U.S. intelligence agents intercepted conversations between top Russian operatives and political officials discussing how they could use top campaign advisers to influence Donald Trump as early as summer 2016, the New York Times reported Wednesday.
The Times report appeared to be the first indication that the U.S. intelligence community had evidence showing Russian operatives thought they could manipulate former campaign chairman Paul Manafort, a subject of federal investigation, to sway Trump.
The other target mentioned in the Russians’ conversations, according to three current and former U.S. officials who spoke to the Times, was ousted national security adviser Michael Flynn.
According to the Times, some of the monitored Russians boasted about their intimate acquaintance with Flynn, while others floated leveraging their relationships with deposed Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, who employed Manafort as a campaign adviser.
Combined with documented contacts between Trump advisers and Russian officials, these intercepted communications helped spur the U.S. intelligence community to investigate whether Trump’s team was assisting Russia’s efforts to interfere with the election.
Both Manafort and Flynn have denied allegations of collusion.
Former CIA Director James Brennan testified before Congress on Tuesday about his growing concern last summer that Russia was “able to gain the cooperation” of Trump associates who he declined to name and who he noted may not have even realized what they were getting into.
“Frequently, individuals who go along the treasonous path do not even realize they’re along that path until it gets to be a bit too late,” Brennan told the House Intelligence Committee.