Witcover: Obama's vital last presidential act

Before President Barack Obama turns off the Oval Office lights for the last time, it's critical that he make good on his order for a definitive report from the full American intelligence community — not just the CIA and the FBI — on whether the Russian government hacked into U.S. cyberspace in ways that could have, or did, affect the outcome of the 2016 presidential election.

Nothing is more necessary to the credibility and integrity of the American political process than to have such a finding bearing the stamp of the executive branch, including Mr. Obama's National Security Agency, while he remains in power.


It doesn't matter that President-elect Donald Trump may complain or Republicans may see whatever comes from the report as a partisan challenge to his Electoral College victory. Nor does the fact both houses of Congress have committed themselves to similar reviews negate the importance that the Obama administration weigh in on this unprecedented allegation involving a major foreign power.

Such a report may not offer conclusive evidence that the government of Russian President Vladimir Putin or agents of it hacked into American political entities to put its hand on the scales. Mr. Trump already has said he doesn't believe it. But American voters are entitled to know as much as possible to determine the answer.


It's highly unlikely that such a report will provide any actionable information that could change the ultimate outcome of Mr. Trump's inauguration. But it could have considerable impact on his credibility in a presidency likely to be dominated by relations with the Russians and Mr. Putin.

Trump's selection of ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson, a longtime Putin associate in oil business negotiations, to be his secretary of state augurs much American apprehension over his Senate confirmation and Trump foreign policy, particularly from Democrats in Congress.

Also, establishment Republicans alienated from Mr. Trump like Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham will hold the new president on a tight and suspicious rein over U.S.-Russian relations that could involve ExxonMobil and Trump Organization business dealings.

Mr. Trump's arrogant refusal to release his income tax returns is in itself a red flag. So is his insistence that a president by law cannot have a conflict of interest when involving Mr. Tillerson cries out for disclosure of Mr. Trump's business dealings with ExxonMobil in Russia.

Furthermore, Mr. Trump's own paucity of foreign policy experience and evident contempt for State Department expertise, demonstrated in his curt dismissal of frequent secret diplomatic briefings on the most sensitive issues and trouble spots, is both baffling and unnerving.

So is his rank rejection of the post-election reports of the CIA and FBI finding indisputable evidence of Russian involvement in the hacking of the emails of the Democratic National Committee and the Hillary Clinton campaign, which were passed to WikiLeaks.

The CIA report from Director of Intelligence James Clapper went further to indicate the hackers' purpose was to help Mr. Trump win election, a conclusion that the FBI report omitted, perhaps as beyond its stated and required mission.

Administration officials have also reported that the Russians hacked the Republican National Committee, but nothing was leaked. Chairman Michael McCaul of the House Homeland Security Committee earlier told CNN the same, but quickly said he was mistaken. Some analysts nevertheless have cited this circumstance as indicative of Russian bias in favor of Mr. Trump's election.


At a bare minimum, Mr. Trump's challenge of the conclusions of both prime intelligence-gathering agencies was a direct expression of no confidence in the principal government sleuthing carried out to protect the safety and security of the nation, and of the president himself.

All this is a worrisome outlook with the Trump presidency barely more than a month away. A possible first presidential action upon or shortly after Mr. Trump's inauguration could be the suppression or scrapping of the Obama-ordered report on the alleged Russian cyberspace hacking.

Perhaps the new president might announce his own order for such an intelligence review, to clear the air and suspicions of collusion in his election. But at this point, how much credibility would that have, and who would carry it out? Would Mr. Trump ask the American intelligence agencies he has already defamed as unworthy of belief to do the job for him?

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power" (Smithsonian Books). His email is