Several members of the Trump campaign — including ex-national security adviser Michael Flynn — had 18 previously undisclosed discussions with Russia in the seven months before the election, multiple sources told Reuters.
The conversations began in April 2016, sources told the news service, months before Trump even secured the Republican nomination for President.
Sources familiar with the communications said that so far there’s no sign of wrongdoing or collusion. But the Trump administration will likely face new scrutiny for not disclosing the conversations, as it has denied any collaboration with Russia to influence last year’s election.
News of the conversations comes after the Justice Department announced Robert Mueller would serve as special counsel in investigating possible links between the campaign and the Kremlin.
Trump, who didn’t make the special counsel decision, fired back at Mueller’s appointment.
“With all of the illegal acts that took place in the Clinton campaign & Obama Administration, there was never a special councel appointed!” Trump tweeted Thursday morning.
“This is the single greatest witch hunt of a politician in American history!” he wrote in a second tweet.
Sources told Reuters that the conversations mostly focused on strengthening U.S.-Russian economic relations. Russian officials said they wanted to take a more business-like approach to deal making and focus less on hot-button issues that have cooled relations between the nations in the last few years.
The back-channel communication was set up so the two sides could work around bureaucratic regulations, Reuters reported.
While it’s normal for campaigns to start speaking to foreign countries, the frequency of the discussions raised some eyebrows.
“It’s rare to have that many phone calls to foreign officials, especially to a country we consider an adversary or a hostile power,” Richard Armitage, a deputy Secretary of State under President George W. Bush, told Reuters.
Flynn spoke with Sergey Kislyak, the Russian ambassador to the U.S., in six of those undisclosed conversations, Reuters reported.
The retired Army general was fired in February after misleading Vice President Pence about conversations he had with Kislyak in which he promised to lift recent sanctions by the Obama administration.
Acting Attorney General Sally Yates had previously warned the White House that Flynn was in a compromised position when it came to Russia.
Kislyak was known to meet with other members of the Trump campaign, including now-Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told CNN in March that the diplomat also met with “people working in think tanks advising Hillary or advising people working for Hillary,” however.
The other dozen calls, emails and text messages were with other members of the Trump campaign and people considered close to Putin.
Ukrainian oligarch Viktor Medvedchuk was one of those Putin allies believed to have spoken with members of the Trump campaign, the sources said. Putin is the godfather to Medvedchuk’s daughter.
Medvedchuk, in an email to Reuters, denied the conversations took place.
“I am not acquainted with any of Donald Trump’s close associates, therefore no such conversation could have taken place,” he said.
No other member of the Trump campaign has been identified aside from Flynn, because American citizens are protected, or “masked,” in surveillance operations. U.S. officials can request they be “unmasked” in certain circumstances, however.
The White House didn’t return Reuters’ request for comment, but the President has routinely denied members of his campaign colluded with Russia.
His son, Eric Trump, tweeted Wednesday night that the allegations were “a witch hunt propagated by a failed political campaign.”