Sen. Bernie Sanders was told by U.S. officials that the Russian government is trying to assist his presidential campaign, according to a new report.
The interference effort, aimed at disrupting the Democratic presidential primaries, has been relayed to President Trump and lawmakers on Capitol Hill, unnamed sources told the Washington Post. The article noted that it is not clear what form the “Russian assistance” has taken.
Sanders, an independent senator from Vermont, released a statement through his campaign minutes after it was published.
“Unlike Donald Trump, I do not consider Vladimir Putin a good friend. He is an autocratic thug who is attempting to destroy democracy and crush dissent in Russia. Let’s be clear, the Russians want to undermine American democracy by dividing us up and, unlike the current president, I stand firmly against their efforts, and any other foreign power that wants to interfere in our election,” Sanders said. “I don’t care, frankly, who Putin wants to be president. My message to Putin is clear: stay out of American elections, and as President I will make sure that you do.”
The news comes one day after disputed reports that U.S. officials believe Russia is also attempting to help Trump win reelection in 2020.
Russia was blamed for an interference effort that rattled the 2016 presidential campaign.
A U.S. Intelligence Community assessment released in January 2017 concluded that “Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the US presidential election” with goals “to undermine public faith in the US democratic process, denigrate Secretary [Hillary] Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency.” The report said the Russians eventually developed a “clear preference” for Trump.
Special counsel Robert Mueller’s two-year investigation concluded that “the Russian government interfered in the 2016 presidential election in sweeping and systematic fashion.” Mueller’s report, released last year, described how Russian military intelligence hacked the Democratic National Committee and provided thousands of stolen emails to WikiLeaks for dissemination, but did not establish a criminal conspiracy between the Trump campaign and the Russians.
Aside from the cyber intrusions and stolen email dissemination, Mueller’s report described how Russian actors carried out another form of election interference through disinformation campaigns on social media.
This was done through the Internet Research Agency, a St. Petersburg-based Russian company that “conducted social media operations targeted at large U.S. audiences with the goal of sowing discord in the U.S. political system.”
Mueller indicted 13 Russian nationals and three Russian companies last year in connection with these disinformation operations. The charges stated the “operations primarily intended to communicate derogatory information about Hillary Clinton, to denigrate other candidates such as Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, and to support Bernie Sanders and then-candidate Donald Trump.”
Mueller’s heavily redacted report cited internal documents from the Internet Research Agency which said: “Main idea: Use any opportunity to criticize Hillary and the rest (except Sanders and Trump – we support them).”
FBI Director Christopher Wray testified earlier this month that Russian disinformation efforts continue heading into the 2020 elections.
“It never stopped,” Wray told the House Judiciary Committee. “It happened in 2016, and it’s been continuing ever since then. It may have an uptick during an election cycle, but it’s a 24/7, 365 days a year threat… We assess that the Russians continue to engage in malign foreign influence efforts.”
The FBI director declined to confirm or deny whether the Russians were backing any particular candidate, but said “the efforts to sow discord on both sides of an issue and to generate controversy and to generate distrust in our democratic institutions on our election process, that is very much ongoing.”
Sanders said Thursday that “in 2016, Russia used internet propaganda to sow division in our country, and my understanding is that they are doing it again in 2020.” He also suggested that “some of the ugly stuff on the internet attributed to our campaign may well not be coming from real supporters.”
Fiona Hill, the National Security Council’s former Russia expert and a Ukraine impeachment witness, testified last year that the Russians sought to hurt both Trump and Clinton in 2016. “The goal of the Russians was really to put whoever became the president … under a cloud,” she said.
“They seed misinformation. They seed doubt. They have everybody questioning the legitimacy of a presidential candidate, be it President Trump or potentially President [Hillary] Clinton, that they would pit one side of our electorate against the other, that they would pit one party against the other,” Hill said.
Late Thursday night, reports from numerous outlets recounted a briefing by officials from the Office of the Director of National intelligence given to the House Intelligence Committee last week, with leaked claims that the briefers told lawmakers Russia wanted to interfere on Trump’s behalf in 2020. Other anonymous sources pushed back on the story.
“Another misinformation campaign is being launched by Democrats in Congress saying that Russia prefers me to any of the Do-Nothing Democrat candidates,” Trump tweeted