The CIA alerted the FBI to a troubling pattern of contacts between Russian officials and associates of the Trump campaign last year, former agency director John Brennan testified on Tuesday, shedding new light on the origin of a criminal probe that now reaches into the White House.
In testimony before the House Intelligence Committee, Brennan said he became increasingly concerned that Trump associates were being manipulated by Russian intelligence services as part of a broader covert influence campaign that sought to disrupt the election and deliver the presidency to Trump.
“I was worried by a number of the contacts that the Russians had with U.S. persons,” Brennan said, adding that he did not see proof of collusion before he left office on Jan. 20, but “felt as though the FBI investigation was certainly well-founded and needed to look into those issues.”
Brennan’s remarks represent the most detailed public accounting to date of his tenure as CIA director during the alleged Russian assault on the U.S. presidential race, and the agency’s role in triggering an FBI probe that Trump has sought to contain.
“It should be clear to everyone that Russia brazenly interfered in our 2016 presidential election process,” Brennan said at one point, one of several moments in which his words seemed aimed squarely at the president.
Trump has refused to fully accept the unanimous conclusion of U.S. intelligence agencies that Russia stole thousands of sensitive emails, orchestrated online dumps of damaging information and employed fake news and other means to upend the 2016 race.
GOP lawmakers spent much of Tuesday’s hearing trying to get Brennan to concede that he had no conclusive evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and Moscow. Brennan acknowledged that he still had “unresolved questions” about the purpose of those contacts when he stepped down as CIA director in January.
But, “I know what the Russians try to do,” Brennan said. “They try to suborn individuals and they try to get individuals, including U.S. persons, to act on their behalf either wittingly or unwittingly.”
Brennan refused to name any of the U.S. individuals who were apparently detected communicating with Russian officials. The FBI investigation, which began last July, has scrutinized Trump associates including Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign manager; Carter Page, who was once listed as a foreign policy adviser to Trump; and former national security adviser Michael Flynn, who was forced to resign after misleading statements about his contacts with the Russian ambassador were exposed.
The probe has intensified in recent weeks and identified a current White House official as a significant person of interest.
Because Russia uses intermediaries and other measures to disguise its hand, “many times, [U.S. individuals] do not know that the individual they are interacting with is a Russian,” Brennan said.