0601 GMT March 22, 2018
US law enforcement and intelligence agencies intercepted phone calls around the same time they were investigating whether Russia was interfering in the presidential election by hacking into the Democratic National Committee, current and former officials told The New York Times on condition of anonymity.
However, the alleged communications indicated no evidence that the Trump campaign was colluding with Moscow to influence the outcome of the election, the newspaper said.
The officials told The Times that Paul Manafort, who was Trump’s campaign chairman for several months, was picked up on the intercepted calls. Manafort left the campaign after he came under fire over his reported business ties in Russia and Ukraine.
Manafort denied having any contact with Russian officials.
“This is absurd,” he told The Times. “I have no idea what this is referring to. 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.”
The Times’ sources would not name any other associates captured in the communications.
The revelations come at a time when the White House is trying to contain the fallout from Michael Flynn’s resignation as national security adviser over improper contacts with Russian officials.
The resignation on Monday, and the circumstances leading up to it, has become a major crisis for the White House and has put the first significant strain on relations between the new administration and an increasingly restive Congress.
Pressure is growing on Trump himself to explain his relationship with Moscow after it emerged that the president had been aware that his embattled national security adviser was being misleading in his account of his contacts with Russia "weeks" before he was forced out.
Flynn had reportedly discussed sanctions with the Russian ambassador before Trump’s inauguration.
White House spokesman Sean Spicer raised more questions Tuesday when he inadvertently confirmed that the president knew for weeks that Flynn had misled Vice President Pence and other officials about his dealings with Moscow.
Spicer said Trump “instinctively thought” that Flynn did not act illegally after he was informed of the top adviser’s contacts with Russia, adding that the president felt his trust in him had “eroded.”
Democrats in Congress are calling for an independent investigation into possible links between the Trump team and Moscow, including when the president first learned of Flynn’s contacts.