Russian government officials had contacts with members of Donald Trump's campaign team, a senior Russian diplomat said today, in a disclosure that could reopen scrutiny over the Kremlin's role in the president-elect's bitter race against Hillary Clinton.
Facing questions about his ties to Moscow because of statements interpreted as lauding Russian President Vladimir Putin, Trump repeatedly denied having any contact with the Russian government.
After the latest statement by the Russian diplomat, the spokeswoman for the Trump campaign, Hope Hicks, denied there were interactions between Russia and the Trump team before Tuesday's election.
"The campaign had no contact with Russian officials," she said in an email.
But Russia's Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, in an interview with the state-run Interfax news agency, said that "there were contacts" with the Trump team.
"Obviously, we know most of the people from his entourage," Ryabkov said. "Those people have always been in the limelight in the United States and have occupied high-ranking positions. I cannot say that all of them but quite a few have been staying in touch with Russian representatives."
"We have just begun to consider ways of building dialogue with the future Donald Trump administration and channels we will be using for those purposes," Ryabkov was quoted as saying.
There were no further details given on the claimed contacts, including names in the Trump campaign or other specifics.
Speaking to Bloomberg News, ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said that Russian Embassy staff met with members of Trump's campaign, which she described as "normal practice." Democratic Party contender Hillary Clinton's campaign refused similar requests for meetings, she told the agency.
Asked later for clarification, a Foreign Ministry official declined to elaborate on Ryabkov's remarks, but said standard diplomatic moves called for "contact with the leaders in the campaign" for issues such as clarifying statements by the candidate or conveying interview requests from Russian journalists. The ministry official spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.
Obama administration officials have blamed Russian hackers, possibly with high-level intelligence links, for infiltrating the email account of Clinton's campaign chief, John Podesta. The emails were then disclosed by WikiLeaks in an effort that Clinton supporters claim was intended to damage her White House bid.
Putin throughout the campaign denied that the Kremlin was interfering with the elections.
But neither the administration's hacking allegations, nor reporting of Trump's apparent ties to Russia, dissuaded more than 59 million voters from casting their ballots for the Republican.
Speculation has swirled about Trump's links to Russia since early in the campaign, both because of his warm words about Putin and past business ventures in Russia. It is not clear whether Trump currently has any investments in the country, because he has not released any tax records.
But he made millions of dollars by bringing the Miss Universe pageant to Moscow in 2013. Wealthy Russians also have been an important source of investments into Trump's businesses. His son, Donald Trump Jr., in 2008 said that "Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets," adding that "we see a lot of money pouring in from Russia."
Several Trump advisers have also had well-publicised ties to Russia, including his former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, who managed an investment fund for a Russian aluminum magnate with close ties to Putin. He resigned from the campaign days after his name was found in a ledger of payouts from the party of former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych, ousted in a pro-European street revolution in 2014.
Trump's national security adviser, Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, sat close to Putin in 2015 during a dinner held by the Kremlin-funded television channel RT, formerly known as Russia Today.
Politically, Trump has called for closer ties with Russia to fight the Islamic State, and rebuffed calls to renounce Putin after the Russian leader called Trump "colourful and talented," a remark that was mistranslated by some media as "a genius."
"A guy calls me a genius, and I'm going to renounce?" Trump said. "I'm not going to renounce him." Trump has not met Putin, according to statements this year, although in 2015 he claimed he had met Putin.
While Russian officials were openly jubilant about Trump's victory, Ryabkov also said that Moscow "does not cherish any special hopes in the wake of Donald Trump's election as US president."
"We do not feel any euphoria," Ryabkov told Interfax. "We wouldn't like our public, or at least the Interfax subscribers, to have the impression that we are overwhelmed with some rosy anticipation."