Trump campaign aides had repeated contacts with Russians prior to the election

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    Did Trump Aides Speak With Russian Intelligence Before the Election?
    According to The New York Times, the FBI found that several associates of the president had been in contact with Kremlin intelligence officials, despite months of official denials.

    If the leaks that doomed Michael Flynn were a signal from the intelligence community, perhaps the message they intended to carry was: You ain’t seen nothing yet.

    The national security adviser’s abrupt resignation Monday night, which the White House says was a firing, came after it became clear that Flynn had lied to the public and to Vice President Mike Pence, alleging he had not discussed sanctions against Russia’s ambassador to the United States. On Tuesday evening, The New York Times added a set of new, if in some cases merely suggestive, information about further contacts between the Trump team and the Russian government—some of it directly contradicting statements made by Trump aides.

    The newspaper reports that four current and former intelligence officers say that Trump political and business associates “had repeated contacts with senior Russian intelligence officials in the year before the election.” The contacts came in the context of Trump repeatedly praising Russian President Vladimir Putin on the trail, as well as what intelligence officials and the Obama administration say were Russian efforts to boost Trump’s presidential hopes with hacks targeting Hillary Clinton and her political allies.

    The report directly contradicts statements made by Trump aides. In early November, just after the election, the Russian deputy foreign minster said the government had been in touch with the Trump team. Campaign spokeswoman Hope Hicks, who is now at the White House, said then, “We are not aware of any campaign representatives that were in touch with any foreign entities before yesterday, when Mr. Trump spoke with many world leaders.”

    In January, Vice President Mike Pence—whom Flynn also misled about his discussions with Kislyak, leading Pence to give misinformation in a CBS News interview—was adamant there had been no communication.

    On Tuesday, during a perplexing press briefing at the White House, Press Secretary Sean Spicer once again said he did not believe that any Trump team members had been in touch with the Russian government before the election. “There’s nothing that would conclude me… that anything different has changed with respect to that time period,” Spicer said.

    The Times says the NSA began intercepting conversations because they involved Russian intelligence operatives. Intelligence officials were curious to see if Trump’s associates were colluding at all in the hacks, which targeted the Democratic National Committee. They didn’t find any evidence they were. But they have looked closely at Flynn; Roger Stone, a flamboyant political operative who left the Trump campaign early on but continued to advise Trump; Carter Page, who left the campaign amid scrutiny of his relations in Russia; and Paul Manafort, who was Trump’s campaign manager for a time, and previously did business in Russia, at one advising a Kremlin client who was president of Ukraine.

    Manafort denied any knowing contacts, but his response to the Times acknowledged that he may very well have been in touch with Kremlin agents.

    “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,” Manafort said, but added, “It’s not like these people wear badges that say, ‘I’m a Russian intelligence officer.’”

    The Times also reports that the FBI continues to investigate a controversial dossier of allegations about Trump, prepared as opposition research by a former British intelligence official, revealed in a CNN report in January, and then published by BuzzFeed. The report’s author, Christopher Steele, seems to be held in high esteem by some intelligence figures, and FBI officials have made contact with some of his sources—but they have not, as yet, managed to confirm the dossier’s more salacious allegations.

    The new report breaks serious new ground, but it also leaves a great amount unknown, and many questions unanswered. It’s unclear how closely the conversations reached to Trump, or what their substance was. Furthermore, intelligence agencies often investigate leads but find they lead nowhere, or find nothing prosecutable—a lesson highlighted by the inquiry into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server. Then again, the American public may not have to wait long to learn more. If the leaks continue at this pace, despite provoking Trump’s fury, the picture should grow clearer over the coming days.


    Memos: CEO of Russia’s state oil company offered Trump adviser, allies a cut of huge deal if sanctions were lifted

    Natasha Bertrand

    A dossier with unverified claims about President Donald Trump’s ties to Russia contained allegations that Igor Sechin, the CEO of Russia’s state oil company, offered former Trump ally Carter Page and his associates the brokerage of a 19% stake in the company in exchange for the lifting of US sanctions on Russia.

    The dossier says the offer was made in July, when Page was in Moscow giving a speech at the Higher Economic School. The claim was sourced to “a trusted compatriot and close associate” of Sechin, according to the dossier’s author, former British spy Christopher Steele.

    “Sechin’s associate said that the Rosneft president was so keen to lift personal and corporate western sanctions imposed on the company, that he offered Page and his associates the brokerage of up to a 19 per cent (privatised) stake in Rosneft,” the dossier said. “In return, Page had expressed interest and confirmed that were Trump elected US president, then sanctions on Russia would be lifted.”

    Four months before the intelligence community briefed Trump, then-President Barack Obama, then-Vice President Joe Biden, and the nation’s top lawmakers on the dossier’s claims — most of which have not been independently verified but are being investigated by US intelligence agencies — a US intelligence source told Yahoo’s Michael Isikoff that Sechin met with Page during Page’s three-day trip to Moscow. Sechin, the source told Yahoo, raised the issue of the US lifting sanctions on Russia under Trump.

    Page was an early foreign-policy adviser to the Trump campaign. He took a “leave of absence” in September after news broke of his July trip to Moscow, and the campaign later denied that he had ever worked with it.

    Page, for his part, was “noncommittal” in his response to Sechin’s requests that the US lift the sanctions, the dossier said. But he signaled that doing so would be Trump’s intention if he won the election, and he expressed interest in Sechin’s offer, according to the document.

    In a recent interview with The Wall Street Journal, Trump suggested the sanctions could be lifted if Moscow proved to be a useful ally. “If you get along and if Russia is really helping us,” Trump asked, “why would anybody have sanctions if somebody’s doing some really great things?”

    Page has criticized the US sanctions on Russia as “sanctimonious expressions of moral superiority.” He praised Sechin in a May 2014 blog post for his “accomplishments” in advancing US-Russia relations. A US official serving in Russia while Page worked at Merrill Lynch in Moscow told Isikoff that Page “was pretty much a brazen apologist for anything Moscow did.”

    Page is also believed to have met with senior Kremlin internal affairs official Igor Diveykin while he was in Moscow last July, according to Isikoff’s intelligence sources. The dossier separately claimed that Diveykin — whom US officials believe was responsible for the intelligence collected by Russia about the US election — met with Page and hinted that the Kremlin possessed compromising information about Trump.

    It is unclear whether Isikoff’s reporting is related to the dossier, which has been circulating among top intelligence officials, lawmakers, and journalists since mid-2016.

    A scramble for a foreign investor

    After mid-October, the dossier said, Sechin predicted that it would no longer be possible for Trump to win the presidency, so he “put feelers out to other business and political contacts” to purchase a stake in Rosneft.

    Rosneft then scrambled to find a foreign investor, holding talks with more than 30 potential buyers from Europe, the US, Asia, and the Middle East. The company signed a deal on December 7 to sell 19.5% of shares, or roughly $11 billion, to the multinational commodity trader Glencore Plc and Qatar’s state-owned wealth fund. Qatar’s sovereign wealth fund is Glencore’s largest shareholder.

    The “11th hour deal” was “so last minute,” Reuters reported, “that it appeared it would not close in time to meet the government’s deadline for booking money in the budget from the sale.”

    The purchase amounted to the biggest foreign investment in Russia since US sanctions took effect in 2014. It showed that “there are some forces in the world that are ready to help Russia to circumvent the [West’s] sanction regime,” said Lilia Shevtsova, an associate fellow in the Russia and Eurasia program at Chatham House.

    “In Russia we have a marriage between power and business, and that is why all important economic deals need approval and the endorsement of the authorities,” Shevtsova said. “This was a very serious commercial deal that hardly could have succeeded without the direct involvement of the Kremlin.”

    The privatization deal was funded by Gazprombank, whose parent company is the state-owned Russian energy giant Gazprom.

    Page holds investments in Gazprom, though he claimed in a letter to FBI Director James Comey in September that he sold his stake in the company “at a loss.” His website says he served as an adviser “on key transactions” for the state-owned energy giant before setting up his energy investment fund, Global Energy Capital, in 2008 with former Gazprom executive Sergei Yatsenko.

    There is no evidence that Carter played any role in the Rosneft deal. But he was back in Moscow on December 8 — one day after the deal was signed — to “meet with some of the top managers” of Rosneft, he told reporters at the time. Page denied meeting with Sechin, Rosneft’s CEO, during that trip but said it would have been “a great honor” if he had.

    The Rosneft deal, Page added, was “a good example of how American private companies are unfortunately limited to a great degree due to the influence of sanctions.” He said the US and Russia had entered “a new era” of relations but that it was still “too early” to discuss whether Trump would be easing or lifting sanctions on Moscow.

    Page’s extensive business ties to state-owned Russian companies were investigated by a counterintelligence task force set up last year by the CIA. The investigation, which is reportedly ongoing, has examined whether Russia was funneling money into Trump’s presidential campaign — and, if it was, who was serving as the liaison between the Trump team and the Kremlin.

    The dossier claims that Trump’s former campaign manager Paul Manafort asked Page to be the liaison. That claim has not been verified. Manafort served as a top adviser to a pro-Russian political party in Ukraine from 2004 to 2012 and emerged as a central figure in both the dossier and the intelligence community’s early inquiries into Trump’s ties to Russia.


    Contradicting Trump on Russia: Russian Officials

    WASHINGTON — For months, President Trump and his aides have insisted that they had no contact with Russian officials during the presidential campaign, a denial Mr. Trump repeated last week.

    “I have nothing to do with Russia,” he told reporters on Thursday. “To the best of my knowledge, no person that I deal with does.”

    The denial stands at odds with statements by Russian officials, who have at least twice acknowledged contacts with aides to Mr. Trump before the election.

    It is not uncommon for a presidential campaign to speak to foreign officials, which makes the dispute particularly unusual. At the same time, any contacts would have taken place during a period when American intelligence agencies believe the Russian government was trying to disrupt the election with a campaign of computer hacking.

    The dispute began two days after the Nov. 8 election, when Sergei A. Ryabkov, the Russian deputy foreign minister, said his government had maintained contacts with members of Mr. Trump’s “immediate entourage” during the campaign.

    “I cannot say that all, but a number of them maintained contacts with Russian representatives,” Mr. Ryabkov said during an interview with the Interfax news agency.

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    Mr. Ryabkov’s comments were met with a swift denial from Hope Hicks, a spokeswoman for Mr. Trump and now a member of the White House press team.

    More recently, Russia’s ambassador to Washington, Sergey I. Kislyak, told The Washington Post that he had communicated frequently during the campaign with Michael T. Flynn, a close campaign adviser to Mr. Trump who became the president’s national security adviser before resigning from the position last week.

    “It’s something all diplomats do,” The Post quoted Mr. Kislyak as saying, though he refused to say what subjects they discussed.

    Mr. Trump and his aides denied any contacts occurred during the campaign.

    “This is a nonstory because to the best of our knowledge, no contacts took place, so it’s hard to make a comment on something that never happened,” Sarah Huckabee Sanders, a White House spokeswoman, said on Monday.

    The Russian government did not respond to a message over the weekend seeking comment.

    Separately, The New York Times and other news outlets reported last week that Trump campaign advisers and other associates of Mr. Trump’s had repeated contacts last year with Russian intelligence officials. Those reports, citing anonymous current and former American government officials, were vigorously denied by the White House.

    On Thursday, Mr. Trump made clear his annoyance when questioned about contacts with Russia.

    “How many times do I have to answer this question? Russia is a ruse. I have nothing to do with Russia,” he said during a White House news conference.

    The president also lashed out at “illegal” leaks for bringing down Mr. Flynn, who the White House has acknowledged had multiple conversations after the election — in late December — with Mr. Kislyak about sanctions that were being imposed by the Obama administration.

    Trump Calls Links to Russia ‘Fake News’
    Trump Calls Links to Russia ‘Fake News’
    President Trump responded to questions about his administration’s dealings with Russia in a news conference on Thursday. By THE NEW YORK TIMES on Publish Date February 16, 2017. Photo by Stephen Crowley/The New York Times. Watch in Times Video »
    Under ordinary circumstances, few in Washington would blink at the statements by Mr. Ryabkov or Mr. Kislyak. It is common for foreign governments to reach out to American presidential candidates, and many foreign diplomats believe it is part of their job to get to know people who may soon be crucial to maintaining alliances or repairing broken relationships.

    “They want to better understand policy views of a particular candidate so they can perhaps make their case for certain policies,” said Derek Chollet, who was part of the Obama transition in 2008 and then served in senior roles at the State Department, the White House and the Pentagon.

    Mostly, though, “it’s about relationship building — they want to get to know the people who are possibly going to be in important jobs,” he added.

    The closest contacts between campaigns and foreign officials tend to be with allies. The Australian Embassy said it was in contact with the Trump and Clinton campaigns, and British officials said they had extensive contacts with the president’s top aides in the months before the election.

    Contacts with potential adversaries, such as Russia, are also not unusual, but they are more complicated. Michael McFaul, who advised the Obama campaign in 2008 and later served as United States ambassador to Russia, said that he traveled to Moscow during the presidential race that year and that “everyone in Moscow knew that I was advising the campaign.”

    The American Embassy even hosted a lunch for him with Russian officials. But “I was not there to discuss Obama policy but to better inform my views on Russian attitudes about U.S.-Russia relations,” Mr. McFaul said.

    He said that during the transition, Russian officials wanted to talk about policy issues, but the Obama administration officials refused — in keeping with the tradition that there should be only “one president at a time.”

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