Julian Borger in Washington
The Russian influence scandal engulfing the White House deepened dramatically on Tuesday night with reports that some of Donald Trump’s campaign aides had frequent contact with Russian intelligence officials over the course of last year.
A report in the New York Times came nearly 24 hours after the national security adviser, Michael Flynn, was forced to resign over conversations with the Russian ambassador to Washington and misleading statements about them to the press and vice-president Mike Pence.
The New York Times report cites four current and former US intelligence officials who are unnamed and who conceded they had “so far” seen no evidence in the intercepted phone communications that Trump campaign officials had cooperated with Russian intelligence in Moscow’s efforts to skew the election in Trump’s favour. The officials do not explain what, in that case, the contacts were about.
A CNN report said “high-level advisers close to then-presidential nominee Donald Trump were in constant communication during the campaign with Russians known to US intelligence”.
Despite the uncertainties, the reports are threatening to the Trump administration on a number of levels.
- They flatly contradict White House spokesman, Sean Spicer, who on Tuesday repeated his earlier assertions that there had been no pre-election contacts between the Trump team and Russian officials. Last month, Trump himself also denied any such contacts.
- They pile further pressure on the Republican congressional leadership to launch committee hearings on Russian election interference that were promised, but have so far failed to materialise.
- They are a further sign that intelligence officials are willing to leak extensively against the Trump administration, making it extremely risky for the White House to try to shut down investigations into collusion with Moscow that are reportedly being carried out by several intelligence agencies.
- They add circumstantial weight to the reports on the Trump campaign’s Kremlin links compiled last year and passed to the FBI by a former MI6 officer, Christopher Steele. His reports alleged active, sustained and covert collusion to subvert the election which, if confirmed, could constitute treason.
Trump fired off an angry series of tweets on Wednesday morning, claiming: “This Russian connection non-sense is merely an attempt to cover-up the many mistakes made in Hillary Clinton’s losing campaign.”
He attacked the intelligence community for what he saw as “unAmerican” leaks to newspapers that have written anonymously sourced stories about his and his advisers’ alleged links to Russia in recent days. “Information is being illegally given to the failing @nytimes & @washingtonpost by the intelligence community (NSA and FBI?),” he wrote. “Just like Russia.” That was the “real scandal”, he said.
Trump also complained that the “fake news media is going crazy with their conspiracy theories and blind hatred”, echoing the language of the Kremlin reaction to the latest reports.
The only Trump associate named in the New York Times report as having participated in the contacts was Paul Manafort, who was the Trump campaign manager for several months last summer. He had previously worked as an adviser to the former Ukrainian president, Viktor Yanukovych, who was backed by Moscow, and pro-Russian Ukrainian oligarchs.
Manafort has repeatedly denied any contacts with Russian officials. He told the New York Times on Tuesday: “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.”
“It’s not like these people wear badges that say, ‘I’m a Russian intelligence officer,’” he added.
Manafort did not immediately respond to a Guardian request for comment.
Manafort left the Trump campaign in August, after allegations about his activities in Ukraine first surfaced. At about the same time the campaign also distanced itself from a US businessman, Carter Page, who Trump had previously described as an adviser, after Page was reported to have had contacts with Vladimir Putin’s top lieutenants. Page called the reports “complete garbage”.
The new reports of the Trump campaign’s contacts with Moscow rekindled bitterness among former campaign aides to Hillary Clinton, over a pre-election announcement by FBI director, James Comey, that new material was being studied in an investigation of her use of a private internet server for her emails.
That investigation came to nothing, but Clinton officials were convinced the bad publicity, just 11 days before the election, cost her crucial votes. By contrast, they point out, the Republican Comey said nothing about investigations underway at the same time into Trump’s Russian links.
“I’d like the FBI to explain why they sent a letter about Clinton but not this,” Clinton’s former campaign manager, Robby Mook, said in a tweet on Tuesday night.
Her former spokesman, Brian Fallon, tweeted: “Everything we suspected during the campaign is proving true. This is a colossal scandal.”