President Barack Obama has said it is possible Russia is trying to interfere in the US presidential election after a leak of politically embarrassing Democratic National Committee emails was attributed by experts to Russian hackers.
“What we do know is that the Russians hack our systems. Not just government systems, but private systems. But you know, what the motives were in terms of the leaks, all that – I can’t say directly,” Obama told NBC News in an interview.
Asked if the Russians were trying to influence the US elections, Obama replied: “Anything is possible.”
Obama’s decision to identify Russia as almost certainly the culprit in hacking the Democratic National Committee and releasing the emails fits his administration’s new penchant for openly blaming foreign governments for such break-ins.
But the Kremlin on Wednesday denied Moscow is interfering in the US election campaign after Obama refused to rule out that Russia could be trying to sway the vote in favour of Republican candidate Donald Trump.
Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton’s campaign has blamed Russia for the embarrassing leak, propelling the Kremlin to the heart of American political debate as tensions between Moscow and Washington linger months before the US elections.
“President Putin has repeatedly said that Russia has never interfered and does not interfere in internal affairs, especially in the electoral processes of other countries,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters.
The Kremlin spokesman earlier dismissed as “absurd” claims that Russia was involved in the hacking of emails released by WikiLeaks.
During the interview, Obama noted that Trump had repeatedly expressed his admiration for the Russian leader.
“What I do know is that Donald Trump has repeatedly expressed admiration for Vladimir Putin,” he said as the interviewer suggested it looked like the president was hinting that Putin might prefer Trump in the White House.
“Well, I am basing this on what Mr Trump himself has said. And I think that Trump’s gotten pretty favourable coverage back in Russia,” Obama said.
Obama traditionally avoids commenting on active FBI investigations. But he told NBC News outside experts have blamed Russia for the leak and appeared to embrace the notion that Putin might have been responsible.
The developing US strategy, unofficially dubbed “name and shame,” is intended to raise diplomatic consequences for foreign governments involved in state-sponsored hacking.
Obama’s comments came after the release by WikiLeaks of emails obtained illegally by hacking into the server of the Democratic National Committee. The emails indicated the Democratic leadership supported Clinton in the primaries against her rival, Senator Bernie Sanders from Vermont.
The Democratic party and the Clinton campaign acknowledged more emails could be released in the coming weeks, with the timing scheduled to inflict most damage to the Democratic nominee.
“The WikiLeaks leak was obviously designed to hurt our convention. I don’t think they’re done. That’s how they operate,” Jennifer Palmieri, communications director for Hillary for America, told a news conference.
“We can’t know, but it’s part of the reason that we wanted people to understand our belief that the Russians are behind this. People need to understand — when these leaks happen — what they’re designed to do,” she said.
In an interview to CNN, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange said the organisation plans to release more emails in coming weeks.
“I think this raises a very serious question, which is that the natural instincts of Hillary Clinton and the people around her, that when confronted with a serious domestic political scandal, that she tries to blame the Russians, blame the Chinese, etc,” he said.
“If she does that when she’s in government, that’s a political, managerial style that can lead to conflict.”
Trump has made no secret of his admiration for Putin, leading some to suggest the Kremlin strongman was working to help propel the real estate billionaire into the White House. In December last year, Putin praised Trump as “a very striking man, unquestionably talented”.
“It’s not up to us to judge his virtues, that is up to US voters, but he is the absolute leader of the presidential race,” Putin said.
Trump responded by hailing Putin as a “strong leader, a powerful leader”.