The debate about Russia’s influence on the U.S. presidential election has just gotten a lot more intense.
Senior aides in Donald Trump’s presidential campaign team allegedly had frequent contact with high-level Russian intelligence officials in the run-up to the November 2016 election, according to a New York Times report on Monday night. CNN also reported that some of Trump’s aides were in “constant communication” with senior Russian officials during the campaign.
The allegations come a day after Trump’s national security advisor, Michael Flynn, resigned after failing to properly brief Trump and Vice President Mike Pence properly on the substance of a December conversation with the Russian ambassador to the United States, Sergey Kislyak. White House spokesperson Sean Spicer said Trump knew there were problems with Flynn’s phone call weeks before they were made public, sparking congressional calls for an investigation into the affair.
The New York Times reports have only intensified the scandal—and confusion—surrounding the new administration. Here’s what we know so far.
Who had contact with Russia?
The New York Times cited four U.S. government sources from the current and former administration who said phone records and intercepted calls showed repeated contact between Trump’s aides and Russian officials.
Paul Manafort, who served as chairman of Trump’s campaign between April and August 2016, is alleged to have had frequent contact with the Russian side. Manafort left the Trump campaign after revelations of his connections to former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, a Russian ally. In an interview with the Times, Manafort said that he had “never knowingly spoke to Russian intelligence officers” and had “never been involved with anything to do with the Russian government or the Putin administration.”
The Times’s government sources added, however, that they had not seen evidence of the Trump campaign colluding with Russia to influence the election’s outcome.
The Times also reported that the FBI has begun investigating three other Trump associates—Carter Page, a former campaign adviser; Roger Stone, a Republican; and Flynn—but it was not clear whether calls between them and Russian officials had been intercepted. All three men have denied any improper contact with Russian officials.
Who knew about it?
The intercepted calls cited by the Times were picked up initially by the National Security Agency (NSA) as part of routine surveillance of communications with foreign intelligence agencies. The calls reportedly took place in the year ahead of the election—two days after the election, the Russian foreign ministry said officials had had “contacts” with Trump’s team, allegations Trump’s team denied.
The NSA passed the information to the FBI, which asked the NSA to gather intelligence on the Russian operatives involved as part of a broader FBI investigation into Russian influence and interference in the election.
There is no evidence that Trump was aware of the repeated contact between his campaign officials and Russian intelligence.
How does this relate to Michael Flynn?
Flynn stepped down from his post on Monday, stating that he had provided Trump and Vice-President Mike Pence with “incomplete information” regarding contact he had with Ambassador Kislyak. Flynn reportedly spoke to Kislyak on the phone up to five times on December 29, the day that former President Barack Obama imposed sanctions on two Russian intelligence agencies for hacking U.S. political groups and ordered the expulsion of 35 Russian diplomats. Flynn and Kislyak explicitly discussed the sanctions, according to a Washington Post report.
Flynn’s conversations with the Russian ambassador do not form part of the evidence cited by the Times, and it also happened at a different point—while Trump was the president-elect. The calls cited took place in the year before the election.
Why didn’t the intelligence agencies make it public?
The revelations have left Democrats seething about the failure of the intelligence agencies to make the links between Trump’s campaign and Russia known before the vote on November 8, 2016.
Eleven days before the election, FBI director James Comey announced that fresh material was being probed as part of an investigation into Democrat candidate Hillary Clinton’s use of a private server for emails during her time as Secretary of State. The Clinton campaign has maintained that the timing of the announcement, and the negative publicity it generated, played a role in her shock election defeat.
Clinton campaign officials—including her campaign manager Robby Mook and then spokesman, Brian Fallon—have questioned why the FBI appeared to show partiality in which probes it announced before the election.
The FBI has not yet publicly commented on the Times report.
What happens now?
Trump responded to the reports on Wednesday, characterizing them as “nonsense” and an attempt to “cover up mistakes” in Clinton’s campaign.
White House spokesman Sean Spicer said Tuesday that there had been no pre-election contact between the Trump campaign team and Russian officials, The Guardian reported.
But given the uproar over Flynn’s contact with the Russian ambassador, questions about ties between the Kremlin and the new U.S. administration are likely to linger for some time.