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Ex-CIA Chief: 'Interactions' Between Trump Campaign, Russia

by Ken Dilanian and Andrew Rafferty /  / Updated 
Image: Former CIA Director John Brennan testifies during a House Permanent Select Committee
Former CIA Director John Brennan testifies during a House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence hearing about Russian actions during the 2016 election on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, May 23, 2017.Saul Loeb / AFP - Getty Images

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Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats on Tuesday refused to address — but did not deny — reports that President Donald Trump asked him to push back against allegations the Trump campaign colluded with Russia, while a former CIA chief testified he was aware of "interactions" between the campaign and Moscow.

"I don’t feel it’s appropriate to characterize discussions and conversations with the president," said Coats, a former Republican senator from Indiana, at a Senate Armed Services Committee worldwide threats hearing.

Trump asked Coats in March to say publicly that he saw no evidence the Trump campaign had colluded with the Russian effort to interfere in the 2016 election, a former senior intelligence official told NBC News. The president made the same request to Mike Rogers, director of the National Security Agency, the official said. The requests from Trump were first reported by The Washington Post.

At the same time Coats was testifying, former CIA Director John Brennan appeared before the House Intelligence Committee and said he believes Russia "brazenly" interfered in last year's presidential election and that he knew of contacts between Trump associates and Russian officials.

"I encountered and am aware of information and intelligence that revealed contacts and interactions between Russian officials and U.S. persons involved in the Trump campaign," Brennan told lawmakers.

He added that he is not sure whether "collusion existed" between the campaign and Moscow, but the interactions were enough that he believed the matter warranted an FBI investigation.

"It raised questions in my mind about whether Russia was able to gain the cooperation of those individuals," Brennan said.

The ex-CIA head warned that Moscow often tries to influence Americans, sometimes unwittingly, to act on Russia's behalf. Brennan said he contacted the Russian intelligence service last August to warn them against meddling in the U.S. election, an allegation they denied.

The interference, Brennan said, was aimed at both helping Trump and discrediting Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, whom the Russians thought would likely win.

“They clearly had a more favorable view toward Mr. Trump and actions they were taking were trying to increase his prospects, even though they probably thought they were not that great," Brennan said. He added that Russian efforts to undercut Clinton would likely have continued into her presidency had she been victorious.

Brennan's testimony is the first time he publicly commented on concerns about the relationship between the Trump campaign and Russia, though he declined to name or describe the role of the Trump associates.

The comments came one day after lawyers for Trump's former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn informed the Senate Intelligence Committee that he would not cooperate with a subpoena for records of communications related to Russia. Flynn misled White House officials, including Vice President Mike Pence, about his conversations with Russia's ambassador to the United States after Trump's election victory, which led to his dismissal.

The White House issued a statement on the hearings, saying: "This morning's hearings back up what we've been saying all along: that despite a year of investigation, there is still no evidence of any Russia-Trump campaign collusion, that the President never jeopardized intelligence sources or sharing, and that even Obama's CIA Director believes the leaks of classified information are 'appalling' and the culprits must be 'tracked down.'"

Concerning Trump's alleged efforts to influence their public comments about the investigation, Coats and Rogers were sufficiently concerned that one of them wrote a memo about it, the former official told NBC News. The two men also exchanged notes about their conversations with the president, the source said.

The Post reported that Trump's conversation with Rogers was documented in an internal memo written by a senior NSA official.

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence declined to comment. The NSA did not respond to a request for comment.

Related: Trump Asked Top Intel Officials To Push Back Publicly On Russia Probe

Coats wouldn’t discuss the matter when he appeared before the Senate on Tuesday. But he did say, in answer to a hypothetical question, that “any political shaping of intelligence would be inappropriate.”

A CIA spokesperson declined to comment when asked if CIA Director Mike Pompeo was also asked by Trump to push back against an FBI investigation into possible collusion between his campaign and the Russian government.

The former official told NBC News that Coats and Rogers did not believe they were being asked to do something illegal. It was more of a public relations request, they believed, according to the official.

"I don't think (Trump) ever asked somebody to say something that they didn't believe was true," the former official said.

He said the two officials were "sufficiently concerned that it was an extraordinary thing that they took care to write it down, but not sufficiently concerned that they reported it."

The former official said Rogers saw the request as a threat to the NSA, which generally doesn't wade into public debates.

"The White House does not confirm or deny unsubstantiated claims based on illegal leaks from anonymous individuals," a White House spokesman told the Washington Post. "The president will continue to focus on his agenda that he was elected to pursue by the American people."

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