Russia is said to be interfering to aid Sanders in Democratic primaries

(Damian Dovarganes | AP) Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., speaks at a campaign event at Valley High School in Santa Ana, Calif., Friday, Feb. 21, 2020.

Washington • Russia has been trying to intervene in the Democratic primaries to aid Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., according to people familiar with the matter, and intelligence officials recently briefed him about Russian interference in the election, Sanders said Friday.

In a statement Friday, Sanders denounced Russia, calling President Vladimir Putin an “autocratic thug” and warning Moscow to stay out of the election.

“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,” Sanders said.

He also told reporters that he was briefed about a month ago.

“The intelligence community is telling us Russia is interfering in this campaign right now in 2020,” Sanders said Friday in Bakersfield, California, where he was to hold a rally ahead of Saturday’s Nevada caucuses. “And what I say to Mr. Putin, ‘If I am elected president, trust me you will not be interfering in American elections.’”

[Read more: Intelligence officials are rebuffed by Trump after warning for Russian interference]

Senior intelligence officials told members of the House Intelligence Committee last week that Russia was continuing its election sabotage campaign, including intervening in the Democratic primaries.

Intelligence officials also warned House lawmakers that Russia was interfering in the campaign to try to get President Donald Trump reelected, according to people familiar with the matter. They said that the disclosure to Congress angered Trump, who complained that Democrats would use it against him.

Republicans have taken issue with the idea that Russia supports Trump, insisting that Putin simply wants to broadly spread chaos and undermine the democratic system. But some current and former officials say that a Russian campaign to support Sanders may ultimately be aimed at aiding Trump, with Moscow potentially considering Sanders a weaker opponent for the president than a more moderate Democratic nominee.

The Washington Post first reported the briefing of the Sanders campaign.

Sanders said it was his understanding that the Russians were against trying to interfere in the campaign. Some “ugly stuff on the internet” had been attributed to his campaign that could be coming from falsified accounts, he said.

The Russians also worked to support — or at least not harm — Sanders in 2016. Operatives at a Russian intelligence-backed troll factory were instructed to avoid attacking Sanders or Trump, according to the report by special counsel Robert Mueller. The report quoted internal documents from the Internet Research Agency ordering operatives to attack Hillary Clinton’s campaign. “Use any opportunity to criticize Hillary and the rest except for Sanders and Trump — we support them,” the document said.