A February 2018, indictment against a social media troll farm run by Russian intelligence includes a passage that warranted little notice at the time. The indictment detailed day-to-day internal instructions for their keyboard warriors, including this guidance on appropriate targets.
“use any opportunity to criticize Hillary and the rest (except Sanders and Trump—we support them).”
With bigger things to worry about, most people assumed that the Kremlin’s interest in Sanders owed more to vandalism or hatred of Clinton than to any real enthusiasm for Sanders himself. In retrospect, this explanation makes less and less sense.
We discovered this week that US intelligence briefed Bernie Sanders on a current Russian operation to promote his candidacy. That briefing took place over a month ago. He said nothing about it until the Washington Post broke the story, then responded with Trumpian outrage at the Post for tattling on him.
Why are the Russians actively backing Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders? If they’re supporting Sanders because they’re convinced he can’t beat Trump, what does that say about his campaign? If they’re supporting Sanders because they’d prefer him as President over the other Democratic candidates, that may be worse. Do not for a moment imagine that the Russians would invest resources in a candidate without some confidence they would get something in return.
Everything we know about the Russian relationship with Trump indicates a deep, personal investment in the man’s business and a calculated campaign to influence his policies. Sanders’ long-standing ties to the Russians, far deeper and older than Trump’s, deserve a closer look.
Russian support for Donald Trump wasn’t about fighting Hillary Clinton, it was about developing Donald Trump. It’s clear now that they spent many years and enormous sums of money cultivating their relationship to the candidate and his later Administration. It would be ridiculous to assume that their support for Sanders is somehow accidental, opportunistic, or at arms-length.
It’s often assumed that the Russian campaign to support Trump began late in the 2016 primary season. This runs against all the available evidence.
Though efforts to hide Trump’s finances have made It difficult to fully document his Russian ties, many of those ties have been on the surface all along. Russian and Saudi interests have propped up his struggling New York Trump Tower for decades. His decades of ties to Russian mobsters and their Russian government backers, from David Bogatin to the Bayrock Group were splayed across headlines long before he was a candidate. These ties are not accidental. Their connection to his campaign is not a coincidence. What we’ve learned about the effort to cultivate Donald Trump as a candidate offers lessons on their support for Bernie Sanders.
How do Russian financial ties to the Trump family translate into political power? We got a demonstration in the very first days of the Trump campaign.
Trump’s first public campaign event after his June 2015 announcement was at Freedom Fest in Las Vegas. Somehow, by complete coincidence, he interrupted his rambling speech to acknowledge a question from someone on the floor. That someone was Russian agent, Maria Butina, later indicted for her role in a Kremlin campaign to influence US elections. Why did he stop talking, which he never does, and grant a forum to this one person, and only her? How did he know she was there?
How did the Russians get their favorite American political scumbag, Paul Manafort, placed in charge of Donald Trump’s Presidential campaign? How did a Russian intelligence operative, Konstatin Kilimnick, get the chance to influence the platform process at the Republican National Convention? You don’t get that kind of access and influence without a plan. It takes time to build the infrastructure to support that kind of plan. There was nothing random or haphazard about the Russian effort to subvert our democracy. There is nothing random or haphazard about the Russian effort to promote Bernie Sanders’ 2016 or 2020 campaigns.
Sanders was lending political help to the Russians when they were still the Soviets. Bernie traveled to Managua in 1985 to prop up the Kremlin’s Communist proxy in Nicaragua against his own government. He even appeared at a Communist rally in Managua where the crowd chanted “here and there the Yankee will die.”
Sanders traveled to the crumbling Soviet Union in 1988, where he gushed over the glories of the Soviet system. It should be noted that one does not just hop on a plane to Moscow and tool around the Soviet Union like a tourist in 1988. There was simply no way for Sanders to execute this joyride without the support of either the US or Soviet governments, and the US was not supportive.
The next year he traveled to Cuba, at a time when such a trip was extremely difficult to arrange. Sanders has expressed admiration for Castro in the past, taking the Communist government’s side against the Reagan Administration. His planned meeting with Castro on his ’89 visit did not materialize, but he was able to land a meeting with the Mayor of Havana. Through the Cold War, Sanders was a reliable voice for Russian interests against the US. Bernie has never abandoned that stance.
On Russia, Sanders has been the Democratic Susan Collins, issuing vague statements of concern while casting vote after lonely vote against any concrete efforts to contain the Kremlin. As the Obama Administration began efforts to curtail Russian money laundering and overseas political interference, Sanders remained a loyal and often lonely voice for Russian interests. He opposed the Magnitsky Act. Sanders was one of only four Senate opponents to the Magnitsky Act in 2012. Sanders opposed sanctions on Russia in response the Crimean annexation in 2017. He was carefully absent for a very close Senate vote in 2019 on retaining sanctions against Oleg Deripaska. After each no vote, he would issue some statement pinning his opposition on procedural or third-party issues. All the while, he has remained the Kremlin’s best friend in the Senate outside the Republican Party.
Why would the Russians back Bernie Sanders? Why on earth wouldn’t they? He’s been a more reliable voice for Russian interests than Donald Trump, and for a longer stretch of time. They don’t even need to pay him.
When evidence emerged of organized Kremlin support for Sanders’ 2016 campaign, he issued a brief press release with the usual statements of concern, followed by no action. When the Washington Post ran the story about the US intelligence warning to the Sanders campaign, he attacked the Post. He also repeated almost word for word the evasions and deflections we’ve seen from Trump, stating that he’ll stop Russian interference and spreading unsubstantiated “other countries” doubts on the claims. The best evidence of what someone will do is that they have done, and Sanders has avoided any material stances at odds with Kremlin interests.
A Sanders win in the Democratic Primary would make the Russian success in 2016 look like a mere prelude to the main act. Democrats may soon lock American voters into a choice between the Kremlin’s two favorite Presidential candidates.