Vladimir Putin is up to old tricks.
Earlier this week news broke that Russia is again backing the candidacy of Donald Trump as the president seeks reelection. Now the Washington Post is reporting that U.S. intelligence believes Russia is also attempting to aid the candidacy of Bernie Sanders on the Democratic side. (Although it’s a footnote to the larger election interference story of 2016, Russian troll farms were also active on Sanders’ behalf then.)
Trump responded to the news of Russian assistance by sacking the intelligence director who allowed Congress to be briefed on the matter. Sanders, by contrast, is squarely denouncing any Russian backing. In a statement released by the campaign, Sanders blasted Putin, calling him an “autocratic thug” who should “stay out of American elections.” Without providing specific evidence, Sanders also suggested that some of the hateful content attributed to his following of “Bernie Bros” may in fact be Russian “internet propaganda.”
Shortly after the news broke, Sanders revealed he’d been briefed on potential Russian interference nearly a month ago. He implied that the publication of this news by his “good friends” at the Washington Post on the eve of the Nevada caucus may be politically motivated.
Here’s the video: pic.twitter.com/JpOljo2PIE
— Abby D. Phillip (@abbydphillip) February 21, 2020
In light of the seriousness of the allegation, the Sanders statement is worth reading in full:
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. 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.
I don’t care, frankly, who 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.
In 2016, Russia used internet propaganda to sow division in our country, and my understanding is that they are doing it again in 2020. Some of the ugly stuff on the internet attributed to our campaign may well not be coming from real supporters.
In my view, because of our extraordinary grassroots organization, 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.
This is not the first time Russians have allegedly boosted the presidential candidacy of Sen. Sanders. An indictment filed against more than a dozen Russians in 2018 as part of the investigation of then-Special Counsel Robert Mueller revealed that Russian trolls worked to advance the candidacies of both Trump and Sanders in 2016. The indictment reads in part: “Defendants and their co-conspirators used their fictitious online personas to interfere with the 2016 U.S. presidential election. They engaged in operations primarily intended to communicate derogatory information about Hillary Clinton, to denigrate other candidates such as Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, and to support Bernie Sanders and then-candidate Donald Trump.” The indictment elaborates that Russian Internet trolls “were instructed to post content that focused on ‘politics in the USA’ and to ‘use any opportunity to criticize Hillary and the rest (except Sanders and Trump—we support them).’”
The Sanders support by Russia in 2016 was dwarfed by its interference on behalf of Trump. NBC reporter Ben Collins has unearthed a piece of pro-Sanders Russian propaganda from the 2016 campaign. Behold:
Throwback to the content the Russian troll farm promoted in 2016 to support Bernie in the primary in 2016.
(The Bernie stuff was a fraction of the pro-Trump operation, btw.) pic.twitter.com/RDAMJ8jIRr
— Ben Collins (@oneunderscore__) February 21, 2020
If the Russian effort is intended to widen divisions in the Democratic ranks, it’s working. Billionaire Mike Bloomberg, who called Sanders a “communist” in this week’s debate in Las Vegas, was quick to hit Sanders for the alleged backing by Putin’s government:
Bloomberg is having a go at Sanders in wake of Russia news: pic.twitter.com/h7Vr6142bb
— Tim Dickinson (@7im) February 21, 2020