White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest was asked multiple times on Tuesday why the Obama administration did not have the same public reaction to the 2015 Office of Personnel Management hack by China that it is currently having towards Russia for its cyber breaches during the 2016 presidential election.
Earnest tried to stress that both attacks were important but different during the White House daily press briefing.
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ABC's Jonathan Karl first referenced the retaliatory steps the administration took against Russia last week, which included expelling 35 Russian diplomats and imposing more sanctions.
He asked if there was insufficient evidence to show Russian President Vladimir Putin was involved in the election-related hackings since his name was not on the sanctions list.
Earnest said this was not correct but added that it is hard to name a leader of a country, citing sanctions policies.
Karl then asked why Americans did not get the same public outrage and reaction that Russia is currently receiving when the Chinese hacked the OPM, compromising the records of around 22 million people. Karl said that the administration did "nothing publicly" in response.
"So, when the Chinese hacked OPM in 2015, 21-plus-million current and former government employees and contractors had their personal records stolen by the Chinese," he said. "Why did the White House do nothing publicly in reaction to that happening? Which, in some ways, was even more widespread than what we saw here from the Russians."
Earnest said that these situations are "malicious in nature, but materially different."
Karl jumped back in to remind Earnest that over 20 million people were directly affected by the Chinese data breach into the OPM's system.
"21 million people had their personal [inaudible] taken–fingerprints, social security numbers, background checks," he said. "I mean, this was a far-reaching hack."
Earnest said that he was not "downplaying the significance of it" but stressed, again, that it was "different" than Russia's election interference.
He continued by telling Karl that he cannot comment on the private matters that Obama took in dealing with Beijing in this instance.
"But nothing was announced," Karl said. "There was not a single step announced by the White House in response to that."
"That is true," Earnest replied. "There was no public announcement about our response."
He reiterated that he cannot publicly speak to the response.
Karl then cited recent steps taken against Russia as a response for the Kremlin's role in hackings against American political networks, which the intelligence community believes were meant to affect the 2016 election.
"But no diplomats expelled, no compounds shut down, no sanctions imposed, correct?" Karl asked.
"Uh, well again, I can't speak to–" Earnest started before Karl fact-checked him.
"You don't do that stuff secretly," Karl said.
Earnest backed off, saying that when it comes to diplomats, those expulsions are made public.
He said this is something the administration takes seriously and that Obama did raise his concerns with his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping.
Earnest continued to describe the progress made by the Chinese government to ensure "norms" in the cyber realm.
"But do you see how there's just this widely different response?" Karl then said. "I mean, with the Russians, which, of course, is very politically charged, the White House takes this action, makes it public. With the Chinese, which was not so politically charged, but was absolutely as far-reaching a hack as we'd ever seen in this country, nothin public."
"At least of the government," Earnest responded.