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US officials told Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont that the Russian government is working to help him win the Democratic nomination for president, the Washington Post reported on Friday. 
“I don’t care, frankly, who [Russian President Vladimir Putin] wants to be president,” Sanders told the Post in a statement. “My message to Putin is clear: stay out of American elections, and as president I will make sure that you do.”
The revelation comes after an election security official from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence told lawmakers in a classified briefing that the Russians are also working to help President Donald Trump get reelected.
According to the Post, Trump and congressional lawmakers were also informed of Russia’s campaign to help Sanders clinch the Democratic nomination, but the type and scope of the Kremlin’s interference is still unclear.
Sanders also suggested, after being told that Russia was working to help his campaign, that the Russian government may be responsible for “some of the ugly stuff on the internet attributed to our campaign.”
In a longer statement his campaign put out after the Post’s story broke, Sanders excoriated Putin as 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 and, unlike the current president, I stand firmly against their efforts, and any other foreign power that wants to interfere in our election.”
Friday’s report comes as Sanders surges to the top of the pack in the Democratic primary. He tied for first place in the Iowa caucuses with former South Bend, Indiana mayor Pete Buttigieg but won the popular vote in the state.
The Vermont senator also won first place in the New Hampshire primary, and he is widely expected to emerge victorious in Saturday’s Nevada caucuses.
US officials have long expected, and are preparing for, Russia’s interference in the 2020 election, particularly after the Kremlin waged an elaborate and multi-faceted interference campaign in 2016 to propel Trump to the Oval Office.
The president has so far either refused to acknowledge Russia’s meddling or offered a lukewarm condemnation.
Earlier this week, Trump decided to replace Joseph Maguire, the acting director of national intelligence, with a hardline loyalist after Maguire authorized his aide to brief Congress about Russia’s efforts to help Trump win the 2020 election.
After the classified briefing, Trump brought Maguire into the Oval Office for a “dressing down,” The Post reported.
The president also had been led to falsely believe that Shelby Pierson, the aide who briefed Congress, had been disloyal by feeding exclusive information about Russia’s 2020 election interference to Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee.
Schiff served as the lead House impeachment manager during Trump’s Senate trial, and the president often attacks him and suggests he is guilty of treason, which is punishable by death.