NEW DELHI – President Donald Trump suggested on Tuesday that Democrats who don't want Bernie Sanders to win their party's presidential nomination tried to hurt the senator's chances by leaking information about Russian activities promoting his campaign. Trump gave no evidence for his claim.
“Bernie is probably winning — looks like he's winning and he's got a head of steam,” Trump said during a news conference near the end of his two-day visit to India. “And they maybe don't want him for obvious reasons. ... So they put out a thing that Russia is backing him.”
Trump accused California Rep. Adam Schiff, the Democratic chairman of the House intelligence committee, of leaking the information to the media. Schiff has denied the allegation.
Sanders has confirmed that U.S. officials told him last month about Russian efforts to boost his chances to challenge Trump in November.
Trump said he thought it was “strange" that U.S. officials told Sanders but nobody told him.
“It’s highly exaggerated. I think it's disgraceful. I think it was leaks from the intel committee," Trump said. "I think probably Schiff leaked it. He shouldn’t be leaking things like that.”
It wasn't the first time that Trump levied the accusation against Schiff. He earlier tweeted that election security officials “supposedly told Crazy Bernie (Sanders) that Russia was looking at him, not me. This is all a big scam between Intel and the Democrats. They want Bernie OUT & hate 'Trump.'”
“Nice deflection, Mr. President. But your false claims fool no one,” Schiff tweeted over the weekend. “You welcomed Russian help in 2016, tried to coerce Ukraine’s help in 2019, and won’t protect our elections in 2020.”
Trump's comments come amid conflicting accounts about what U.S. election security officials told members of the House intelligence committee during a recent closed-door hearing and how sensitive election security information has leaked into the public domain.
People familiar with the congressional briefing earlier this month said election security officials indicated that the Kremlin was looking to help Trump win reelection. But a senior official with the Office of the Director of National Intelligence said Monday that Shelby Pierson, a top election security official who was one of the officials who briefed the committee, did not tell lawmakers that Russia is aiding Trump's reelection. The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive information.
"I want no help from any country, and I haven't been given help from any country,” Trump told reporters.
A nearly two-year investigation led by special counsel Robert Mueller concluded that there was a sophisticated, Kremlin-led operation to sow division in the U.S. and upend the 2016 election by using cyberattacks and social media as weapons.
Election security experts say it's clear that Russia is again trying to influence the U.S. election, including through the spread of misinformation to raise skepticism about the U.S. electoral process.
But top U.S. officials, including Trump's national security adviser Robert O'Brien, have said they have not seen any intelligence or analyses indicating that Russia has been specifically aiding Trump's reelection.
In 2016, Russia's meddling "evolved from a generalized program designed in 2014 and 2015 to undermine the U.S. electoral system, to a targeted operation that by early 2016 favored candidate Trump and disparaged candidate (Hillary) Clinton," according to the Mueller report.
Trump was asked whether former acting national intelligence director Joseph Maguire was forced out as part of an effort to purge administration officials seen as being disloyal to Trump. “I don’t think it’s a big problem,” he said. “I don’t think it's very many people.”
The Republican president said Maguire was not forced out. He said Maguire's tenure as acting director was to end on March 11. He called Maguire an “excellent guy” and said he chose U.S. Ambassador Richard Grenell to replace him as acting director until he can nominate someone to oversee the nation's 17 intelligence agencies.
Riechmann reported from Washington.