Russia is once again featuring proinently in the U.S. presidential campaign, with intelligence officials warning lawmakers that Moscow is meddling in the process to support President Donald Trump and Democratic candidate Senator Bernie Sanders.
Sanders on February 21 blasted any efforts by Russia and its “thug” leader to interfere in the November election after reports surfaced of a briefing he recently received from U.S. intelligence officials.
“I don't care, frankly, who [Russian President Vladimir] 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 78-year-old Vermont senator said in a statement.
“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,” the statement said.
Sanders said that “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.”
'Wouldn't He Rather Have Bernie?'
The Washington Post on February 21 reported that U.S. officials have told Sanders, one of the leaders among Democratic contenders, that Russia was trying to help his campaign.
The report did not specify the type of help Russia was attempting to provide.
During a California campaign stop, Sanders did not provide specifics but said the "intelligence community is telling us that Russia is interfering in this campaign right now in 2020."
According to a U.S. criminal indictment filed in 2018 against a Russian Internet troll farm, Moscow also took steps to support Sanders in the 2016 presidential campaign.
On February 20, multiple media outlets reported that U.S. intelligence officials warned lawmakers that Russia was interfering in the 2020 presidential election in a bid to aid Trump’s reelection campaign.
Trump in a post on Twitter on February 21 rejected the reports, describing them as part of "another misinformation campaign…launched by Democrats in Congress."
Later, during a campaign rally Las Vegas, he joked that Putin might actually prefer Sanders in the White House.
“Wouldn't he rather have, let’s say, Bernie?” Trump said. “Wouldn’t he rather have Bernie, who honeymooned in Moscow?"
U.S. Special Counsel Robert Mueller last March concluded that Russia carried out "multiple, systematic efforts" to interfere in the 2016 presidential election, including through hacking and social media manipulation.
The conclusions backed those made earlier by the U.S. intelligence community.
Trump has expressed admiration for Putin and declared desires to improve relations with Russia.
Democrats have accused him of favoring Russia in foreign policy decisions. Trump has denied the allegations and has said he has been tougher on Moscow than any other U.S. president.
Russia has also denied it has interfered in the U.S. political process.
The recent reports are in line with remarks made at a hearing this month by FBI Director Christopher Wray, who told the House of Representatives Judiciary Committee that Moscow was engaged in “information warfare” ahead of the November election through a covert social media campaign aimed at dividing the American public and sowing discord.