jake. It's certainly true that

George W. Bush will be remembered far more for going into Iraq than President Obama will be remembered for staying out of Syria.