Donald Trump has dismissed allegations that he’s in some way connected to Russian attempts to influence the presidential election as nothing but a “political witch hunt.”
But a number of reports in the past couple of weeks have revealed that according to unnamed sources, investigators from six different US intelligence and law enforcement agencies have been looking into possible links between Russian officials and Trump’s presidential campaign as far back as last spring.
Reports from BBC, McClatchy, the New York Times, and others make distinct but overlapping claims about the collaborative investigation into a host of questions about the Trump team’s possibly connections with the Kremlin.
BBC’s report claims that an interagency group was created when the CIA director last April allegedly received “a tape recording of a conversation about money from the Kremlin going into the US presidential campaign.” The McClatchy report says the interagency group is looking into whether the Kremlin itself funneled money to hackers as part of Russia’s attempt to covertly help Trump win his campaign. And the Times report says that key former Trump advisers are being scrutinized closely for potential links with Moscow.
Crucially, all the reports indicate that this investigation began before the FBI was fed the now-infamous dossier alleging that Russian operatives had sensitive information that would embarrass and undermine Trump, and that there was “a continuing exchange of information during the [presidential] campaign between Trump surrogates and intermediaries for the Russian government.”
The new reports offer no insight into the claims made in the dossier, but they do show that many in the US intelligence community are taking claims about Trump’s links to Russia very seriously. And if they were to find concrete evidence of links between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin, it would have the potential to unravel Trump’s entire presidency.
For that reason, it’s quite likely that they could be stonewalled as Trump’s appointees to head these agencies take their posts — in fact, the New York Times said that its sources spoke to reporters precisely because they feared that Trump would do just that.
Here’s a quick rundown of what we know so far, what we don’t, and how Trump could shut down the whole investigation.
The intelligence community is concerned about Trump-Russia links
It’s worth stepping back and noting that at this point there’s a consensus in the intelligence community that the Kremlin was behind the email hacks of the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton campaign chair John Podesta.
Earlier in January, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence declassified a report that concluded with “high confidence” — based on intelligence gathered by the FBI, CIA, and NSA — that Russia’s Vladimir Putin oversaw an “influence campaign” designed to interfere in the 2016 election. The report explicitly stated that the intention was to denigrate the US electoral process, hurt Clinton’s chances, and raise Trump’s.
What these emerging reports suggest, though, is that officials in several US intelligence agencies have evidently decided that it’s worth investigating the possibility of links between Trump’s campaign and Russia.
The BBC report, published on January 12, claims that after the CIA was allegedly shown a tape with a compromising conversation about money being funneled from the Kremlin to Trump’s campaign, a joint task force was formed. Personnel from the FBI, CIA, National Security Agency, Justice Department, the Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, and representatives of the director of national intelligence formed an interagency working group to look into the matter.
According to the BBC, the interagency group obtained a warrant from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, the highly secretive US court that overseas warrants related to national security investigations, to intercept electronic records from two Russian banks. A lawyer familiar with the case told the BBC that three of Trump’s associates were the primary targets of the inquiry, but that ultimately “it's clear this is about Trump.”
The McClatchy report, published on Tuesday, claims that the joint task force’s investigation looked into, among other things, “how money may have moved from the Kremlin to covertly help Trump win.” This includes looking into whether the Kremlin may have sent money to the hackers of the DNC servers and Podesta’s email address to help get Trump elected.
According to the report, “One of the allegations involves whether a system for routinely paying thousands of Russian-American pensioners may have been used to pay some email hackers in the United States or to supply money to intermediaries who would then pay the hackers.”
The Times report says the working group is analyzing “intercepted communications and financial transactions” as part of a larger inquiry into links between Russian officials and Trump’s associates.
The Times piece also specifically names three former Trump advisers in particular who its sources say are under the magnifying glass: Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign chair; Carter Page, a former foreign policy adviser for Trump; and Roger Stone, a former key adviser for Trump. Trump’s camp and the former advisers denied the possible links discussed in the New York Times report.
So far the reports all indicate that these links are possibilities that are being investigated. We don’t know that any of these connections this interagency group is reportedly investigating will actually materialize — or how well-grounded the concerns are. It does appear, though, that they’re substantial enough to merit the sustained attention of a six-agency task force.
The crucial question now is whether they’ll continue their investigations, or if the new Trump administration will take measures to disband the group, as some of its members seem to think they will.