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National security adviser says he's seen 'no evidence' Russia backing Trump, contradicting intelligence community

Intelligence officials briefed members of Congress this month that Russia was interfering in the campaign to try to boost Trump's re-election chances.
Image:  President Donald Trump with newly announced White House national security adviser Robert O'Brien at Los Angeles International Airport on Sept. 18, 2019.
President Donald Trump with his newly announced White House national security adviser, Robert O'Brien, at Los Angeles International Airport on Sept. 18, 2019.Tom Brenner / Reuters

National security adviser Robert O'Brien said he's seen "no evidence" that Russia is seeking to aid President Donald Trump's re-election, but he said reports that Russia is trying to boost Sen. Bernie Sanders' presidential campaign were "no surprise."

"I haven't seen any intelligence that Russia is doing anything to attempt to get President Trump re-elected," O'Brien told ABC News' "This Week" on Saturday, describing the reporting from classified briefings as "leaks."

Intelligence officials briefed members of Congress this month that Russia was interfering in the campaign to try to boost Trump's re-election chances. The briefing angered the president, who worried that Democrats would weaponize the information against him.

A former intelligence official briefed on the matter told NBC News that the briefing led to the ouster last week of Joseph Maguire, the acting director of national intelligence. He was replaced on a temporary basis by the U.S. ambassador to Germany, Richard Grenell.

O'Brien claimed that reporting on the classified briefing amounted to "leaks," saying "it's the same old story we've heard before."

"Our message to the Russians is stay out of the U.S. elections," he said. "We've been very tough on Russia, and we've been great on election security."

At a campaign rally Friday in Las Vegas, Trump said the reports were "disinformation" being promoted by Democrats.

O'Brien said he has not seen the intelligence or analysis that intelligence officials shared with lawmakers.

Pressed by ABC's George Stephanopoulos whether he had asked to see it, O'Brien said, "Look, I want to get whatever analysis they've got, and I want to make sure that the analysis is solid.

"From what I've heard — again, this is only what I've seen in the press — it doesn't make any sense," O'Brien said, pointing to the Trump administration's foreign policy. "Why would they want him re-elected? That doesn't make any sense to me. But look, if there's someone from the intel community that has something different, I'd be happy to take a look at it. I just haven't seen it."

After the intelligence community concluded that Russia interfered in the 2016 election to boost Trump, it has repeatedly warned about the need to counteract Russian efforts aimed at future elections.

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Sanders, the independent from Vermont who is leading the Democratic field, excoriated Russia on Friday after The Washington Post reported that U.S. officials had briefed him that Russia is trying to boost his campaign as part of an effort to interfere with the primary campaign.

"The intelligence community has been very clear about it — whether Trump recognizes it not or acknowledges it or not, they did interfere in 2016," Sanders told reporters. "The intelligence community is telling us they are interfering in this campaign right now in 2020. What I say to [Russian President Vladimir Putin]: If elected president, trust me, you will not be interfering in American elections."

On that, O'Brien said he wasn't surprised that Russia would seek to boost Sanders because he's "honeymooned in Moscow."

On NBC News' "Meet the Press," Vice President Mike Pence's chief of staff, Marc Short, said it would be "hard to suggest ... that Russia would prefer to have Donald Trump than a person, Bernie Sanders, who honeymooned in the Soviet Union and still seems to prefer Marxism over capitalism."

O'Brien and Short echoed remarks Trump made at the same Las Vegas rally.

"So, doesn't [Putin] want to see who the Democrat is gonna be?" Trump said. "Wouldn't he rather have, let's say, Bernie? Wouldn't he rather have Bernie? Who honeymooned in Moscow?"

Trump said Sunday that he was not briefed on the intelligence regarding Russia's support of Sanders.

"I have not been briefed on that at all," he told reporters outside the White House. "Nobody told me about it. They leaked it."

In response to Trump's calling for an investigation into him as a result of the recent reporting, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., tweeted: "Nice deflection, Mr. President."

"But your false claims fool no one," he continued. "You welcomed Russian help in 2016, tried to coerce Ukraine's help in 2019, and won't protect our elections in 2020. Now you fired your intel chief for briefing Congress about it. You've betrayed America. Again."

Claiming that Schiff was the source of the reports, Trump tweeted: "Somebody please tell incompetent (thanks for my high poll numbers) & corrupt politician Adam 'Shifty' Schiff to stop leaking Classified information or, even worse, made up information, to the Fake News Media."

"Someday he will be caught, & that will be a very unpleasant experience!" Trump added.

Criticizing O'Brien's commentary about Sanders, Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, said Sunday that the national security adviser "should stay out of politics."

"What we know is that the Russians never stopped interfering in American politics," Murphy said on CNN's "State of the Union." "They don't just get involved in elections. They are involved every single day, and analysis of what they have been doing on Twitter since 2016 has been pretty clear. They are weighing in over and over again in support of right-wing causes, in support of Donald Trump's political agenda."

The Sanders campaign claimed Friday that the revelation was part of a coordinated effort tied to Trump's visit to Nevada.

"if you think this leak wasn't designed to hurt Bernie, you're not paying attention," tweeted Mike Casca, the Sanders campaign's communications director. "it's very clear Trump is nervous about facing him in the general election."