Obama official: We 'choked' on Russia response: report

The Obama administration was slow and cautious in its response to the Kremlin's efforts to meddle in the 2016 presidential election, according to an explosive Washington Post report published Friday.

The Obama White House anxiously considered for months how to punish Russia for a coordinated influence and hacking campaign intended to politically damage Democratic nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonFBI’s top lawyer believed Hillary Clinton should face charges, but was talked out of it Harris adds key Clinton aide, women of color to 2020 campaign: report Democrats more likely Trump's foil, than to foil Trump MORE and elect Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpJustice Department preparing for Mueller report as soon as next week: reports Smollett lawyers declare 'Empire' star innocent Pelosi asks members to support resolution against emergency declaration MORE

The slow response has led to second-guessing in the aftermath.

“It is the hardest thing about my entire time in government to defend,” the Post quoted one Obama administration official as saying. “I feel like we sort of choked.”

Former President Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaObama attends UNC-Duke basketball game Obama, Steph Curry team up to tell young men of color: 'You matter' The Memo: Bernie Sanders’s WH launch sharpens ‘socialist’ question MORE and his top aiders learned that Moscow's efforts to interfere in the presidential race had been ordered at the highest levels in August.

But faced with then-candidate Trump's assertions that the election was being rigged, Obama was wary to give the appearance that he was interfering in the campaign.

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What's more, the widely held assumption among Democrats that Clinton would win in November slowed the administration's pace in responding, according to the Post.

The administration considered a slew of responses during the election, including cyberattacks on critical infrastructure and the release of Russian President Vladimir Putin's financial records or other potentially embarrassing intelligence, the Post reported. 

The administration's response ultimately came in December, more than a month after Trump's victory, when Obama approved a new round of targeted economic sanctions and expelled 35 diplomats from the U.S.

“I don’t think any of us thought of sanctions as being a primary way of expressing our disapproval,” a senior administration official involved in the decision told the Post. “Going after their intelligence services was not about economic impact. It was symbolic.”

He also ordered the planting of cyber weapons in Russian infrastructure, though that plan did not come to fruition before Obama left office in January, and Trump would be responsible for deciding to move forward with the plan. 

Michael McFaul, who served as Obama's ambassador to Russia from 2012 to 2014, said it was clear that the U.S. response was not proportional to the actions perpetrated by Moscow.

“The punishment did not fit the crime,” he told the Post. “Russia violated our sovereignty, meddling in one of our most sacred acts as a democracy — electing our president."

"The Kremlin should have paid a much higher price for that attack," he added. "And U.S. policymakers now — both in the White House and Congress — should consider new actions to deter future Russian interventions.”

Obama's deputy national security adviser, Ben Rhodes, said that the administration had treated the Russian meddling as a threat to the country's cyber infrastructure.

Meanwhile, he said, the Russians were "playing this much bigger game which included elements like released hacked materials, political propaganda and propagating fake news, which they’d pursued in other countries.”

“We weren’t able to put all of those pieces together in real time, and in many ways that complete picture is still being filled in," he told the Post.

A spokesman for Obama insisted in a statement to the Post that the former president was "extremely serious" in his response to the election meddling.

“This situation was taken extremely seriously, as is evident by President Obama raising this issue directly with President Putin; 17 intelligence agencies issuing an extraordinary public statement; our homeland security officials working relentlessly to bolster the cyber defenses of voting infrastructure around the country; the President directing a comprehensive intelligence review, and ultimately issuing a robust response including shutting down two Russian compounds, sanctioning nine Russian entities and individuals, and ejecting 35 Russian diplomats from the country,” the statement reads.

Russia's role in the election, as well as possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Moscow, has become the subject of a special counsel investigation, as well as probes by at least four congressional committees. 

Trump has repeatedly denied any coordination with the Russians and has referred to the special counsel investigation as a "cloud" hanging over his administration.