U.S. spies learned last summer that Russian intelligence and political officials were discussing ways to exert influence over Donald Trump through his presidential campaign advisers, the New York Times reported on May 24, citing anonymous U.S. officials.
The Russian discussions focused on Paul Manafort, Trump's campaign chairman at the time, and Michael Flynn, a retired Marine general who was advising Trump on foreign policy and later became Trump's national security adviser, the Times reported.
Both men had indirect ties to Russian officials who appeared confident that their contacts could be used to help shape Trump’s views on Russia, the Times said.
Some Russians boasted about how well they knew Flynn, while others discussed leveraging their ties to Viktor Yanukovych, the deposed president of Ukraine who lives in exile in Russia and who at one time worked closely with Manafort.
CNN has also previously reported about intercepted phone calls during which Russian officials bragged about their ties to Flynn and discussed ways of wielding influence over him.
The Times said the information collected by U.S. intelligence agencies last summer was considered credible enough to pass on to the FBI, which had just opened an investigation into Russian attempts to influence the election.
It is unclear, however, whether the Russian officials whose communications were intercepted actually tried to directly influence Manafort and Flynn. Both have denied any collusion with the Russian government.
The Times' report comes one day after the former chief of the Central Intelligence Agency, John Brennan, testified that he believes Russian President Vladimir Putin was trying to steer the outcome of the election and he personally warned Russian spy agencies against doing so.
Brennan said he saw intelligence suggesting that Russia wanted to use Trump campaign officials, wittingly or not, to help in that effort. He said it “raised questions in my mind about whether Russia was able to gain the cooperation of those individuals,” who Brennan did not identify in his testimony before the House Intelligence Committee.
“I was convinced in the summer that the Russians were trying to interfere in the election. And they were very aggressive," Brennan said.
Still, by the time he left the CIA at the end of last year, Brennan said he had “unresolved questions in my mind as to whether or not the Russians had been successful in getting U.S. persons, involved in the campaign or not, to work on their behalf, again either in a witting or unwitting fashion.”
Whether the Russians worked directly with any Trump advisers is one of the central questions before U.S. investigators in Congress and the Justice Department.
Russia has repeatedly denied any interference in the election and Trump, for his part, has dismissed the allegations and investigations as “fake news.”
“If there ever was any effort by Russians to influence me, I was unaware, and they would have failed,” Manafort told the Times. “I did not collude with the Russians to influence the elections.”
Before taking the helm of the Trump campaign last May, Manafort worked for more than a decade for Russian-leaning political organizations and people in Ukraine, including Yanukovych, the former Ukrainian president and close ally of Putin.
Manafort’s links to Yanukovych led to his departure from the Trump campaign in August, after his name surfaced in secret ledgers showing millions of dollars in undisclosed payments he received from Yanukovych’s political party.
Flynn’s ties to Russia go back to his time at the Defense Intelligence Agency, which he led from 2012 to 2014.
While there, Flynn began pressing for the United States to cultivate Russia as an ally in the fight against Islamist militants. He even spent a day in Moscow at the headquarters of the Russian military intelligence service in 2013.
Even after Moscow illegally seized control over Ukraine's Crimean peninsula in 2014, Flynn continued to insist that Russia could be an ally in the war against terrorists. Flynn was eventually forced out of his job by the Obama White House.
In private life, Flynn developed even closer ties to Russia, including giving a speech at an RT television dinner in Moscow in 2015 for which he was paid $45,000. He was photographed sitting next to Putin at the dinner.
Flynn declined to comment on the Times story, and so far has refused to talk to or supply documents to committees in Congress that are investigating the Russian influence matter.
Flynn's refusal to cooperate with the U.S. House of Representatives Intelligence Committee has led the committee to consider subpoenaing him, Representative Adam Schiff, the committee's top Democrat, said on May 24.
Carter Page, a former Trump campaign adviser on foreign policy who is also the subject of investigation, has agreed to testify before the committee next month. Page has denied any involvement in Russian attempts to influence the election.