WASHINGTON — The White House on Thursday pointed to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s direct involvement in cyber attacks designed to impact the US election, dramatically upping the stakes in a dispute between the world’s two leading nuclear powers.
Publicly accusing Putin will put the White House under even greater pressure to respond forcefully to interference that may have swayed a tight November election between Republican President-elect Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton.
“I don’t think things happen in the Russian government of this consequence without Vladimir Putin knowing about it,” Ben Rhodes, a top adviser to President Barack Obama, told MSNBC television.
“Everything we know about how Russia operates and how Putin controls that government would suggest that, again, when you’re talking about a significant cyber intrusion like this, we’re talking about the highest levels of government,” he said.
“And ultimately, Vladimir Putin is the official responsible for the actions of the Russian government.”
His comments were echoed by White House spokesman Josh Earnest, who said that US intelligence agencies’ decision in October to publicly blame “Russia’s senior-most officials” was not meant to be “particularly subtle.”
Blaming Putin also puts the White House on a collision course with Trump himself, who continued to question Russian involvement in hacks of Democratic Party emails that were unflattering to Clinton.
“If Russia, or some other entity, was hacking, why did the White House wait so long to act? Why did they only complain after Hillary lost?” he tweeted.
The division between the White House and Trump risks rupturing Obama’s pledge for a smooth transition to Trump’s administration.