Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., excoriated Russia on Friday after being briefed that the Kremlin is attempting to help his presidential campaign as part of an effort to interfere with the Democratic primary and the 2020 election.
"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 Mr. Putin: If elected president, trust me, you will not be interfering in American elections."
The Washington Post reported on Friday U.S officials have briefed President Trump, other lawmakers on Capitol Hill and Sanders, who has recently become the frontrunner in the Democratic contest, that Russians are helping his campaign. The Post cited people familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
This comes as President Donald Trump was sharply criticized this week for pushing out Joseph Maguire, his acting director of national intelligence, because he was angry that lawmakers on Capitol Hill were briefed that Moscow is interfering in the 2020 election to aid his re-election.
Trump touched on the issue at a Las Vegas rally on Friday, directing his ire at Democrats and balked at the assessment that Russia was helping his reelection.
"I was told it was happening, I was told a week ago, they said, 'You know, they’re trying to start a rumor.' It’s disinformation. That’s the only thing they’re good at. They’re not good at anything else. They get nothing done. Do Nothing Democrats," he said. "That Putin wants to make sure I get elected. So, doesn’t he want to see who the Democrat is gonna be? Wouldn’t he rather have, let’s say, Bernie? Wouldn’t he rather have Bernie? Who honeymooned in Moscow?"
The Sanders campaign claimed the latest report of Russian interference is part of a coordinated effort tied to Trump’s visit to Las Vegas.
Mike Casca, communications director for the Sanders campaign, tweeted: "if you think this leak wasn’t designed to hurt bernie, you’re not paying attention. it’s very clear trump is nervous about facing him in the general election."
Casca also suggested the leak of classified intelligence is tied to the ascendance of newly installed acting director of national intelligence Richard Grenell who, as ambassador to Germany, was criticized by Sanders in 2018 for supporting "right-wing extremist parties across Europe."
Privately, Sanders' aides view the leak as Grenell immediately working with the Trump administration to weaponize intelligence. They noted that Sanders has expressed fears that Trump would use the government to help his reelection campaign.
In 2016, the American intelligence community concluded that Russia conducted information warfare and used social media and other means to interfere in the presidential race with a preference for Trump over his rival Democrat Hillary Clinton.
The Post said it was unclear how Russia is interfering in the 2020 race. Sanders told reporters Friday that he had been briefed a month ago about the effort.
"It was not clear what role they were going to play," he said. "We were told that other countries might get in involved."
He called foreign election interference an "ugly thing" with the goal of "trying to divide us" and incite "chaos and hatred" in America.
"All of us have to say, 'Sorry, you're not going to do this in this election," he said.