The Wall Street Journal reports: U.S. intelligence agencies starting in the spring of 2015 detected conversations in which Russian government officials discussed associates of Donald Trump, several months before he declared his candidacy for president, according to current and former U.S. officials.
Now, in light of emails released Tuesday by the president’s eldest son concerning a 2016 meeting with a Russian lawyer, investigators are going back to those early reports to see if they can understand them better.
In some cases, the Russians in the overheard 2015 conversations talked about meetings held outside the U.S. involving Russian government officials and Trump business associates or advisers, these people said.
It isn’t clear which of Mr. Trump’s associates or advisers the Russians were referring to, or whether they had any connection to his presidential aspirations.
The reports were gathered by intelligence agencies that routinely monitor Russian espionage against the U.S. Such efforts can include monitoring phone calls and emails as well as information from informants. The efforts weren’t aimed at Mr. Trump or his associates, these people said.
The U.S. intelligence agencies weren’t sure what to make of the vague and inconclusive mentions of Mr. Trump’s associates, given that he had done business in Russia and was a global celebrity well-known to prominent people there. The names of Americans do sometimes show up benignly in conversations involving Russian officials that are overheard by U.S. intelligence.
The emails released this week by Donald Trump Jr. provide details about a meeting he arranged in June 2016—as his father had effectively clinched the Republican nomination—with a Kremlin-connected lawyer to discuss allegedly incriminating information about Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton obtained by the Russian government.
Donald Jr. and the Russian lawyer said no information on Mrs. Clinton was disclosed in the meeting. But the emails offer the first clear public evidence that senior officials in Mr. Trump’s camp were open to offers of assistance from Russia in his quest for the White House.
A lawyer for Mr. Trump didn’t return a call seeking comment on the overheard 2015 conversations.
As with other new revelations in the probes of Russian interference in the election, the Trump Jr. emails enable investigators to look at earlier reports with fresh eyes, to see if certain statements or names now seem more significant in hindsight, the current and former officials said.
The reports on the 2015 conversations weren’t particularly illuminating, the people familiar with them said. Donald Trump had business connections in Russia—he produced the 2013 Miss Universe pageant in Moscow—and had sold properties to Russians.
In that respect, the reports in and of themselves weren’t alarming. But the volume of the mentions of Trump associates by the Russians did have officials asking each other, “What’s going on?” one former official said. [Continue reading…]