Sanders says he was briefed on Russian effort to help campaign

Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersBiden campaign: Trump and former vice president will have phone call about coronavirus Judge slams Wisconsin governor, lawmakers for not delaying election amid coronavirus outbreak The Hill's Campaign Report: Biden offers to talk coronavirus response with Trump MORE (I-Vt.) on Friday acknowledged that he was briefed by U.S. intelligence officials about Russian attempts to interfere in the 2020 elections, with The Washington Post reporting that Russia has sought to help his presidential campaign.

The Post's report was published the day after The New York Times reported that House lawmakers were told by U.S. officials last week that Russia was also attempting to interfere in the 2020 elections to help the campaign of President TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden campaign: Trump and former vice president will have phone call about coronavirus Esper: Military personnel could help treat coronavirus patients 'if push comes to shove' Schumer calls for military official to act as medical equipment czar MORE.

Sanders told reporters on the campaign trail Friday that he was briefed on Russian interference efforts "about a month ago," speculating that the news of potential Russian interference efforts came out now because it was on the eve of the Nevada caucuses.

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"It was not clear what role they were going to play. We were told that Russia, maybe other countries, are gonna get involved in this campaign," Sanders said.

"The ugly thing that they are doing, and I've seen some of their tweets and stuff, is they try to divide us up. That's what they did in 2016," he added.

Sanders described Russian President Vladimir PutinVladimir Vladimirovich PutinRussian lawmakers approve fines, prison terms for spreading false coronavirus information The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Trump: Next couple of weeks are going to be rough The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Trump blends upbeat virus info and high US death forecast MORE as a “thug” in a statement on Friday, emphasizing that he stands “firmly against” Russian interference efforts.

“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," Sanders said. "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."

According to U.S. intelligence agencies, the Senate Intelligence Committee and the report compiled by former special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) MuellerCNN's Toobin warns McCabe is in 'perilous condition' with emboldened Trump CNN anchor rips Trump over Stone while evoking Clinton-Lynch tarmac meeting The Hill's 12:30 Report: New Hampshire fallout MORE, Russian agents successfully launched a sweeping interference campaign in the lead-up to the 2016 elections designed to favor Trump's campaign that year.

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These interference efforts included disinformation campaigns across social media platforms and targeting state election systems, with Russian agents successfully hacking into the voter registration database in Illinois and systems in two Florida counties. There is no evidence that any votes were changed. 

Sanders addressed the previous Russian election interference in his statement on Friday, saying 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.”

Sanders also described his campaign as the “strongest” in terms of having the chance to beat Trump in the election, pointing to “grassroots” funding efforts.

“I don't care, frankly, who Putin wants to be president,” Sanders said in his statement. “My message to Putin is clear: stay out of American elections, and as president I will make sure that you do.”

Sanders noted his concerns around Russian disinformation efforts during the Democratic debate earlier this week.

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“All of us remember 2016, and what we remember is efforts by Russians and others to try to interfere in our election and divide us up,” Sanders said during the debate. “I’m not saying that’s happening, but it would not shock me.”

Russian election interference efforts have been in the spotlight this week after reports on Thursday revealed that former acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph MaguireJoseph MaguireFormer intelligence chiefs slam Trump for removing officials Acting director of National Counterterrorism Center fired: report Trump taps new director for National Counterterrorism Center MORE stepped down from his position due to Trump’s displeasure that intelligence officials briefed the House Intelligence Committee about Russian efforts to interfere in the 2020 elections.

According to The New York Times, Trump was particularly displeased with committee Chairman Adam SchiffAdam Bennett SchiffDemocrats introduce bill to set up commission to review coronavirus response Schiff drafting legislation to set up 9/11-style commission to review coronavirus response Coronavirus pushes GOP's Biden-Burisma probe to back burner MORE (D-Calif.), one of the leaders of the impeachment inquiry into the president's dealings in Ukraine, being present during the briefing and worried that Democrats would use the information about Russian interference against him. 

Trump on Friday pushed back against these reports, tweeting that they were part of a “misinformation campaign” against him. 

Both the House and Senate are due to receive briefings on election security efforts ahead of 2020 on March 10. A Senate aide told The Hill that the Senate briefing was planned prior to the reports of Russian interference. 

The new revelations about interference come after FBI Director Christopher Wray testified to the House Judiciary Committee earlier this month that foreign influence efforts by Russia “never stopped” after the 2016 elections. 

Wray signed on to an op-ed earlier this week asking that the Americans be vigilant of election interference efforts.

In the op-ed, Wray — along side Maguire, acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad WolfChad WolfDemocratic lawmakers demand government stop deporting unaccompanied children Hillicon Valley: Malicious emails spike amid coronavirus | Real ID deadline delayed one year | Trump officials to limit Huawei's chip access Travel industry hails REAL ID extension, says may need to be longer MORE, Attorney General William BarrWilliam Pelham BarrTrump announces enhanced counternarcotics operation at coronavirus briefing Trump administration makes push for transitional government in Venezuela Brooklyn man accused of lying about hoarding medical supplies, coughing at officers MORE, and several other top officials — asserted that “we have yet to identify any activity designed to prevent voting or change votes.”

Updated: 6 p.m.