Donald Trump and his associates may have unwittingly wandered into Russian efforts to interfere with the U.S. election by seeking a deal to build a real estate development in Moscow.
Intelligence experts said Russia had already launched active measures against American voters when Trump and his associates sought the deal, and its hackers had already broken into the Democratic National Committee's servers, reported CNN.
Trump Organization attorney Michael Cohen worked with Felix Sater, a convicted felon with Mafia ties, to secure a deal to license Trump's name on a proposed tower in the Russian capital, starting in fall 2015 -- months after he launched a Republican presidential bid.
The DNC hack took place around the same time Trump entered the GOP race, and intel experts told CNN that his business dealings with Russia gave the Kremlin leverage over him as he sought the White House.
"By doing this, Trump and his organization created multiple vulnerabilities for themselves," said former KGB spy Jack Barsky. "Doing business with big corporations over there doesn't mean you become an agent of their government, but it does mean you have to be really careful. There's always the [Russian] government looming in the background."
Cohen reached out to top Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov in January 2016, shortly after cybersecurity experts reported Russian trolls and bots began efforts to promote Trump on social media.
Peskov confirmed he never responded to Cohen's unsolicited email, and the Trump Organization attorney said he decided to call off the deal -- although the query gave the Kremlin leverage when the campaign insisted no such contacts existed.
"This is what intelligence services do," said Joshua Geltzer, a former senior official with the National Security Council and the Justice Department. "They tuck away things that they might be able to use to their advantage down the road. Knowing something that the world doesn't know, whether it is embarrassing or just unwanted, is a very powerful thing."
Cohen insists his undisclosed business contacts with Russia had not given the Kremlin any leverage over the Trump campaign, which he did not officially work for but promoted in TV appearances.
The longtime Trump lawyer is expected to testify later this month before the House intelligence committee.