Trump Campaign Reportedly In Contact With Russian Intelligence During Campaign
The story of the day yesterday in Washington was, of course, the resignation of Michael Flynn as President Trump’s National Security Adviser. Administration officials and many Republicans on Capitol Hill spent the better part of the day trying to deflect questions about what Flynn’s resignations meant for the overall issue of the Trump team’s contacts with Russia that has been a controversy since before the election by arguing that the real story was who leaked the contents of Flynn’s conversations. Over on Capitol Hill, some Republicans have begun talking about investigating all of this, but the overall sentiment clearly seems to be one where they’d rather see this story go away than be forced to open investigations of a Republican President less than a month into his first term in office. Meanwhile, the story itself continues moving forward, and it seems clear that Flynn’s resignation is not going to be the last we hear about it. This morning, for example, The New York Times is reporting that the Trump campaign had repeated contact with Russian intelligence and other officials throughout the campaign, which amounts to yet another indication that the story about the connections between President Trump and his people and Russian isn’t going to end with Flynn:
WASHINGTON — Phone records and intercepted calls show that members of Donald J. Trump’s 2016 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 American officials.
American law enforcement and intelligence agencies intercepted the communications around the same time they were discovering evidence that Russia was trying to disrupt the presidential election by hacking into the 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 in recent weeks said that, so far, they had seen no evidence of such cooperation.
But the intercepts alarmed American intelligence and law enforcement agencies, in part because of the amount of contact that was occurring while Mr. Trump was speaking glowingly about the Russian president, Vladimir V. Putin. At one point last summer, Mr. Trump said at a campaign event that he hoped Russian intelligence services had stolen Hillary Clinton’s emails and would make them public.
The officials said the intercepted communications were not limited to Trump campaign officials, and included other associates of Mr. Trump. On the Russian side, the contacts also included members of the government outside of the intelligence services, they 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 calls was Paul Manafort, who was Mr. 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 calls.
The call logs and intercepted communications are part of a larger trove of information that the F.B.I. is sifting through as it investigates the links between Mr. Trump’s associates and the Russian government, as well as the hacking of the D.N.C., according to federal law enforcement officials. As part of its inquiry, the F.B.I. has obtained banking and travel records and conducted interviews, the officials said.
Mr. Manafort, who has not been charged with any crimes, dismissed the officials’ accounts in a telephone interview on Tuesday. “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.”
He added, “It’s not like these people wear badges that say, ‘I’m a Russian intelligence officer.'”
Several of Mr. Trump’s associates, like Mr. Manafort, have done business in Russia. And it is not unusual for American businessmen to come in contact with foreign intelligence officials, sometimes unwittingly, in countries like 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.
The officials would not disclose many details, including what was discussed on the calls, the identity of the Russian intelligence officials who participated, and how many of Mr. Trump’s advisers were talking to the Russians. It is also unclear whether the conversations had anything to do with Mr. Trump himself.
A report from American intelligence agencies that was made public in January concluded that the Russian government had intervened in the election in part to help Mr. Trump, but did not address whether any members of the Trump campaign had participated in the effort.
The intercepted calls are different from the wiretapped conversations last year between Michael T. Flynn, Mr. Trump’s former national security adviser, and Sergey I. Kislyak, Russia’s ambassador to the United States. In those calls, which led to Mr. Flynn’s resignation on Monday night, the two men discussed sanctions that the Obama administration imposed on Russia in December.
But the cases are part of American intelligence and law enforcement agencies’ routine electronic surveillance of the communications of foreign officials.
The F.B.I. declined to comment. The White House also declined to comment Tuesday night, but earlier in the day, the press secretary, Sean Spicer, stood by Mr. 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,” Mr. Spicer said in response to a question.
As part of the inquiry, the F.B.I. is also trying to assess the credibility of the 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 Mr. Trump, his associates and the Russian government. It also included unsubstantiated claims that the Russians had embarrassing videos that could be used to blackmail Mr. Trump.
The F.B.I. has spent several months investigating the leads in the dossier, but has yet to confirm any of its most explosive claims.
Senior F.B.I. officials believe that the former British intelligence officer who compiled the dossier, Christopher Steele, has a credible track record, and he briefed investigators last year about how he obtained the information. One American law enforcement official said that F.B.I. agents had made contact with some of Mr. Steele’s sources.
The agency’s investigation of Mr. Manafort began last spring as an outgrowth of a criminal investigation into his work for a pro-Russian political party in Ukraine and for the country’s former president, Viktor F. Yanukovych. It 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 Mr. Manafort’s communications, but it had the N.S.A. scrutinize the communications of Ukrainian officials he had met.
The F.B.I. 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 and Senate Intelligence Committees, are examining not only the Russian hacking but also any contacts that Mr. Trump’s team had with Russian officials during the campaign.
Much of this report hardly comes as a surprise since it confirms what other reports had said during the campaign as well as suspicions voiced by many political observers regarding the connections between the Trump campaign and Russia. Some of these contacts, such as the long history that people such as Paul Manafort and Lt. General Flynn had with Russian officials and business interests with ties to the Putin regime, were well-known during the campaign. Given the revelations that later came out what clearly seems to have been a Russian effort to influence the outcome of the American Presidential election, though, the new information raises some rather serious questions regarding what these Trump officials may have been discussing with their Russian contacts, especially whether or not there were ongoing discussions regarding the potential direction of U.S. foreign policy in the event Trump managed to win the Presidency, something that of course seemed like only a dim possibility leading right up until Election Day itself. Additionally, there have been repeated questions raised regarding possible connections between Trump’s business interests and Russian banks that may have provided at least some financial backing to Trump projects after several large American and European banks reportedly began becoming reluctant to back such projects given Trump’s reported liquidity problems and history of using the bankruptcy process and formation of corporate shells to deal with creditors on projects that ended up failing in the end. In part due to the fact that Trump refused to release his tax returns during the course of the campaign and afterward. Add into this Trump’s obsequious praise of Vladimir Putin at every turn, and his dismissal of obvious evidence of Putin’s dictatorship at home and efforts to expand Russian influence abroad, and it all raises serious questions that can only be answered via further investigation. As Chris Cillizza put it yesterday, this story didn’t start with Mike Flynn and it isn’t going to end with his resignation.
There are many unanswered questions. Did anyone in the White House authorize Mr. Flynn’s contacts? Why has Mr. Trump not condemned him for discussing sanctions with the Russians when he was not yet in office?
All of this puts more pressure on Congress to act. Although some top Republican senators have pledged to deepen their investigation of Russian involvement in the election, the party’s response over all has been irresponsible. “I think that situation has taken care of itself,” Jason Chaffetz, chairman of the House Oversight Committee, said on Tuesday about Mr. Flynn. Devin Nunes, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, was equally dismissive: “It just seems like there’s a lot of nothing there.” Then there was Senator Rand Paul, who put partisanship ahead of national security by declaring “it makes no sense” for Republicans to investigate Republicans.
Of course, Republicans pilloried Hillary Clinton for nearly two years for using a private email server, a bad decision, but one that didn’t endanger the nation. And they conducted eight futile investigations into Mrs. Clinton’s role as secretary of state during the 2012 Benghazi attack.
Now the same Republicans seem intent on helping Mr. Trump hide the truth by refusing to investigate Russia’s hacking and other attempts to influence the 2016 election, as well as Mr. Trump’s connections to Russia and affinity for President Vladimir Putin.
Thomas Friedman agrees:
If Republicans want to know how they should be behaving on this issue, they should ask themselves what they would be saying and doing right now if a President Hillary Clinton had behaved toward Russia the way Trump has, and had her national security adviser been found hinting to the Russian ambassador to hold tight because a softer United States policy toward Russia was on its way.
House Speaker Paul Ryan and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, what are you thinking by looking away from this travesty? You both know that if the C.I.A., N.S.A. and F.B.I. had concluded that the Russians had intervened to help Hillary Clinton get elected you would have closed the government and demanded a new election. Now it’s all O.K.? So you can get some tax cuts? Gens. Jim Mattis and John Kelly, our new secretaries of defense and homeland security, you are great patriots who both put your lives on the line in uniform to defend American values from precisely the kind of attack Putin perpetrated. Are you O.K. with what’s going on?
“The Russians did not just hack into some emails or break into some banks in America. They attacked the very things that make America what it is — that makes it so special: its rule of law and its democratic form of choosing and changing leaders,” said Nader Mousavizadeh, who was a senior adviser to United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan and co-leads the global consulting firm Macro Advisory Partners.
I am not looking to go to war with Russia over this. Back in the 1990s, this column was among the loudest voices warning against NATO expansion — that it would one day come back to haunt us, which it has, by making Russia feel threatened. I don’t care about Putin. His regime will fail because he is forever looking for dignity in all the wrong places, by drilling for oil and gas instead of unleashing the creativity of his people. But I am not willing to settle for evicting a few Russian agents and then moving on. We need to get to the truth, look it squarely in the eye and then act proportionately.
The Times and Friedman are, of course, absolutely correct. The allegations that have been made are serious indeed and go to the core of our democratic system. Congress owes it to the American people to fully investigate this matter and to be unafraid about uncovering whatever the investigation may uncover, even if it damages the head of their own party. If they could find enough reason to launch multiple investigations of the Benghazi attack, Fast & Furious, and the IRS targeting scandal then surely they can find reason to launch an investigation of the allegations regarding foreign interferene in our elections and, potentially, the possibility that members of an incoming Administration was conducting foreign policy behind the back of the sitting President of the United States.