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Politics & Government

Trump Aides Often Contacted Russian Intelligence, 'New York Times' Says

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

There's no doubt that as a presidential candidate Donald Trump talked to Russia. We know this because on a notable occasion he did it in a speech urging Russia to engage in more hacking against his Democratic opponent.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Russia, if you're listening, I hope you're able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing. I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press.

INSKEEP: That's what Trump said last year, but up to now the president has denied having any more formal contact with Russia during the campaign. He said there were no private contacts with Russian officials during the period when Russia was working to influence the presidential election.

Now The New York Times is reporting that Trump's campaign did have such contacts. It says U.S. spy agencies have evidence that the Trump campaign was repeatedly in contact with senior Russian intelligence officials during the campaign. The reporters on that story include Matt Apuzzo of The New York Times who is in our studios. Matt, good morning.

MATT APUZZO: Great to be here. Thanks for having me.

INSKEEP: What's the evidence here exactly?

APUZZO: Well, the United States intelligence agencies have amassed call records and also foreign intercepts of conversations in which the foreign side of the conversation was under surveillance.

INSKEEP: Oh, now that's an interesting point because the National Security Agency isn't supposed to be listening to Americans, but they can listen to foreigners, foreign operatives. And if an American happens to call them, there it is.

APUZZO: That is part and parcel of what they do.

INSKEEP: OK, so help me understand when we say Trump campaign officials with senior Russian intelligence officials. Do we mean senior senior, like top officials, not just somebody who might be an intelligence source for the Russians and did other things as well?

APUZZO: Yeah. I mean, we're talking about senior officials. Now, I don't what a - where a senior official begins and a senior senior official ends. But, yeah, I mean, these are people who are known to U.S. intelligence to be senior figures in their Russian counterpart agencies.

INSKEEP: What did they talk about?

APUZZO: Well, that's a great question. You know, the clip you played earlier about Trump basically saying, hey, Russia, can you - you know, it would be great if you could find Hillary's missing emails, I mean, that's happening and the Russian hacks are happening right around the same time that these intercepts are happening. And it triggers this flurry of activity in American intelligence and law enforcement to try to figure out if there's some sort of collusion between the Trump campaign and this hacking campaign.

You know, so far everybody we've talked to has said, you know, they haven't seen evidence of collusion, but just the flurry of contacts was enough. And the timing of the contacts was enough to get them very concerned.

INSKEEP: I want to underline what you just said because this is what you wrote as well - no evidence of cooperation between Russia and the Trump campaign. No evidence of that at this time even though they have evidence of these phone calls and other kinds of contacts.

APUZZO: Right. And trying to figure out exactly what those calls were about, you know, is part of what's being looked at now. Now, you know, people in Trump's orbit are obviously doing business. We know Paul Manafort, one of the people who we, you know, identify in our story who was the campaign chairman, you know, he had done work in Ukraine. He had done work for Ukraine. He had done work in Russia. So oftentimes those sorts of dealings put you in incidental contact or even unwitting contact with intelligence agents.

INSKEEP: Well, let's talk that through because this raises some concerns that people have expressed about your reporting. The first is that there's nothing new here because people already knew that Paul Manafort had worked in Ukraine and that he had certain kinds of dealings with Russians. Is there anything new here?

APUZZO: Well, I think what's new here is both the extent of the calls, that are, you know, that this was a repeated extensive contact. And it wasn't just Manafort. There were other people in the campaign world and also in his sort of - in Trump world as they call it, you know, in Donald Trump's orbit at the time - and that these were extensive and were happening right at the same time that these Russian hacks were going on and that Trump was making comments like that about Russia. And I think that speaks to why intelligence agencies in the United States were so concerned about this in the run-up to the election.

INSKEEP: When you say multiple people in Trump world, you mentioned Paul Manafort who was the campaign chairman. We know that Michael Flynn had relationships of various kinds with Russians, the national security advisor who just resigned. People had previously mentioned Carter Page who was described as a Trump advisor, although they later denied he was the Trump advisor. Is there anybody else?

APUZZO: I mean, we've identified previously to this that Roger Stone, a veteran Republican operative...

INSKEEP: Friend of Trump.

APUZZO: ...Yeah - was also being looked at in this broad counterintelligence investigation. We've only identified in this story Paul Manafort in terms of his intercepts. But, you know, our understanding is that there were several people in his orbit that were intercepted in these calls.

INSKEEP: What did Manafort say when you got in touch with him about this?

APUZZO: I mean, look, he has denied repeatedly doing anything untoward. And he has said that all of his contacts were above board. And he gave an interview to one of my colleagues in which he said, you know, these guys don't wear badges that say I'm a Russian intelligence operative.

INSKEEP: As if to suggest that maybe unknowingly, according to him, he did have such contacts.

APUZZO: Yeah, I certainly don't know that. I know that the - as far as the United States intelligence agencies go and as the U.S. law enforcement goes, they feel confident that there were extensive contacts.

INSKEEP: Can you give us an idea of why you believe your sources are giving you this information?

APUZZO: Because we've put like 10 reporters on this and are asking everybody and...

INSKEEP: Well, no, here's why I ask this though, and I think you understand this. One of the concerns that's raised about this is we're talking about classified intercepts, and now it's being put out in the public. Do you think there is someone in the intelligence community that is trying to get the Trump administration? Do they have some other motivation? Are they concerned the story wouldn't be found out otherwise?

APUZZO: I don't think so. I mean, it's always hard to project motivation. I think a lot of times in Washington the difference between a great investigative story and, you know, shameless awful political leaks are, you know, where you sit on the political spectrum.

It sounds to me like the Trump administration is realizing what the Obama administration and the Bush administration before it realized which is we have an aggressive press corps here. The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The New York Times, we've all been reporting around this story and trying to figure out what's going on. And that's part of the way this works is we get information.

INSKEEP: Matt, thanks very much for coming by. I really appreciate it.

APUZZO: Great to be here.

INSKEEP: Matt Apuzzo is one of the reporters with The New York Times reporting that the Donald Trump presidential campaign had a number of contacts with senior Russian intelligence officials before the election. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.