Robert O’Brien, President Donald Trump’s national security adviser, appeared on ABC’s This Week on Sunday to make the case that Russia had a new best friend in American politics. While he had not “seen any intelligence that Russia is doing anything” to help Trump win reelection, he told host George Stephanopoulos, “there are these reports that they want Bernie Sanders to get elected president.”
“That’s no surprise,” he continued. “He honeymooned in Moscow. President Trump has rebuilt the American military to an extent we haven’t seen since Ronald Reagan. So, I don’t think it’s any surprise that Russia or China or Iran would want somebody other than President Trump.”
This is the new playbook for dealing with intelligence reports showing that Russia intends to meddle once more in an American election to benefit Trump. The president is going to aggressively use the national security state to suggest that the real beneficiary of Russian interference is Bernie Sanders. It’s a nakedly cynical move, but the politicization of government intelligence has already been embraced by many who should know better, including Democrats. And it will continue to spread, thanks in large part to cable news’s addiction to the Russian storyline of Trump’s presidency.
Publicly, the Trump administration has shrugged off reports that Russia is backing the president’s reelection campaign. Speaking to Stephanopoulos, O’Brien insisted that the reports were fake news. “I haven’t seen any of that intelligence. So if it’s out there, it’s something I haven’t seen,” he said. Trump himself has tweeted that the reports were not credible and were “just another Schifty Schiff leak,” a reference to House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff.
In private, the president fumed after it was first reported that a U.S. intelligence official, Shelby Pierson, had briefed the Intelligence Committee that Russia had “developed a preference” for Trump. Trump told Joseph Maguire, the former acting director of national intelligence, that he was being “played.” Shortly thereafter, Maguire was fired, replaced by Richard Grennell, a hard-core loyalist with little intelligence experience. A day later, reports emerged that Russia was backing Sanders for the Democratic nomination and ultimately the presidency.
CNN’s Jake Tapper reported on Sunday that the available intelligence undercuts O’Brien’s claims. “O’Brien’s comment about Sanders has nothing to do with intelligence data, or collection, and everything to do with pleasing the president,” he tweeted, citing an intelligence official. “If you think this leak wasn’t designed to hurt Bernie, you’re not paying attention,” Sanders’s communications director, Mike Casca, tweeted.
Even if Russia is meddling in the Democratic primary, it would hardly be an endorsement of the democratic socialist in the race. Russia is principally interested in creating chaos and undermining American democratic institutions, as it did in 2016. “The ideal scenario is to maintain the schism and uncertainty in the States till the end,” Russian political scientist and former Putin adviser Gleb Pavlovsky told GQ. “Our candidate is chaos.”
It’s working, thanks in no small part to the support of Trump and Sanders’s rivals in the Democratic race. “This is a no-brainer for the Russians. They either nominate the weakest candidate to take on their puppet Trump, or they elect a socialist as President,” the Bloomberg campaign tweeted over the weekend. The campaign also tried to get cute, tweeting “чувствовать ожог.” (The intended meaning was “Feel the Burn,” a play on Sanders’s unofficial slogan “Feel the Bern,” but the actual translation, according to two Russian speakers I consulted, is closer to the Atticus Finch-esque “To Feel a Burn.”) Joe Biden also got in on the action, telling Face the Nation, “The Russians don’t want me to be the nominee … they like Bernie.”
The media has also collapsed the differences between Trump, who has encouraged Russian interference, and Sanders, who has aggressively denounced it. The New York Post’s editorial board argued, against all available evidence, that Sanders was Vladimir Putin’s preferred candidate—and that intelligence reports that Russia was backing Trump were a “serious distortion” amplified “by Trump-hating media.” Appearing on MSNBC on Saturday, Bill Clinton’s campaign guru James Carville declared that the big winner of the Nevada caucuses was Putin. “This thing is going very well for Vladimir Putin. He’s probably staying up and watching us right now. How you doing, Vlad!” Carville said. “Why would Vladimir Putin be helping Bernie Sanders? Because he wants Donald Trump to win.”
By labeling Sanders the Kremlin’s man in the race, the Trump administration and Sanders’s Democratic rivals are trying to weaponize the Russia-obsessed media and play to voters obsessed with Putin’s sinister involvement in American politics. Cable news networks, particularly MSNBC, have spent the last three years staffing up with ex-intelligence officials and Russia hawks and feeding their audience a steady diet of Russia-phobic news that borders on the conspiratorial. Trump, obsessed with both cable news and the political impact of election interference, knows this is a potential wedge between Sanders and a segment of the Democratic electorate that is fixated on Russia. It should be no surprise that the Trump administration is starting to eye these networks as potential allies in the fight against Sanders.