NYT: Russians discussed using Manafort, Flynn to influence Trump

Months before the presidential election, U.S. spies collected intelligence showing senior Russian officials discussing how to exert influence over Donald Trump using his advisers, The New York Times reported Wednesday.

Their discussions centered around then-adviser Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn and Paul Manafort, Trump’s campaign adviser at the time, according to three current and former U.S. officials.

Both men had indirect ties to Moscow and the Russian officials were confident that they could be used to sway President TrumpDonald John TrumpPaul Ryan defends Navy admiral after Trump's criticism Trump discussing visit overseas to troops following criticism: report Retired Army General: Trump is ‘acting like an 8th grader’ in attacking ex-Navy SEAL who led bin Laden operation MORE, according to The Times.

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Some of the officials boasted of their close ties to Flynn, while others weighed using their relationship to the deposed president of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych, who at one time employed Manafort.

Yanukovych, who was backed by Russian President Vladimir Putin, is now living in exile in Russia.

The information U.S. spies collected over the summer was considered credible enough by intelligence agencies to pass along to the FBI. The bureau opened its probe into possible coordination between campaign officials and Russia in July.

On Tuesday, former CIA Director John Brennan told lawmakers that he passed along intelligence to the bureau showing Trump campaign associates had interactions with Russian officials.

Those interactions left him “concerned” about the possibility of collusion, Brennan said, arguing that the information “raised questions in my mind about whether Russia was able to gain the cooperation of those individuals” — whether wittingly or unwittingly.

He insisted that he did not know if there had been any intentional collusion between those campaign associates, whom he declined to name, and emphasized it is possible for an individual to be recruited by Russian intelligence services without his knowledge.

The degree of intentional cooperation between Trump campaign advisers and Russian officials is one of the central questions of the federal investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election, now being led by special counsel Robert Mueller.

Trump has repeatedly denied any collusion between his campaign and Moscow.

Manafort’s connections to Russia eventually led to his departure from the Trump campaign, after secret ledgers emerged with his name on them, showing millions of dollars in undisclosed payments from Yanukovych.

Flynn, who was ousted as national security adviser in February for misleading Vice President Pence about the contents of interactions with the Russian ambassador to the U.S., has been a point of fierce scrutiny in the various investigations into election meddling.

The former intelligence official has long advocated a stronger partnership with Russia to combat the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, and in 2015 took tens of thousands of dollars in payments from the Russian state-backed network RT. He then failed to tell the government about the payments when he reapplied for his security clearance.

Trump has continued to back Flynn, citing a “witch hunt” against him.