Telephone records and intercepted calls show that members of US President Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and other Trump associates had repeated contacts with senior Russian intelligence officials in the year before the election, according to four current and former US officials.
US law enforcement and intelligence agencies intercepted the communications at about the same time they were discovering evidence that Russia was trying to disrupt the presidential election by hacking the US Democratic National Committee, three of the officials said.
The intelligence agencies then sought to learn whether the Trump campaign was colluding with the Russians on the hacking or other efforts to influence the election.
The officials interviewed said that, so far, they had seen no evidence of such cooperation, but the intercepts alarmed US intelligence and law enforcement agencies, in part because of the amount of contact that was occurring while Trump was speaking glowingly about Russian President Vladimir Putin.
At one point last summer, Trump said at a campaign event that he hoped Russian intelligence services had stolen then-Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton’s e-mails and would make them public.
The officials said the intercepted communications were not limited to Trump campaign officials and they included other associates of Trump. On the Russian side, the contacts also included members of the government outside of the intelligence services, the officials said.
All of the current and former officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because the continuing investigation is classified.
The officials said that one of the advisers picked up on the telephone calls was Paul Manafort, who was Trump’s campaign chairman for several months last year and had worked as a political consultant in Ukraine.
The officials declined to identify the other Trump associates on the telephone calls.
The call logs and intercepted communications are part of a larger trove of information that the FBI is sifting through as it investigates the links between Trump’s associates and the Russian government, as well as the hacking of the Democratic National Committee, according to federal law enforcement officials.
As part of its inquiry, the FBI has obtained banking and travel records, and has conducted interviews, the officials said.
Manafort, who has not been charged with any crimes, dismissed the accounts in a telephone interview on Tuesday.
“This is absurd,” Manafort 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,’” Manafort added.
Several of Trump’s associates, such as Manafort, have done business in Russia and it is not unusual for US businesspeople to come in contact with foreign intelligence officials, sometimes unwittingly, in nations such as Russia and Ukraine, where the spy services are deeply embedded in society.
Law enforcement officials did not say to what extent the contacts might have been about business.
Officials would not disclose many details, including what was discussed on the telephone calls, the identity of the Russian intelligence officials who participated on the calls and how many of Trump’s advisers were talking to the Russians. It is also unclear whether the conversations had anything to do with Trump himself.
A report from US intelligence agencies that was made public last month concluded that the Russian government had intervened in the presidential election in part to help Trump, but it did not address whether any members of the Trump campaign had participated.
The intercepted calls are different from the wiretapped conversations last year between Michael Flynn, Trump’s former national security adviser, and Russian Ambassador to the US Sergey Kislyak. During those calls, which led to Flynn’s resignation on Monday night, the two men discussed sanctions that the administration of former US president Barack Obama had imposed on Russia in December last year.
However, the cases are part of US intelligence and law enforcement agencies’ routine electronic surveillance of the communications of foreign officials.
The FBI declined to comment.
The White House also declined to comment on Tuesday night, but earlier in the day press secretary Sean Spicer stood by Trump’s previous comments that nobody from his campaign had contact with Russian officials before the election.
“There’s nothing that would conclude me that anything different has changed with respect to that time period,” Spicer said.
Two days after the election in November last year, Russian Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergei Ryabkov said that “there were contacts” during the campaign between Russian officials and Trump’s team.
“Obviously, we know most of the people from his entourage,” Ryabkov told Interfax news agency.
The Trump transition team denied Ryabkov’s statement.
“This is not accurate,” Hope Hicks, a spokeswoman for Trump, said at the time.
The National Security Agency (NSA), which monitors the communications of foreign intelligence services, initially captured the communications between Trump’s associates and the Russians as part of routine foreign surveillance.
After that, the FBI asked the agency to collect as much information as possible about the Russian operatives on the telephone calls and to search through troves of previous intercepted communications that had not been analyzed.
The FBI has closely examined at least three other people close to Trump, although it is unclear if their telephone calls were intercepted. They are Carter Page, a businessman and former foreign policy adviser to the campaign; Roger Stone, a longtime Republican operative; and Flynn.
All of the men have denied they had any improper contacts with Russian officials.
As part of the inquiry, the FBI is also trying to assess the credibility of information contained in a dossier that was given to the bureau last year by a former British intelligence operative.
The dossier contained a raft of allegations of a broad conspiracy between Trump, his associates and the Russian government. It also included unsubstantiated claims that the Russians had embarrassing videos that could be used to blackmail Trump.
The FBI has spent several months investigating the leads in the dossier, but has yet to confirm any of its most explosive allegations.
Senior FBI officials believe that the former British intelligence officer who compiled the dossier, Christopher Steele, has a credible track record and he briefed FBI investigators last year about how he obtained the information.
One US law enforcement official said that FBI agents had made contact with some of Steele’s sources.
The FBI’s investigation into Manafort began last spring as an outgrowth of a criminal investigation into his work for a pro-Russian political party in Ukraine and for former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych.
The investigation has focused on why he was in such close contact with Russian and Ukrainian intelligence officials.
The bureau did not have enough evidence to obtain a warrant for a wiretap of Manafort’s communications, but it had the NSA closely scrutinize the communications of Ukrainian officials he had met.
The FBI investigation is proceeding at the same time that separate investigations into Russian interference in the election are gaining momentum on Capitol Hill.
Those investigations, by the House of Representatives and Senate Intelligence Committees, are examining not only the Russian hacking, but also any contacts that Trump’s team had with Russian officials during the election campaign.
On Tuesday, top Republican lawmakers said that Flynn should be one focus of the investigation and that he should be called to testify before US Congress.
Senator Mark Warner, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said that the news surrounding Flynn underscored “how many questions still remain unanswered to the American people more than three months after election day, including who was aware of what and when.”
Warner said that Flynn’s resignation would not stop the committee “from continuing to investigate General Flynn or any other campaign official who may have had inappropriate and improper contacts with Russian officials prior to the election.”
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