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U.S. President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump as they depart Washington from Joint Base Andrews in Maryland, U.S., Feb. 23, 2020.

ALEXANDER DRAGO/Reuters

President Donald Trump said Sunday that he has never been briefed about Russian efforts to help Bernie Sanders win the Democratic presidential nomination and he accused the Democratic chairman of the House Intelligence Committee of leaking election security information from a classified briefing.

Sanders acknowledged on Friday that he was briefed last month by U.S. officials about Russian efforts to boost his chances to be the nominee against Trump in November.

“I read where Russia is helping Bernie Sanders,” Trump told reporters before leaving on a trip to India. “Nobody said it to me. Nobody said it to me at all. Nobody briefed me about that at all. … They leaked it.”

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He accused Rep. Adam Schiff of California, the committee chairman who played a lead role in Trump’s impeachment, of leaking information from a classified briefing.

“Schiff and his group, they leaked it to the papers and as usual,” Trump said. “They ought to investigate Adam Schiff for leaking that information. He should not be leaking information out of intelligence. They ought to investigate Adam Schiff.”

Schiff said Trump’s accusation was false.

“Nice deflection, Mr. President. But your false claims fool no one,” Schiff tweeted. “You welcomed Russian help in 2016, tried to coerce Ukraine’s help in 2019, and won’t protect our elections in 2020.”

Schiff also claimed that Trump “fired” Joseph Maguire this past week as acting national intelligence director for “briefing Congress” about election interference from Russia. “You’ve betrayed America. Again,” Schiff tweeted.

A nearly two-year investigation led by special counsel Robert Mueller concluded there was a sophisticated, Kremlin-led operation to sow division in the U.S. and upend the 2016 election by using cyberattacks and social media as weapons. Intelligence officials have warned Russia is doing the same in 2020.

Trump, however, has remained skeptical about the Russian interference.

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Asked why Trump recently called Russian interference in the election “another misinformation campaign” that is being “launched by Democrats in Congress,” Marc Short, chief of staff for Vice-President Mike Pence, defended the president.

Short told NBC’s “Meet the Press.” that Trump does want to stop foreign interference in the elections. Short also said Trump wants to have a briefing at the White House in the next couple weeks so “we can tell the American people how we’re making sure that our voting is safer.”

Conflicting accounts emerged from the recent closed-door briefing that election security officials gave to the House committee on interference by Russia and other nations in the 2020 campaign.

One intelligence official said that lawmakers were not told that Russia was working to directly aid Trump. But other people familiar with the meeting said they were told the Kremlin was looking to help Trump’s candidacy. The people spoke on condition of anonymity to discussed the classified briefing.

It’s unclear whether the committee members were also briefed about Russian efforts to boost Sanders – a move that could be seen as beneficial to Trump’s re-election bid.

“I think what it could be is, you know, the Democrats are treating Bernie Sanders very unfairly and it sounds to me like a leak from Adam Schiff because they don’t want Bernie Sanders to represent them,” Trump told reporters on the South Lawn.

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Trump’s national security adviser said Russia probably would favour Sanders.

“They’d probably like him to be president, understandably, because he wants to spend money on social programs and probably would have to take it out of the military,” Robert O’Brien told CBS’ “Face the Nation.”

O’Brien claimed he had not seen any intelligence or analyses indicating that Russia was aiding Trump and neither had top leaders in the intelligence agencies.

“The national security adviser gets pretty good access to our intelligence,” O’Brien told ABC’s “This Week.”

“All I know is that the Republicans on the side of the House hearing were unhappy with the hearing and said that there was no intelligence to back up what was being said,” O’Brien said. “But here’s the deal: I don’t even know if what’s been reported as being said (by the briefers) is true. You know those are leaks coming out of that hearing.”

O’Brien also denied reports that Trump became angry when he was told about the briefing and that he confronted Maguire and subsequently replaced him with the U.S. ambassador to Germany, Richard Grenell.

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O’Brien said Trump was not angry with Maguire and would have liked Maguire to stay in government in a different role. He said Maguire’s time as acting director of national intelligence was up in early March and the White House needed an individual – someone who had already been confirmed by the Senate – to temporarily replace him.

“Ambassador Grenell is there for a temporary period of time,” O’Brien said, adding that Trump was expected to announce a nominee to be quickly confirmed by the Senate as full-time director. The president has said he is considering three or four candidates.

Short said Trump was frustrated that election security officials went to brief the House Intelligence Committee before briefing him, but Short denied that Maguire’s exit was related to the congressional briefing.

“The president’s frustration was that he wasn’t briefed before they were briefed,” Short said. “So you had midlevel people going up into a very partisan environment that’s supposed to be behind closed doors. … The president’s concern was exactly to say, ‘Look, if you do that, they’re going to say that the Russians are trying to help Donald Trump,’ which is exactly what the leak said.”

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