Bernie Sanders on Wednesday blamed Hillary Clinton for not doing more to stop the Russian attack on the last presidential election. Then his 2016 campaign manager, in an interview with POLITICO, said he’s seen no evidence to support special counsel Robert Mueller’s assertion in an indictment last week that the Russian operation had backed Sanders’ campaign.
The remarks showed Sanders, running for a third term and currently considered a front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2020, deeply defensive in response to questions posed to him about what was laid out in the indictment. He attempted to thread a response that blasts Donald Trump for refusing to acknowledge that Russians helped his campaign — but then holds himself harmless for a nearly identical denial.
In doing so, Sanders and his former campaign manager, Jeff Weaver, presented a series of self-serving statements that were not accurate, and that track with efforts by Trump and his supporters to undermine the credibility of the Mueller probe.
“The real question to be asked is what was the Clinton campaign [doing about Russian interference]? They had more information about this than we did,” Sanders said in the interview with Vermont Public Radio.
After being contacted by POLITICO about the interview, Sanders issued a lengthy statement calling the Russian involvement a “direct assault on the free democratic systems that stand in contrast to the autocratic, nationalistic kleptocracy of Vladimir Putin and his backers in the Russian oligarchy” which “deserves unconditional condemnation.”
He said that goes for “any candidate or active opposition to any candidate,” and listed most other candidates and campaigns whose support by Russians was detailed in the indictment — including “my own.”
Sanders said that his campaign had shared information with the Clinton campaign about suspected Russian anti-Clinton trolls on a campaign Facebook page. But Weaver later acknowledged that the Vermont senator had no firsthand knowledge that this had happened. Weaver said Sanders based his remark on an article published by NBC’s San Diego affiliate over the weekend about a campaign volunteer who claimed to have conducted his own investigation and brought the findings to the Clinton campaign in September — an assertion flatly denied by a former Clinton campaign aide.
“A guy who was on my staff … checked it out and he went to the Clinton campaign, and he said, ‘You know what? I think these guys are Russians,’” Sanders said. Weaver said Sanders had not verified the information in the article himself before stating it as fact.
The Sanders statement issued late Wednesday attributed to “an aide to Sen. Sanders” added “he was using the word ‘campaign’ expansively to include not only the formal, institutional campaign, but also the broader network of volunteers and supporters of Bernie 2016 across the country.”
Sanders went on to indicate that he was at least vaguely aware of the operation that Mueller detailed in his indictment of 13 Russian nationals last week: “What Mueller reported, he had more specificity than we’d seen before. Not exactly new.”
A former Clinton campaign staffer said it was nonsense that Sanders’ campaign had reached out to Clinton’s about potential Russian interference. “No one from the Sanders campaign ever contacted us about this” — not in September, and not in “April and May.” Sanders said in the radio interview that he noticed “lots of strange things” during those months in 2016.
“They were supporting my campaign? No. They were attacking Hillary Clinton’s campaign and using my supporters against Hillary Clinton,” Sanders said in the radio interview.
Asked why Sanders would blame Clinton for not intervening, Weaver said, “Uh, I don’t know. They [Clinton’s campaign] did have more information.”
As for Sanders’ claims of having gone to Clinton’s campaign about possible Russian meddling, Weaver said Sanders was “speaking broadly.”
“What he knows is all from published news reports,” Weaver said.
The Vermont senator was adamant that he did not benefit from Russian bots urging voters to support him. “I did not know that Russian bots were promoting my campaign. Russian bots were not promoting my campaign,” he said.
Sanders has repeatedly condemned President Donald Trump for not acknowledging the Russian attack on the 2016 election alleged in the Mueller indictment and being investigated by congressional committees. But he has refused to say that his campaign benefited from the activities.
Mueller’s indictment states that the 13 Russians indicted “engaged in operations primarily intended to communicate derogatory information about Hillary Clinton, to denigrate candidates such as Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, and to support Bernie Sanders and then-candidate Donald Trump.”
Among the evidence the indictment cites is a message from the day after Sanders and Trump won their New Hampshire primaries. “Specialists 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 document read.
Weaver, who is one of the senator’s closest aides, said repeatedly he wasn’t sure if he should believe the charges.
“The factual underpinning of that in the indictment is what? Zero,” Weaver said. “I have not seen any evidence of support for Bernie Sanders.”
Kenneth Pennington, the campaign’s digital director, said in an MSNBC appearance after the Mueller indictments were issued that he knew nothing of Russian support for the campaign, and Weaver said in the interview he didn’t either.
“Two dudes sitting in a hole somewhere support Bernie Sanders — tell me what they did to support Bernie Sanders,” Weaver added later.
Sanders’ and Weaver’s argument mirrors that of Trump, who has argued in a days-long series of tweets that the Russians were not supporting him. The president has blamed his nemesis, Barack Obama, for not doing enough to stop Russian disruption in the campaign.
“If all of the Russian meddling took place during the Obama Administration, right up to January 20th, why aren’t they the subject of the investigation?” Trump tweeted Wednesday morning. He earlier said that “some 400-pound genius sitting in bed and playing with his computer” could have been responsible for the activities attributed to Russians.
Sanders repeatedly refused to say why he didn’t call out Russian involvement during the campaign. Clinton’s campaign regularly raised suspicions of Kremlin-backed activity during the home stretch of the race.
Sanders said the key point was that he was campaigning hard for Clinton after losing the nomination to her, and “at this point we were working with them.”
Sanders has faced questions since Friday about why he has not more strongly condemned the Russian actions that benefited his campaign. On Wednesday, liberal writer Joan Walsh of The Nation tweeted in response to Sanders’ comments about Clinton: “Seriously, this could be the end of Sanders 2020. Someone who cares about him ought to tell him how badly he stepped in it today.”
In the interview, Sanders repeatedly said that the attention should be on Trump’s denials of Russian activity — an assertion he’s made repeatedly since Friday’s indictment.
But in doing so, he floated his own conspiracy theory.
“You have a president of the United States not saying that [Russians meddled in the election]. What exactly is going on? And you have speculation: ‘Do the Russians really own him?’” Sanders said. When pressed by the host if he believed that the Russians do have something compromising on the president, Sanders said, “I don’t know. But something [is] very weird.”
On Wednesday evening, Sanders took to Twitter with additional statements.
“Mueller’s indictment provides further evidence that the Russian government interfered in 2016. It also shows that they tried to turn my supporters against Hillary Clinton in the primary and general election. I unequivocally condemn such interference,” he wrote.
A Sanders spokesman declined to explain the senator’s apparent change of heart over the course of the day.