SANTA ANA, Calif. (CN) – In Southern California for a campaign rally Friday, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders called Russian president Vladimir Putin an autocrat and an enemy of democracy after reports surfaced of a Kremlin-backed effort to support Sanders’ 2020 presidential run.
In a sharply worded statement, Sanders said the Kremlin move is an attempt to undermine U.S. democracy and that he is firmly against interference by any country in sovereign elections.
“Unlike Donald Trump, I do not consider Vladimir Putin a good friend. He is an autocratic thug who is attempting to destroy democracy and crush dissent in Russia,” Sanders said Friday. “I don’t care, frankly, who Putin wants to be president. My message to Putin is clear: stay out of American elections, and as president I will make sure that you do.”
A U.S. official briefed Sanders on the Russian-backed effort to support his campaign, according to The Washington Post, which broke the story.
Sanders told reporters at a campaign stop in Bakersfield, California, that U.S. intelligence officials briefed him a month ago.
In the statement, Sanders slammed Russia’s use of web-based propaganda to interfere in the 2016 presidential election sow discord between Americans, adding that Putin is repeating the act in the current cycle.
Intelligence officials warned lawmakers in the House last week that Russia is indeed interfering in the 2020 election in order to help re-elect President Donald Trump.
Supporters of Sanders – self-described democratic socialist – have been criticized in recent weeks for their online behavior, which Sanders said the Kremlin may be partly responsible for.
“Some of the ugly stuff on the internet attributed to our campaign may well not be coming from real supporters,” Sanders said, who has also denounced any harassment by his supporters.
Sanders – an independent seeking the Democratic nomination – is the party’s front-runner going into Saturday’s caucuses in Nevada, according to a poll this week that found Sanders had 31% support nationally.
According to Sanders’ campaign, supporters have knocked on more than half a million doors in all 17 Silver State counties. Sanders takes the stage at a rally in Nevada on Friday evening.
In California, the senator is polling far ahead of his fellow 2020 contenders, with 32% support from likely voters in the Golden State’s Democratic primary March 3. His nearest rival, former Vice President Joe Biden, managed 14% support according to the Public Policy Institute of California’s poll.
Reports of Russian-backed election interference emerged after Sanders departed a get out the vote rally Friday in Orange County, California.
Sanders told thousands of voters ahead of Super Tuesday that a massive turnout in the delegate-rich state will help pave a road to his victory over Trump in November’s general election.
“If we have a large voter turnout in California, we’re gonna win the Democratic nomination,” Sanders told over 3,000 people at Valley High School in Santa Ana. “And if we win the Democratic nomination, then Donald Trump is a one-term president.”
Sanders stuck to the common themes of his campaign, such as characterizing his 2020 run as a political revolution, but he emphasized his promises to support a Medicare for All plan and provide a pathway to citizenship for the nation’s undocumented immigrants.
The crowd of mostly youth and Latino voters cheered loudly when Sanders reiterated his support for ending private prison construction, legalizing marijuana and making public colleges, universities and trade schools free for Americans.
“If we can bail out the crooks on Wall Street, we can cancel out student debt,” Sanders said.
Orange County resident Suzette Gomez, who attended the rally with her daughter, told Courthouse News health care and education were the most important issues for her and her community.
Gomez, who was born in Colombia and identifies as a Latina, said she has friends who frequently travel outside the U.S. for less expensive dental and medical procedures.
Sanders’ broad support from Latinos in the Golden State is tied to his promise to protect immigrants and overturn the Trump administration’s restrictive policies, Gomez said.
“[Latinos] understand how hard it is for immigrants,” Gomez said. “I personally have friends seeking political asylum. We’re all inclusive here. That’s what this country is about.”
Before the rally, Sanders told reporters his campaign is working to ensure California voters registered with no party preference understand they must request a special ballot in order to vote in the Democratic primary on March 3.