The intelligence was among the clues that U.S. officials received last year as they began investigating Russian attempts to disrupt the 2016 election.
WASHINGTON — U.S. 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 U.S. officials familiar with the intelligence.
The conversations focused on Paul Manafort, the Trump campaign chairman at the time, and Michael T. 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 F. 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 U.S. officials received last year as they began investigating Russian attempts to disrupt the election and whether any of Trump’s associates were assisting Russian officials 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 U.S. government last year about the Russian disruption campaign.
Most Read Nation & World Stories
- Family's Alaska fishing trip becomes nightmare with 3 dead and search over for 2 more
- Sports on TV & radio: Local listings for Seattle games and events
- Las Vegas maid stole $768,000 in jewelry from hotel room, police say
- Biden trips and falls on stage at Air Force graduation; White House says he's 'fine'
- Hunter Biden’s lawyers cite landmark gun ruling in bid to stave off charges
The information collected last summer was considered credible enough for intelligence agencies to pass to the FBI, which opened an investigation that is continuing. 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 Mueller III, the newly appointed special counsel, are seeking to answer. Trump has dismissed talk of Russian interference in the election as “fake news,” insisting there was no contact between his campaign and Russian officials.
“If there ever was any effort by Russians to influence me, I was unaware, and they would have failed,” Manafort said in a statement. “I did not collude with the Russians to influence the elections.”
The White House, FBI and CIA declined to comment. Flynn’s lawyer did not respond to an email seeking comment.
The current and former officials agreed to discuss the intelligence only on condition of anonymity.
In a related development Wednesday, Justice Department officials acknowledged that Attorney General Jeff Sessions did not disclose contacts with foreign dignitaries, including the Russian ambassador, on the security clearance form he submitted as a United States senator last year.
The department said Sessions’ staff relied on the guidance of the FBI investigator handling the background check, who advised that meetings with foreign dignitaries “connected with Senate activities” did not have to be reported on the form.
The news comes two months after Sessions recused himself from a Justice Department investigation into potential ties between Russia and the Trump campaign after it was revealed that he had two previously undisclosed encounters, last summer and fall, with the Russian ambassador. Sessions said at his Senate confirmation hearing that he had not any communication “with the Russians.”
In a statement, Justice Department spokesman Ian Prior said Sessions met with hundreds, if not thousands, of foreign dignitaries while in the Senate. CNN first reported the omissions.
Also Wednesday, the FBI told a House committee that it would not be complying with the Wednesday deadline to turn over memos written by former FBI Director James Comey detailing his discussions with Trump. One memo reportedly recounts Trump pressuring Comey to shut down an investigation into the foreign ties of Flynn.
Lawmakers conducting their own probe continued to pressure Flynn to cooperate by raising the prospect of additional subpoenas, while Carter Page, a Trump campaign foreign-policy adviser, said he would testify next month before the House Intelligence Committee.
John Brennan, the former director of the CIA, testified 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 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.”
Last week, CNN reported about intercepted phone calls during which Russian officials bragged about ties to Flynn and discussed ways to wield influence over him. In his congressional testimony, Brennan discussed the broad outlines of the intelligence, and his disclosures backed up the accounts of the information provided by the current and former officials.
By early summer, U.S. intelligence officials were fairly certain that it was Russian hackers who had stolen tens of thousands of emails from the Democratic Party and Hillary Clinton’s campaign. That in itself was not viewed as particularly extraordinary by the Americans — foreign spies had hacked previous campaigns, and the United States does the same in elections around the world, officials said.
But the concerns began to grow when intelligence began trickling in about Russian officials weighing whether they should release stolen emails and other information to shape U.S. opinion. An unclassified report by U.S. intelligence agencies released in January stated that Putin “ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the U.S. presidential election.”
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 president. Yanukovych was a close ally of Putin.
Manafort’s links to Ukraine led to his departure from the Trump campaign in August, after his name surfaced in secret ledgers showing millions in undisclosed payments from Yanukovych’s political party.
Flynn’s ties to Russian officials stretch back to his time at the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), which he led from 2012 to 2014. There, he began pressing for the United States to cultivate Russia as an ally in the fight against Islamic militants and spent a day in Moscow at the headquarters of the GRU, the Russian military intelligence service, in 2013.
He continued to insist that Russia could be an ally even after Russia’s seizure of Crimea in 2014, and Obama administration officials have said that contributed to their decision to push him out of the DIA.