Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly characterized the Interfax news agency of Russia as a state-run agency. Interfax is a privately owned and managed company.
MOSCOW — Russian government officials conferred with members of Donald Trump’s campaign team, a senior Russian diplomat said Thursday, a disclosure that could reopen scrutiny of the Kremlin’s role in the president-elect’s bitter race against Hillary Clinton.
The statement came from Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, who said in an interview with the Interfax news agency that “there were contacts” with the Trump team.
“Obviously, we know most of the people from his entourage,” Ryabkov said.
“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.
Ryabkov provided no further details, and his remarks drew a swift denial from Trump spokeswoman Hope Hicks, who said the campaign had “no contact with Russian officials” before Tuesday’s election.
Nevertheless, the assertion from Moscow attracted attention from national security experts after a presidential campaign that the Kremlin, according to U.S. officials, sought to influence in unprecedented ways.
Washington, for instance, accused the Kremlin of orchestrating hacks into the Democratic National Committee and the emails of Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta that led to politically embarrassing disclosures by WikiLeaks. Trump faced criticism during the campaign for his positive statements about Russian President Vladimir Putin and for other Russia-friendly policy stances, although he repeatedly denied having financial or other ties to Moscow.
Speaking to Bloomberg News, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said staffers at the Russian Embassy in Washington met with members of Trump’s campaign — meetings she described as “normal practice.” Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton’s campaign refused similar requests for meetings, Zakharova told the agency.
Asked later for clarification, a Foreign Ministry official declined to elaborate on Ryabkov’s remarks but said standard diplomacy called for “contact with the leaders in the campaign” on matters such as clarifying statements by the candidate or conveying interview requests from Russian journalists. The ministry official spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.
A Clinton campaign official who was asked to comment on Zakharova’s statement answered with a one-word email: “false.”
In September, Trump was interviewed by host Larry King for a segment broadcast on RT America, part of a state-owned Russian media network. In the interview, Trump criticized the U.S. news media, calling it “unbelievably dishonest.” A Trump spokesman said the interview had been a “favor” to King, a former CNN host and a friend of Trump’s, and that the campaign did not know the interview would appear on RT America.
Putin throughout the campaign denied that the Kremlin was interfering with the U.S. 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 has any investments in the country, because he has not released any tax records.
But he made millions of dollars by taking the Miss Universe pageant to Moscow in 2013. Wealthy Russians also have been an important source of investments in Trump’s businesses. His son Donald Trump Jr. said in 2008 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 also have had well-publicized 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. Manafort resigned from the campaign days after his name was found in a ledger designating funds to be paid out from the party of former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych, who was ousted in a pro-European street revolution in 2014.
Trump’s national security adviser, retired Army Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, sat next 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 he rebuffed calls to renounce Putin after the Russian leader called Trump “colorful and talented,” a remark that was mistranslated by some in the news 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 the Russian leader.
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 U.S. 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.”
Tom Hamburger and Brian Murphy in Washington contributed to this report.