Kremlin dismisses report of Trump campaign contacts with Russian spies

Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) sits next to retired U.S. Army Lieutenant General Michael Flynn (L) as they attend an exhibition marking the 10th anniversary of RT (Russia Today) television news channel in Moscow, Russia, December 10, 2015. Sputnik/Mikhail... REUTERS

By Maria Tsvetkova and Alessandra  Prentice

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia dismissed on Wednesday as groundless a U.S. media report that said members of Donald Trump's presidential campaign had contacts with Russian intelligence officials.

The report, from the New York Times, has boosted concerns about Russia's role in influencing the outcome of the United States' election. U.S. intelligence agencies have already accused Russia of being behind the hacking of Democratic Party emails in order to help Trump, a Republican, to win.

U.S-Russia relations are under particular scrutiny following the inauguration of Trump, who pledged in his campaign to improve ties with the Kremlin after they deteriorated to their worst level since the Cold War under the Obama administration.

The New York Times, citing four current and former U.S. officials, reported on Tuesday that phone records and intercepted calls show that members of Trump's campaign and other Trump associates had repeated contacts with senior Russian intelligence officials in the year before the election.

"Let's not believe anonymous information," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told a conference call with reporters, noting that the newspaper's sources were unnamed.

"It's a newspaper report which is not based on any facts."

In a rare comment to media, Russia's Foreign Intelligence Service told the TASS news agency the report consisted of "unsubstantiated media allegations".

Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova denied there had been any inappropriate contact between Trump representatives and Russian state agencies during the campaign.

She told a daily news briefing the latest allegations looked like part of a domestic U.S. political tussle that Russian officials have suggested is designed to damage the chances for better U.S.-Russia ties.

"We're not surprised by anything anymore. This information once again proves that a very deep political game is playing out within the United States," said Zakharova.

The prospect of a swift rapprochement between Russia and the United has lessened since Trump's inauguration due to scandals including the resignation on Monday of national security adviser Michael Flynn, who was seen in Moscow as a leading advocate of softer U.S. policy towards Russia.

 (Writing by Andrew Osborn and Alessandra Prentice; Editing by Gareth Jones)

NY Times says Trump campaign had repeated contact with Russian intelligence

US President Donald Trump listens to a translation during a joint news conference with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at the White House in Washington, US, February 10, 2017. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

(Reuters) - Phone records and intercepted calls show that members of Donald Trump's presidential campaign and other Trump associates had repeated contacts with senior Russian intelligence officials in the year before the election, the New York Times reported on Tuesday, citing four current and former U.S. officials.

U.S. law enforcement and intelligence agencies intercepted the communications around the same time they were discovering evidence that Russia was trying to disrupt the presidential election by hacking into the Democratic National Committee, three of the officials said, according to the Times.

The intelligence agencies then sought to learn whether the Trump campaign was colluding with the Russians on the hacking or other efforts to influence the election, the newspaper said.

The officials interviewed in recent weeks said they had seen no evidence of such cooperation so far, it said.

However, the intercepts alarmed U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies, in part because of the amount of contact that was occurring while Trump was speaking glowingly about Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The intercepted calls are different from the wiretapped conversations last year between Michael Flynn, Trump's former national security adviser, and Sergei I. Kislyak, the Russian ambassador to the United States, the Times said.

During those calls, the two men discussed sanctions that the Obama administration imposed on Russia in December. Flynn misled the White House about those calls and was asked to resign on Monday night.

The White House did not immediately respond to a request from Reuters for comment on the Times story.

The Times reported that the officials said the intercepted communications were not limited to Trump campaign officials, and included other Trump associates.

On the Russian side, the contacts also included members of the Russian government outside the intelligence services, the officials told the Times. All of the current and former officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because the continuing investigation is classified, the newspaper reported.

The officials said one of the advisers picked up on the calls was Paul Manafort, who was Trump’s campaign chairman for several months last year and had worked as a political consultant in Russia and Ukraine, the Times said. The officials declined to identify the other Trump associates on the calls.

Manafort, who has not been charged with any crimes, dismissed the accounts of the U.S. officials in a telephone interview with the Times on Tuesday.

Several of Trump's associates, like Manafort, have done business in Russia. It is not unusual for U.S. businessmen to come in contact with foreign intelligence officials, sometimes unwittingly, in countries like Russia and Ukraine, where the spy services are deeply embedded in society, according to the Times.

Law enforcement officials did not say to what extent the contacts may have been about business, the Times said.

Officials would not disclose many details, including what was discussed on the calls, which Russian intelligence officials were on the calls, and how many of Trump's advisers were talking to the Russians. It is also unclear whether the conversations had anything to do with Trump himself, the Times said.

 (Writing by Eric Beech; Editing by Paul Tait)

Trump knew for weeks that aide was being misleading over Russia: White House

Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) sits next to retired U.S. Army Lieutenant General Michael Flynn (L) as they attend an exhibition marking the 10th anniversary of RT (Russia Today) television news channel in Moscow, Russia, December 10, 2015. Sputnik/Mikhail... REUTERS
By Steve Holland and Richard Cowan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. President Donald Trump knew for weeks that national security adviser Michael Flynn had misled the White House about his contacts with Russia but did not immediately force him out, an administration spokesman said on Tuesday.

Trump was informed in late January that Flynn had not told Vice President Mike Pence the whole truth about conversations he had before Trump took office with Russia's ambassador to the United States, White House spokesman Sean Spicer said.

Pence learned of the "incomplete information" that he received from Flynn when news reports surfaced late last week, spokesman Mark Lotter said on Tuesday.

Flynn quit on Monday after Trump asked for his resignation, and the president hopes to pick a new national security adviser by the end of the week, Spicer said.

The departure was another disruption for an administration already repeatedly distracted by miscues and internal dramas since the Republican businessman assumed the presidency on Jan. 20.

The New York Times reported late on Tuesday that members of Trump's campaign and other associates had contact with senior Russian intelligence officials in the year before the Nov. 8 presidential election, although U.S. officials told the newspaper they had not uncovered any evidence that Trump's associates colluded to disrupt the election.

U.S. lawmakers, including some leading Republicans, called for a deeper inquiry into not just Flynn's actions but broader White House ties to Russia. Trump has long said that he would like improved relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin. 

Representative Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House of Representatives Intelligence Committee, said Trump only moved against Flynn because of news media attention, not concern about any wrongdoing. 

"The reason they lost faith or trust in General Flynn only last night when they knew for weeks that he had been lying was that it became public," Schiff told MSNBC.

A timeline of events outlined by Spicer and a U.S. official showed that Trump had known for weeks about Flynn misleading the vice president. 

Trump, a former reality TV star whose catchphrase was "You're fired!" has often boasted of his eagerness to get rid of subordinates. He was not quick to fire Flynn, a strong advocate of a better relations with Russia and a hard line against Islamist militants.

The Justice Department warned the White House in late January that Flynn had misled Pence by denying to him that he had discussed U.S. sanctions on Russia with Ambassador Sergei Kislyak, a potentially illegal act, a U.S. official said. 

Flynn did talk about sanctions with the diplomat, whose calls were recorded by U.S. intelligence officials, the official said. But Pence went on television in mid-January and denied that Flynn had discussed sanctions.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation interviewed Flynn in his early days as Trump's national security adviser regarding his conversations with the Russian ambassador, a White House official confirmed.

Spicer stressed that the administration believed there was no legal problem with Flynn's conversations with Kislyak, but rather an issue over the president's trust in his adviser.

The turning point, Spicer said, was a Washington Post story published on Thursday in which Flynn, through a spokesman, said for the first time he could not say with 100 percent certainty that he had not discussed sanctions with Kislyak.

Spicer said the Justice Department sought to notify the White House counsel on Jan. 26 about the discrepancies in Flynn's accounts. 

"The White House counsel informed the president immediately. The president asked them to commit a review of whether there was a legal situation there," Spicer told reporters, saying it was a "trust issue."

Flynn's conversations with the ambassador took place around the time that then-President Barack Obama imposed sanctions on Russia, charging that Moscow had used cyber attacks to try to influence the 2016 presidential election in Trump's favor.

A U.S. official familiar with the transcripts of the calls with the ambassador said Flynn indicated that if Russia did not retaliate in kind for Obama's Dec. 29 order expelling 35 Russian suspected spies and sanctioning Russian spy agencies, that  could smooth the way toward a broader discussion of improving U.S.-Russian relations once Trump took power.    


Flynn's discussions with the Russian diplomat could potentially have been in violation of a law known as the Logan Act, which bans private citizens from negotiating with foreign governments about disputes or controversies with the United States. There have been no modern prosecutions using the 1799 law.

"The Logan Act is a red herring. The better question is whether he made any false statements to the FBI at any point, which would be a much bigger deal," said University of Texas law professor Stephen Vladeck, adding the fallout would likely be "political" in nature.

Flynn could also face legal trouble if it emerges that he violated other federal laws in his communications with the Russians, said Andrew Kent, a professor at Fordham University School of Law in New York. The Espionage Act criminalizes sharing information with foreign governments.       

Democrats, who do not have control of Congress, clamored for probes into Flynn, and asked how much Trump knew about his connections to Russia.

U.S. Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer called for an investigation of potential criminal violations surrounding the resignation of Flynn.

"What I am calling for is an independent investigation with executive authority to pursue potential criminal actions," Schumer told reporters, saying such a probe could not be led by newly installed U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions or White House lawyers.

Two leading Senate Republicans, Bob Corker and John Cornyn, said the Intelligence Committee should investigate Flynn's contacts with Russia. 

But the highest-ranking Republican in Congress, House of Representatives Speaker Paul Ryan, sidestepped questions about whether lawmakers should look into Flynn's Russia ties, saying he would leave it to the Trump administration to explain the circumstances behind Flynn's departure.

A broader investigation of the White House and its ties to Russia is not possible without the cooperation either of the Justice Department or the Republican-led Congress. 

Russia's aggression in Ukraine and Syria and Republican congressional opposition to removing sanctions on Russia make any White House attempt to embrace Putin problematic.

Senator John McCain, a leading Republican voice on foreign relations, said Flynn's resignation raised questions about the administration’s intentions toward Putin’s Russia.

 (Additional reporting by Susan Cornwell, David Morgan, John Walcott, Doina Chiacu, Lawrence Hurley Susan Heavey and Patricia Zengerle; Writing by Alistair Bell and Amanda Becker; Editing by Jonathan Oatis and Peter Cooney)