Top Russian officials discussed how to influence Trump aides last summer

Donald Trump (left) with Michael Flynn (right) at Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Florida, on Dec 21, 2016.
Donald Trump (left) with Michael Flynn (right) at Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Florida, on Dec 21, 2016.PHOTO: AFP

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

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

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

The intelligence was among the clues - which also included information about direct communications between 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 Trump's associates were assisting Moscow in the effort.

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 FBI, which during that period opened a counterintelligence investigation that is ongoing.

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

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

Trump, for his part, 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, as did spokesmen for Manafort. Flynn's attorney did not respond to an email seeking comment.