Bernie Sanders warned Russian president Vladimir Putin to “stay out of American elections” following reports that US intelligence had warned that Moscow was interfering in the election campaign to re-elect Donald Trump.
“Unlike Donald Trump, I do not consider Vladimir Putin a good friend. He is an autocratic thug who is attempting to destroy democracy,” said Mr Sanders, one of the leading Democratic presidential candidates. “The Russians want to undermine American democracy by dividing us up and, unlike the current president, I stand firmly against their efforts.”
US officials reportedly told Mr Sanders’ campaign that Russia was attempting to help the Vermont Senator win the Democratic presidential nomination. This came after Mr Trump reportedly decided against naming Joseph Maguire, the acting director of national intelligence, to the role in a permanent capacity after intelligence officials had briefed lawmakers that Russia was trying to help him win the election, as occurred in 2016.
Mr Trump instead appointed Richard Grenell, US ambassador to Germany and a loyal supporter, to be the new acting director.
“In 2016, Russia used internet propaganda to sow division in our country, and my understanding is that they are doing it again in 2020,” Mr Sanders said in his statement. “Some of the ugly stuff on the internet attributed to our campaign may well not be coming from real supporters.”
Mr Sanders has come under criticism because of the aggressive activity of some of his supporters — dubbed “Bernie Bros” — towards other Democratic campaigns. During the Democratic debate in Las Vegas this week, he said it was impossible to stop all such online activity, while suggesting that Russia might be responsible.
The Vermont senator is leading the national opinion polls following his victory in the New Hampshire primary, which came just after a razor-thin loss to Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, in the Iowa caucuses. He also has a very strong advantage in the polls in Nevada, which holds its 2020 caucuses on Saturday.
Mr Sanders also pushed back on the assumption that his victory in the Democratic nomination would boost the odds of Mr Trump winning. That view is widely held in the Democratic establishment, which is worried that he will win the nomination because the moderate vote is split between numerous candidates, including Joe Biden, former vice-president; Mr Buttigieg; Amy Klobuchar, Minnesota senator; and Michael Bloomberg, former New York mayor.
“Because of our extraordinary grassroots organisation, because of our grassroots fundraising and because of our agenda that speaks to the needs of working class people, we are the strongest campaign to defeat Donald Trump and that is exactly what we will do,” Mr Sanders said.
The claims about Russian interference resurrect the ghosts of the 2016 election. US intelligence determined that Russia attempted to interfere in the US political process with online operations to help Mr Trump win the White House. Mr Trump has long railed against that conclusion, and has frequently lashed out at the intelligence community, referring to the employees who he perceives as being against him as the “deep state”.
Separately on Friday, the US intelligence community saw another high-profile departure after Andrew Hallman, who served as the number two DNI official after Mr Maguire, announced that he would leave the organisation. Mr Trump came under heavy fire from Democrats this week for naming Mr Grenell to the DNI post, partly because of his partisan reputation but mainly due to his almost total lack of experience in the intelligence field.
US media reported on Friday that Mr Trump had also told a top White House official to step up efforts to remove officials across the government who are perceived to be what are known as “Never Trumpers”.
Mr Biden leapt on the reports of further Russian interference to press his case that Moscow was worried about him winning the nomination and, in November, the White House.
“We know who Vladimir Putin doesn’t want to be president and we know who Donald Trump doesn’t want to be the nominee,” said Andrew Bates, spokesperson for the Biden campaign.
Follow Demetri Sevastopulo on Twitter: @dimi