Trump's campaign had contact with Russian intelligence, report says

TRENTON -- The New York Times is reporting that during last year's election, Donald Trump's presidential campaign aides and "other Trump associates" had "repeated contacts with senior Russian intelligence officials" in the year before the election.

Four current and former U.S. law enforcement and intelligence officials speaking to the newspaper said phone records and intercepted calls showed evidence of repeated communications between Trump's campaign and Russian intelligence.

Paul Manafort, Trump's then-campaign chairman and a political consultant in Ukraine, was one of those who was on one of the intercepted calls. The Times said officials declined to identify the other Trump associates on the calls.

Last year, U.S. intelligence agencies confirmed that Russia had carried out a "campaign of influence" during the 2016 presidential election by promulgating false news reports damage the bid of Democratic nominee and former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

However, in January, Trump -- who was elected president -- accused U.S. intelligence officials of instigating a smear campaign against him, and attacked outgoing CIA director John Brennan in a tweet, asking, "Was this the leaker of Fake News?"

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In July 2016, on the eve of Clinton's nomination, Trump urged the Russians to hack Clinton's private email servers.

"I will tell you this, Russia: If you're listening, I hope you're able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing," the then-GOP nominee said at a news conference in Florida. "I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press."

He later added in a tweet, "If Russia or any other country or person has Hillary Clinton's 33,000 illegally deleted emails, perhaps they should share them with the FBI!"

At the time, Trump's running mate Gov. Mike Pence, took a different view, saying that FBI was investigating the hacking attempt and that if there was evidence that Russia was involved, "I can assure you both parties and the United States government will ensure there are serious consequences."

Trump's campaign later clarified that Trump was only asking the Russians to release them if they already had them.

The news of the campaign's coordination with Russian intelligence comes two days after Trump's national security director Michael Flynn resigned over concerns that Flynn had spoken to Russia's ambassador about the sanctions placed on Russia for its interference in the U.S. election.

Flynn at first denied that he'd spoken to the Russian ambassador about the sanctions. He later said that he couldn't recall if he had. He then resigned after U.S. intelligence officials disclosed an account indicating that such discussions did in fact take place.

In his resignation letter, Flynn apologized for what he termed "inadvertently" briefing the president and vice-president with "incomplete information about my phone calls with the Russian ambassador."

Meanwhile, late on Tuesday evening, the Washington Post reported that in late January, the acting U.S. attorney general, Sally Yates, informed Trump's White House that she believed Flynn had misled senior administration officials about the nature of his communications with the Russian ambassador to the United States. Yates warned that the national security adviser was potentially vulnerable to Russian blackmail, current and former U.S. officials told the Post.

Trump fired Yates Jan. 30 after she instructed Justice Department lawyers not to defend a Trump executive order on banning immigration and refugee travel from seven Muslim-majority nations believing it to be unconstitutional. 

The White House released a statement Jan. 31 saying Yates was fired for "refusing to enforce a legal order designed to protect the citizens of the United States" and took the unusual step of criticizing her personally, saying that she had "betrayed" the Justice Department.

On Wednesday morning, Trump sought to discredit both the leakers and the media reporting on their evidence of contact between his campaign in a series of tweets.

 Claude Brodesser-Akner may be reached at cbrodesser@njadvancemedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @ClaudeBrodesser. Find NJ.com Politics on Facebook.

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