Phone records and intercepted calls of U.S. Intelligence agencies show that members of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign had repeated communication with senior Russian intelligence officials in the year before the election, the New York Times reported last night. The report cites four current and former American officials who spoke to The Times on condition of anonymity because the continued investigation is classified.
American law enforcement and intelligence agencies intercepted the communications around the time they discovered evidence Russian hackers had attempted to influence the election outcome by hacking the Democratic National Committee, according to three of the officials. The intelligence agencies then sought to learn whether the Trump campaign was colluding with the Russians on hacking or other efforts to influence the election. The officials interviewed in recent weeks said that, so far, they had seen no evidence of such cooperation.
The intercepted calls differ from the wiretapped conversations between Michael Flynn, Trump’s former national security adviser, and Sergei Kislyak, the Russian ambassador to the United States. In those calls, Flynn and Kislyak apparently discussed sanctions the Obama administration imposed on Russia in December. Those calls led to Flynn’s resignation from the White House on Monday.
The intercepts alarmed members of the American intelligence community and law enforcement, however, in part because of the level of contact that was occurring while Mr. Trump was openly praising Vladimir Putin, the Russian leader. Last summer, Trump shocked many when he made a public call for Russia to hack into Hillary Clinton’s private server and distribute emails she never made public during her tenure as Secretary of State. The intercepted communications included some of Trump’s associates outside his campaign. On the Russian side, the contacts also included members of the government outside the intelligence community.
The officials revealed one of the advisors picked up on these calls was Paul Manafort, Trump’s campaign chairman and chief strategist. Manafort departed Trump’s campaign three months before Election Day amid revelations that he, while working in Ukraine as an international consultant, allegedly pocketed $12.7 million in cash payments from Ukraine’s former ruling party between 2007 and 2012. The report, initially published in the New York Times, asserts that the money could be part of an illegal, off-the-books system. The officials declined to identify the other Trump associates who were on the calls.
Manafort has not been charged with any crimes, but he dismissed the officials’ accounts in a telephone interview yesterday.
“This is absurd,” he said. “I have no idea what this is referring to. I have never knowingly spoken to Russian intelligence officers, and I have never been involved with anything to do with the Russian government or the Putin administration or any other issues under investigation today. It’s not like these people wear badges that say, ‘I’m a Russian intelligence officer.’”
The White House declined to comment on the report, but earlier in the day, Sean Spicer, the White House Press Secretary, maintained Trump’s previous comments that no one who worked on his campaign colluded with Russia. “There’s nothing that would conclude me that anything different has changed with respect to that time period,” Spicer told reporters.
But Spicer’s claim contradicts a statement Sergei Ryabkov, the deputy Russian foreign minister, made on Russia’s Interfax news agency two days after the election. “Obviously, we know most of the people from his entourage,” Ryabkov said at the time, saying “there were contacts” during the campaign between Russian officials and Trump’s team. Hope Hicks, a Trump spokeswoman, denied Ryabkov’s statement almost as soon as he made it. “This is not accurate,” she said at the time.