Top Russians discussed how to influence Trump aides, say US officials

Mr Paul Manafort (left) and Mr Michael Flynn.
Mr Paul Manafort (left) and Mr Michael Flynn. PHOTOS: REUTERS

WASHINGTON • US spies collected information last year revealing that senior Russian intelligence and political officials were discussing how to exert influence over US President Donald Trump through his advisers, according to three current and former US officials familiar with the intelligence.

The conversations focused on Mr Paul Manafort, the Trump campaign chairman at the time, and Mr Michael Flynn, a retired general who was advising Mr Trump, the officials said. Both men had indirect ties to Russian officials, who appeared confident that each could be used to help shape Mr Trump's opinions on Russia.

Some Russians boasted about how well they knew Mr Flynn. Others discussed leveraging their ties to Mr Viktor Yanukovych, the deposed president of Ukraine living in exile in Russia, who at one time had worked closely with Mr Manafort.

The intelligence was among the clues - which also included information about direct communication between Mr Trump's advisers and Russian officials - that US officials received last year as they began investigating Russian attempts to disrupt the election and whether any of Mr Trump's associates was assisting Moscow in the effort.

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Details of the conversations, some of which have not been previously reported, add to an increasing understanding of the alarm inside the US government last year about the Russian disruption campaign. The information collected last summer was considered credible enough for intelligence agencies to pass to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), which then opened a counter-intelligence investigation that is continuing.

It is unclear, however, whether Russian officials actually tried to directly influence Mr Manafort and Mr Flynn. Both have denied any collusion with the Russian government to disrupt the election.

Mr John Brennan, the former director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), testified on Tuesday about a tense period last year when he came to believe that President Vladimir Putin of Russia was trying to steer the outcome of the election. He said he saw intelligence suggesting that Russia wanted to use Trump campaign officials, wittingly or not, to help in that effort.

He spoke vaguely about contacts between Trump associates and Russian officials, without giving names, saying they "raised questions in my mind about whether Russia was able to gain the cooperation of those individuals".

Whether the Russians worked directly with any of the Trump advisers is one of the central questions that federal investigators, led by newly appointed special counsel Robert Mueller, are seeking to answer.

Mr Trump has dismissed talk of Russian interference in the election as "fake news", insisting there was no contact between his campaign and Russian officials. The White House, FBI and CIA declined to comment.

"If there ever was any effort by Russians to influence me, I was unaware, and they would have failed," Mr Manafort, whose links to Ukraine led to his departure from the Trump campaign last August, said in a statement. "I did not collude with the Russians to influence the elections."

The lawyer for Mr Flynn, who stepped down as national security adviser in February for misleading top US officials about discussions he had late last year with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, did not respond to an e-mail seeking comment.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 26, 2017, with the headline 'Top Russians discussed how to influence Trump aides, say US officials'. Print Edition | Subscribe