U.S. Spy Agencies, FBI Probing Trump Team’s Russia Calls, Officials Say

Updated on
  • Several investigations under way into Russian role in election
  • Senate intelligence panel gathering documents for its probe

How Does Trump Administration View Russia?

U.S. intelligence agencies and the FBI are conducting multiple investigations to determine the full extent of contacts that President Donald Trump’s advisers and associates had with Russia during and after the 2016 campaign, according to four national security officials with knowledge of the matter.

Several agencies are conducting the inquiries into Russia’s efforts to meddle in the U.S. election and coordinating as needed, said the officials, who requested anonymity to speak about sensitive matters. The investigations predate the dismissal of retired Lieutenant General Michael Flynn as national security adviser on Monday.

Trump associates whose activities the agencies are examining include his former campaign chairman Paul Manafort, energy consultant Carter Page, longtime Republican operative Roger Stone and Flynn, two of the officials said. Manafort, in a statement to Bloomberg, said he “never had any connection to Putin or the Russian government -- either directly or indirectly -- before during or after the campaign.”

The FBI has two parallel ongoing investigations, one official said. A counterintelligence investigation is looking at Russian espionage activities and to what extent, if any, they involve communications with or collusion by U.S. officials. The second, a cybersecurity investigation, is probing the hacking of U.S. political groups and operatives.

Russian Ambassador

For example, investigators are focusing on a phone call Flynn had in December with Sergey Kislyak, Russia’s ambassador to the U.S., which was intercepted by intelligence agencies and shared with the FBI, the two officials said. The FBI interviewed Flynn about that communication shortly after Trump was inaugurated.

Leading congressional Republicans have joined calls by Democrats for a deeper look at contacts between Trump’s team and Russian intelligence agents Wednesday, indicating a growing sense of political peril within the party as new reports surfaced of extensive contacts between the two.

Senate Intelligence Committee staff started collecting information in January on its broader probe of Russia’s alleged interference in last year’s election, according to Democrat Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia, who sits on the panel. 

Mark Warner, the ranking Democrat on the panel, said that standing up a new investigating committee "would greatly delay the process."

He told reporters that staffers have already visited the intelligence agencies and have collected some of the raw intelligence involved in the investigation, and said he has faith in Republican Chairman Richard Burr of North Carolina to honor his commitment to follow the intelligence wherever it leads.

Full Access

Republican Roy Blunt, a member of the Intelligence Committee and GOP leadership, said information the White House relied on in the Flynn matter has been preserved and the panel will get access to that.

"Everybody, including the president, is well served if anybody that reasonably should be asked to provide information to the committee, including testimony, testifies," he said. "I think we can be a long way down the road in 90 days."

"All of it that can possibly become public will and should be public," Blunt added.

Warner said that in addition to the hacking allegations and Trump associates’s alleged contacts with Russia, the committee is also investigating other Russian attempts to influence the elections and disseminate propaganda. "There were literally hundreds, if not thousands, of Russian internet trolls trying to manipulate our news flows," he said.

Calling Witnesses

Manchin said Wednesday he expects the committee to begin calling in witnesses starting later this month. 

Among those he would like to see testify are Flynn, Manafort and former acting Attorney General Sally Yates, who was fired after she refused to defend Trump’s executive order on immigration.

“We’re going to do everything we can to be open and transparent,” Manchin said in an interview. “You need to clear it up.”

Manafort, who served as Trump’s campaign director for only several months before being removed, denied that the campaign had any link to Russia.

“In the campaign, the only conversations on any topic that related to Russia, hacking etc were those following the coverage in the news,” Manafort said in his statement. “There was no link, that I am aware of, between the campaign or me with the Russian govt and anyone associated with it.”

Republican Alarm

The New York Times reported that Trump campaign aides and associates “had repeated contacts with senior Russian intelligence officials in the year before” the November 2016 election, citing four current and former U.S. officials the newspaper didn’t identify. It’s unclear if the talks pertained to Trump personally, and the Times reported that there’s been no evidence uncovered that Trump’s campaign colluded with Russian attempts to influence the election.

Even before the report was published, top Republicans already were expressing rising concern about the issue following the ouster of Flynn, who the administration says may have misled the president and vice president about his communications with a Russian envoy.

Trump responded Wednesday by calling Flynn “a wonderful man” who has been “treated so badly” by the news media. Speaking at a White House news conference, Trump also decried the leaks of classified information. “It’s a criminal act,” he said.

Earlier Wednesday, Trump unleashed a string of tweets, taking aim at targets ranging from “the fake news media” to a cover-up for “Hillary Clinton’s losing campaign” to “the intelligence community (NSA and FBI?),” which he said was “just like Russia.” 

Select Committee

In the wake of Flynn’s ouster, several Republicans are starting to call for more robust probes of any potential Russia contacts, with Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina saying Wednesday that it is "imperative" that Congress investigate the matter.

“If in fact there are campaign contacts between Trump officials and Russian intelligence officers that would be a very serious event and would justify the Senate forming a select committee to look at all things related to Russia,” he said in a statement. “The Russians have been trying to break the backbone of democracies all over the world, and clearly in my view, interfered in the 2016 election.”

The Senate Intelligence probe, for example, doesn’t include oversight of FBI investigations because those largely fall outside the committee’s jurisdiction.

Democrats on the House Financial Services Committee, which has oversight of financial sanctions, also called for an investigation into the Trump administration’s ties to Russia Wednesday. In a letter to Jeb Hensarling, the Republican chairman of the committee, lawmakers including Maxine Waters, the top Democrat on the panel, asked for a review of Flynn’s communications, including anything he said about the administration’s sanctions policy.

Dianne Feinstein, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said that she is happy with the Intelligence panel’s probe so far, but that the FBI angle warrants oversight from Judiciary. 

Later Wednesday, Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley and Feinstein wrote a letter to Attorney General Jeff Sessions asking for details of the contents of Flynn’s communications with Russian officials and the Justice Department’s response, as well as information about the leaks.

Grassley earlier in the day said the various allegations are troubling and that Congress needs to investigate. “ANY Russian meddling in US election UNACCEPTABLE,” he tweeted.

Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker said Wednesday that Congress needs to "figure out a way to get it all out there, not just dribble it out so that it’s totally disruptive.”

This is “something that not only we need to understand and we need to get to the bottom of, but the American people also do," Corker told reporters in Washington.

Flynn Replacement

The Trump administration was preparing to replace Flynn as early as last week, a senior administration official said. White House officials spoke with Robert Harward, a potential replacement for Flynn, last week and again on Monday, the official said, requesting anonymity to discuss a personnel issue.

Harward is a retired Navy vice admiral who once served under Defense Secretary James Mattis at U.S. Central Command. Former CIA Director David Petraeus has also been under consideration. Former Deputy Treasury Secretary Robert Kimmitt on Bloomberg TV Wednesday denied reports he is a candidate to replace Flynn.

— With assistance by Terrence Dopp

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