National security adviser Robert O’Brien said he had seen no evidence of Russian interference in the 2020 election to re-elect Donald Trump, after Congress and Bernie Sanders were reportedly briefed on the threat.
“I haven’t seen any intelligence that Russia is doing anything to attempt to get President Trump re-elected,” said Mr O’Brien on ABC. “I think this is the same old story that we’ve heard before.”
The Washington Post reported on Thursday that a senior intelligence official had told members of Congress that the Kremlin was working to ensure that Mr Trump remained in office. Intelligence officials were also reported to have warned the Sanders campaign that Russia was intervening online on its behalf. Mr Sanders, now the frontrunner in the Democratic presidential nomination battle, responded by calling Russian President Vladimir Putin an “autocratic thug who is attempting to destroy democracy”.
Mr O’Brien said he had seen “zero intelligence that Russia is doing anything to help . . . President Trump get re-elected”.
Marc Short, chief of staff for vice-president Mike Pence, took a similar line. “There’s not been an assertion that Russia is trying to benefit Donald Trump,” he said on NBC.
Mr Trump told reporters that the Democratic party was attempting to damage Mr Sanders by linking him with Russia after the Vermont senator won the Nevada caucuses on Saturday night.
“What it could be is, you know, the Democrats are treating Bernie Sanders very unfairly and it sounds to me like a leak from [House intelligence committee chair] Adam Schiff because they don’t want Bernie Sanders to represent them,” he said.
“It sounds like it’s ’16 all over again for Bernie Sanders.”
The new claims about Russian interference resurrect a key controversy from the 2016 election, which has continued to dog Mr Trump while in office. The president has railed against the US intelligence community as part of a “deep state” conspiracy against him after it determined that Russia interfered in the US political process to help him win the White House.
Mr O’Brien said it was more plausible that the Kremlin would intervene on Mr Sanders’ behalf.
“Well, there are these reports that they want Bernie Sanders to get elected president. That’s no surprise. He honeymooned in Moscow,” he said.
The White House also dismissed reports that it had replaced Joseph Maguire as acting Director of National Intelligence out of anger over the intelligence briefing to Congress. “I’ve seen the president interact with Adm Maguire, he respects Adm Maguire,” said Mr Short. “[Mr Trump] is looking to find another role for Adm Maguire inside our administration.”
Mr Trump described the replacement as a timing issue. According to federal law, an “acting” or temporary officer can only serve for 210 days unless the president submits a nomination to the Senate for approval. The White House has not sent Mr Maguire’s nomination to the Senate, and so Mr Trump said he had to step down by March 11.
“His time came up,” Mr Trump said, before stepping into Marine One on the White House lawn, “so he had to leave.”