Russia on Wednesday denied a New York Times report that intercepted phone calls and records from last year show members of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign held repeated contacts with Russian intelligence officials in the year before the election.
Citing four current and former US officials, the Times said the Russians made contact with Paul Manafort, who briefly served as Trump’s campaign chairman. In late August, Manafort resigned from that job after disclosures by The Associated Press about his firm’s covert lobbying on behalf of Ukraine’s former pro-Russia governing party. Manafort dismissed the claims as “absurd” in an interview with the Times.
The intercepted communications between Moscow and the Trump campaign were uncovered around the same time intelligence agencies discovered evidence that Russia was trying to influence the election outcome by hacking into the Democratic National Convention, according to the report.
The intelligence agencies sought to determine whether the Russians had received cooperation from the Trump campaign, with three of the officials interviewed saying no evidence pointing to such a scenario was found. Current and former US officials interviewed by the Times declined to identify other Trump associates contacted by the Russians.
Speaking to reporters in Moscow, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov pointed to the anonymity of the sources, saying that the reports “are not based on any facts, do not point to actual facts.”
Meanwhile, Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said Wednesday that the allegations “prove once against there is a major internal, political game, you can call it bargaining, in the United States.”
Russian lawmakers were more direct in trying to defend Trump.
“This is not about information but about a high-precision information bomb,” Alexei Pushkov, chairman of the Federation Council’s information committee, tweeted. “The goal is to blow up the Trump administration.”
The Times revelations came a day after Trump’s national security adviser, Michael Flynn, resigned following reports he misled Vice President Mike Pence and other officials about his contacts with the Russians — specifically intercepted calls he made last year to the Russian ambassador to the United States in which US sanctions on Russia were discussed.
The New York Times said earlier Tuesday that the FBI had interviewed Flynn on his phone calls with the Russian ambassador days into his job and that Trump had known about a possible problem over three weeks ago.
Citing current and former government officials, the Times said that after the FBI interviewed Flynn on January 26, the justice department’s top official at the time, acting attorney general Sally Yates, reported to the White House that there were significant differences between what intelligence officials knew of the calls and what Pence had said publicly.
Yates reportedly told the White House that the discrepancies left Flynn potentially vulnerable to blackmail by the Russians.
Trump asked Flynn to resign on Monday after the retired army general admitted having misled Pence on whether his discussions in December with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak involved US sanctions on Moscow. White House spokesman Sean Spicer said Tuesday that Flynn had lost Trump’s confidence.
Pence insisted in television interviews in mid-January that Flynn hadn’t spoken about sanctions with Kislyak. But last week, it came to light that transcripts of those calls show the topic was broached. It appears Trump left his vice president in the dark for weeks.