With the Trump administration still dealing with the fallout from National Security Adviser Michael Flynn’s resignation over his calls with Russia’s ambassador to the United States, the New York Times dropped another bombshell on Tuesday night: Phone records and intercepted calls show members of the Trump campaign and other Trump associates were repeatedly in contact with senior Russian intelligence officials during the campaign, according to four current and former U.S. officials.
The communications were scooped up during routine intelligence collection as U.S. law enforcement and intelligence agencies were investigating Russia’s alleged hacking of the Democratic National Committee. CNN reports that the communications during early summer “raised a red flag” owing to their frequency, and the aides’ proximity to Trump.
According to the Times, the intelligence agencies tried to determine whether the Trump associates were colluding with the Russians on their efforts to influence the election, but so far officials have seen no evidence of that.
The communications are being investigated as part of the FBI’s ongoing probe into ties between Trump associates and the Russian government.
CNN reported that then–campaign chairman Paul Manafort and then-adviser Michael Flynn were among the aides regularly communicating with the Russians. Manafort, who has business ties to Ukraine and Russia, denied the report, but also hinted at a possible defense, telling the Times it’s hard to know who’s a Russian operative:
“This is absurd,” he said. “I have no idea what this is referring to. 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.”
Mr. Manafort added, “It’s not like these people wear badges that say, ‘I’m a Russian intelligence officer.’”
The officials would not disclose how many Trump associates were in regular contact with the Russians, or what topics were discussed. However, CNN reports the Trump aides’ communications were considered serious enough that both President Obama and President Trump were briefed on the matter.
President Trump and members of his administration have repeatedly denied that there was any contact between Russia and his campaign.
Here’s Kellyanne Conway on Face the Nation in December:
Mike Pence gave Fox News’ Chris Wallace a similar response on January 15. “Of course not. Why would there be any contact between the campaign [and Russia]?” said the vice-president-elect. “This is all a distraction, and it’s all part of a narrative to delegitimatize the election and to question the legitimacy of [Trump’s] presidency.”
On Tuesday, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer was asked if in light of new revelations about Flynn’s calls to the Russian ambassador during the transition, Trump still stands by his insistence that his team wasn’t in touch with Russia prior to November 8.
“There’s nothing that would conclude me that anything different has changed with respect to that time period,” said Spicer.
This post has been updated throughout.