New evidence proves discussions took place “between people in the Trump campaign and agents of [Russian] influence relating to the use of hacked material,” a source allegedly told the Guardian.
The developments come as it has emerged that Britain’s spy agencies were among the first to alert their American counterparts to contact between members of Mr Trump’s campaign team and Russian intelligence operatives.
British and other European intelligence agencies first intercepted suspicious “interactions” between people associated with the US President and Russian officials in 2015 as part of routine surveillance of Russia, intelligence sources have confirmed to a number of different publications.
Spy agencies, including GCHQ, were not deliberately targeting members of the Trump team but rather recorded communications through “incidental collection,” CNN reports.
This intelligence was passed to the US as part of a routine exchange of information under the “Five Eyes“ agreement, which calls for open sharing of certain types of information among member nations the US, UK, Australia, New Zealand and Canada.
Over several months, different agencies targeting the same people began to see a pattern in communications between the Republican’s inner circle and Russian operatives. For six months, until summer 2016, these interactions were repeatedly flagged to intelligence officials in the US, who sources have said were slow to act.
“It looks like the [US] agencies were asleep,” a source told the Guardian. “They [the European agencies] were saying: ‘There are contacts going on between people close to Mr Trump and people we believe are Russian intelligence agents. You should be wary of this.’
“The message was: ‘Watch out. There’s something not right here.’”
GCHQ’s involvement in the investigation is controversial, with Mr Trump’s press secretary, Sean Spicer, having previously accused the “British spying agency” of bugging Trump Tower on behalf of Barack Obama. Mr Spicer cited an unsubstantiated report on Fox News, from which the television station later distanced itself.
At the time GCHQ diverged from its usual policy of refraining from commenting to the media, describing the allegations as “nonsense”.
“They are utterly ridiculous and should be ignored,” a spokesperson for the agency said.
But both US and UK intelligence sources now acknowledge that GCHQ played an early and important role in kickstarting the FBI’s Trump-Russia investigation, which began in late July 2016.
One source told the Guardian the British eavesdropping agency was the “principal whistleblower”.
A GCHQ spokesperson declined to comment on the revelations, saying: “It is longstanding policy that we do not comment on intelligence matters”.