‘Stay out of American elections,’ Sanders tells Russia in wake of meddling reports

Click to play video 'Sanders briefed by U.S. officials that Russia is trying to help his presidential campaign: ‘Stay out of American elections’' Sanders briefed by U.S. officials that Russia is trying to help his presidential campaign: ‘Stay out of American elections’
On Friday, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders responded to a Washington Post report, confirming he was briefed by intelligence officials that Russia was attempting to interfere on his behalf in the Democratic Presidential campaign. Sanders called Russian President Vladimir Putin a "thug" and warned Russia to "stay out of American elections." – Feb 21, 2020

Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders said Friday he was briefed by U.S. officials “about a month ago” that Russia has been trying to help his campaign as part of Moscow’s efforts to interfere in the 2020 presidential election.

“It was not clear what role they were going to play,” Sanders said during a campaign stop in California. “We were told that Russia, maybe other countries, are going to get involved in this campaign.”

The Vermont senator continued: “Here’s the message to Russia: Stay out of American elections.”

READ MORE: U.S. intel officials warn lawmakers Russia is helping Trump win 2020 election: sources

Sanders’ response was a sharp contrast from that of President Donald Trump, who has pushed back at the assessment of U.S. intelligence agencies that Russia has interfered in elections on his behalf.

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Minutes before Sanders condemned Russian interference, Trump dismissed reports that Russian President Vladimir Putin was trying to help him as well as “a rumor” started by Democrats.

Click to play video 'U.S. intelligence: Russia helping Trump win 2020 election' U.S. intelligence: Russia helping Trump win 2020 election
U.S. intelligence: Russia helping Trump win 2020 election – Feb 21, 2020

Federal investigators in 2018 charged 13 Russians in a covert social media campaign that prosecutors said was aimed at dividing public opinion on hot-button social issues as well as propping up Sanders and Republican candidate Trump in the 2016 election while also denigrating Hillary Clinton, the eventual Democratic nominee.

Organizers of that Russian effort circulated an outline of themes for future social media content, with instructions to “use any opportunity to criticize Hillary and the rest (except Sanders and Trump—we support them),” according to the indictment.

READ MORE: Russians claim they tricked Bernie Sanders in prank call posing as Greta Thunberg

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Campaigning Friday in Las Vegas, Trump told supporters that he heard Democrats were trying to “start a rumor … that Putin wants to make sure I get elected.”

“Listen to this, so doesn’t he want to see who the Democrat is going to be? Wouldn’t he rather have, let’s say Bernie?” Trump asked. Sanders and his wife, Jane, in 1988 spent their honeymoon in the Soviet Union, Trump noted.

Sanders told reporters he had seen some of Russia’s “tweets and stuff,” which he said were aimed at sowing divisions.

Click to play video 'Trump says Russia supporting his re-election ‘another misinformation campaign’' Trump says Russia supporting his re-election ‘another misinformation campaign’
Trump says Russia supporting his re-election ‘another misinformation campaign’ – Feb 21, 2020

“They try to divide us up,” Sanders said of the Russians. “That is the ugliest thing they’re doing. They’re trying to cause chaos, they’re trying to cause hatred in America. It’s an ugly business and all of us have got to say, sorry, you’re not going to do this in this election.”

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Sen. Elizabeth Warren said her campaign has not received a briefing from intelligence officials, while billionaire philanthropist Tom Steyer’s campaign said it was briefed “months ago” but didn’t give any details.

READ MORE: Trump offered to pardon Julian Assange if he denied Russian meddling, lawyer says

Sanders appeared to suggest there was a political motive to the timing of the revelations, which were first reported by The Washington Post.

“One day before the Nevada caucus, why do you think it came out?” he said, adding sarcastically: “It was The Washington Post? Good friends.”

AP writers Eric Tucker and Aamer Madhani in Washington and Meg Kinnard in Columbia, S.C., contributed to this report.