Bernie Sanders is taking credit for action to combat the Russian incursion into the 2016 election that he didn’t have anything to do with — and didn’t actually happen.
Twice this week, in response to questions about whether he benefited from the Russian effort, as prosecutors allege, or did enough to stop it, Sanders said a staffer passed information to Hillary Clinton’s aides about a suspected Russian troll operation.
It turns out that the purported Sanders’ staffer who said he tried to sound the alarm was a campaign volunteer who acted on his own, without any contact or direction from the Vermont senator or his staff. When the volunteer, John Mattes of San Diego, said he communicated with the Clinton campaign in local press accounts, he was confusing it for a super PAC supportive of Clinton.
He also doesn’t know why Sanders is taking all the credit. “I’m going to send him a bill for my back pay,” Mattes joked.
“He could have called me,” Mattes added. “He maybe doesn’t have my phone number.”
Mattes’ claims, made in two phone interviews with POLITICO, came after Sanders and staffers offered numerous and conflicting answers in the span of a few hours on Wednesday about what he did about Russian meddling. Sanders and his top aide were at turns defiant and defensive during and after his interview with a Vermont radio station, even initially disputing special counsel Robert Mueller’s finding in his indictment last week that the Russians backed his campaign.
Sanders told two versions of the false story.
First, on “Meet the Press” on Sunday, he said, “It turns out that one of our social media guys in San Diego actually went to the Clinton campaign in September and said something weird is going on.” Then, on a Vermont Public Radio interview Wednesday, he referred to “a guy who was on my staff” who checked out suspicious activity and went to the Clinton campaign. “And he said, ‘You know what? I think these guys are Russians,’” Sanders said.
Sanders has not himself adddressed his claims that a staffer shared information with the Clinton campaign, though a statement from an unnamed aide said he’d been basing his comments on public reporting and “using the word ‘campaign’ expansively.”
His former campaign manager and confidant, Jeff Weaver, said in an interview the senator did not verify what he’d read.
“He does not know. All he knows is what was reported,” Weaver said on Wednesday.
Asked to explain why Sanders would repeat a story he didn’t know was true and turned out not to be, Sanders spokesperson Arianna Jones said he’s “not a great fan of reporters who try to provoke controversy where none exists.” She reiterated the point the senator has made through the week about how he campaigned hard for Clinton.
Jones further defended Sanders’ assertions by noting that Mattes, in an MSNBC interview on Thursday, said again that he’d been in touch with the Clinton campaign. That claim, like his earlier one, was mistaken.
Asked why the senator relayed the Mattes story without checking it, Jones responded, “It sounds as if you’re suggesting that we should no longer trust the reporting of outlets like NBC and that the information they provide requires independent verification?” She said that Sanders had referred to Mattes as being on his campaign because “Bernie considers the tens of thousands of people who volunteered during 2016 a part of his campaign.” She eventually acknowledged that Sanders “misspoke” in calling Mattes a member of his staff, but reasoned, “There were more than 1,000 staff members over the course of the campaign.”
Mattes, 67, describes himself as a “part-time researcher, part-time lawyer [and] part-time consumer advocate.” He said he figured out what the Kremlin was up to by tracking and digging in to suspicious Facebook accounts he’d noticed commenting on pro-Sanders pages once the primary ended.
Mattes acknowledged, though, that he didn’t come to suspect Russia was involved until weeks after the Clinton campaign publicly raised concerns about Russian hacking. He said he never talked to anyone on the Clinton campaign itself, though he believed that the researcher he spoke with at the pro-Clinton American Bridge PAC, run by David Brock, was tantamount to reaching the campaign.
“David Brock was all I knew of the campaign,” Mattes said. “No one at American Bridge said, ‘Call up Hillary, call up John Podesta or anybody.’ …. If they weren’t sharing it with Hillary, that is their responsibility.”
Mattes is adamant that anyone who claims that American Bridge was not tantamount to the Clinton campaign is being naive, though campaign finance laws prohibit interaction between entities such as those.
Mattes shared with POLITICO email exchanges he had with an American Bridge researcher, whom Federal Election Commission records show was on staff through the end of 2016. In one of them, the researcher responded “this is amazing” to a link Mattes sent from a site he claimed was Macedonian. It appeared to be a news article about Clinton receiving debate questions in advance.
The researcher, whose name Mattes shared under condition it not be published, did not respond to attempts by email or Facebook to verify Mattes’ claims of contact or information.
A spokesperson for American Bridge declined to comment.
Mattes, who said he’s a lawyer who’s been involved lately in class action suits against a major car rental company and Delta Airlines, worked as a researcher for the Senate, and afterward for several news organizations. His involvement with the presidential campaign started with a Skype conversation with Sanders in the spring of 2015 conducted from a local fast food restaurant along with several other volunteers. The conversation, before the campaign was announced, was the only time Mattes said he’s spoken with the senator.
His interest was sparked by seeing a flurry of accounts joining Bernie Sanders pages on Facebook after the primaries were over. That seemed unusual, as did their names.
“No profile on Facebook, no history on Facebook, and to me what was striking is that to me these people were emerging out of the ground and all they wanted to do was join Bernie Sanders groups,” Mattes said.
Digging more, he said he found that multiple accounts were using the same names and posting articles he found “wildly over the top” bashing Clinton. He noticed strange typos in them, too.
“In the second week of September, I felt comfortable enough with what [I was] seeing to share it not just with my friends,” Mattes said.
He said he also shared his findings with “someone on [Barack] Obama’s national security staff” just before the election.
“This person in blunt terms said, ‘John, we are seeing Putin’s fingerprints, and Putin is paying for all of it,’” Mattes said.
Asked who this person was, Mattes would only say that it was “a high-level person.”