Monday, December 18, 2017
Politics

Trump adviser Carter Page's visit to Moscow got the FBI's attention

WASHINGTON — Ever since FBI investigators discovered in 2013 that a Russian spy was trying to recruit an American businessman named Carter Page, the bureau maintained an occasional interest in Page. So when he became a foreign policy adviser to the Trump campaign last year and gave a Russia-friendly speech at a prestigious Moscow institute, it soon caught the bureau's attention.

That trip in July was a catalyst for the FBI investigation into connections between Russia and President Donald Trump's campaign, the New York Times, citing current and former law enforcement officials, reports.

It is unclear exactly what about Page's visit caught the FBI's attention: meetings he had during his three days in Moscow, intercepted communications of Russian officials speaking about him, or something else.

After Page, 45 — a Navy veteran and businessman who had lived in Moscow for three years — stepped down from the Trump campaign in September, the FBI obtained a warrant from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court allowing the authorities to monitor his communications on the suspicion that he was a Russian agent.

From the Russia trip of the once-obscure Page grew a wide-ranging investigation that has cast a shadow over the early months of the Trump administration. The Russia-Trump issue, repeatedly denounced by the president as a partisan witch hunt, is also being examined by the Senate and House Intelligence Committees. At a House hearing last month, FBI Director James B. Comey took the unusual step of publicly acknowledging the investigation of Russian interference in the election, which he said included possible links between Russia and Trump associates.

Before late July, when Comey said the inquiry began, developments beyond Page's trip may have heightened FBI concern about Russian meddling in the campaign. Paul Manafort, then Trump's campaign manager, was already under criminal investigation in connection with payments from a pro-Russian political party in Ukraine. WikiLeaks and two websites later identified as Russian intelligence fronts had begun releasing emails obtained when Democratic Party servers were hacked.

According to the New York Times, current and former law enforcement officials said that when the FBI opened its investigation, agents were just beginning to explore whether Trump's advisers had contacts with Russian government officials or intelligence operatives. In the months that followed, they said, intelligence and law enforcement officials gathered more extensive information about contacts and communications, including intercepts of Russian officials discussing Page and other Trump associates.

In his talk at the New Economic School in Moscow, Page criticized U.S. policy toward Russia in terms that echoed the position of President Vladimir Putin of Russia, declaring, "Washington and other Western capitals have impeded potential progress through their often hypocritical focus on ideas such as democratization, inequality, corruption and regime change." His remarks accorded with Trump's positive view of the Russian president, which had prompted speculation about what Trump saw in Putin — more commonly denounced in the United States as a ruthless, anti-Western autocrat.

Page's relationship with Trump appears to have been fleeting. The New York Times reports that former Trump campaign officials say the two men have never met, though Page has said he attended some meetings where Trump was present.

But last spring, when Republican foreign policy experts were distancing themselves from Trump, Page served a purpose for the flailing Trump campaign. Dismissing the notion that his campaign was bereft of foreign policy expertise, the candidate read aloud a list of five people who had offered to advise him on world affairs — including "Carter Page, Ph.D."

Page was unknown in Washington foreign policy circles. But his doctorate and his Russian experience were real. He had worked as a junior investment banker for Merrill Lynch for a time, living in Moscow from 2004 to 2007.

He subsequently started his own investment firm, Global Energy Capital LLC, and partnered on some deals with a Russian businessman, Sergey Yatsenko. Yatsenko had been deputy chief financial officer for the Russian energy giant Gazprom, which is majority-owned by the government and has close ties to Putin.

Page's role in the Trump campaign appears to have been minimal. Papers he wrote on energy policy languished unread. Former campaign officials play down his significance almost to the vanishing point, saying Page had no ID badge, desk or email address from the campaign.

"If the Russians were attempting to collude with him, they were attempting to collude with someone who had no influence on the Trump campaign," said Roger Stone, a longtime adviser to Trump. "I think he's a self-promoter — not that there's anything wrong with that."

But for Page, temporarily wearing the title of adviser to the man who would become president appears to have been gratifying. "The half year I spent on the Trump campaign meant more to me than the five years I spent in the Navy," he said in an interview last month.

He denies that there was ever any possibility of his being recruited to spy for Russia, including his 2013 encounter with the Russian intelligence officer. "Zero risk then or ever in my life," Page said.

After the Washington Post broke the news last week of the court warrant the FBI had obtained, Page went on a Trump-like media blitz, defending his bona fides and asserting that he was the victim of a smear campaign by Obama administration officials and Hillary Clinton aides.

"You talk about fake narratives," Page said on Fox News. "When you introduce false evidence in a court of law, including the FISA court," he said, referring to the court that issued the warrant targeting him, "that is illegal. So, let's see what happens."

He added, "I'm very encouraged that all of the lies that have been a drag on this administration are finally coming out into the open."

Few who have met Page during his career appear to have pegged him as a likely prospect for either suspected spy or statesman. Born in 1971 in Minnesota and raised in Poughkeepsie, New York, he graduated in 1993 from the Naval Academy, where he was in the selective Trident Scholar Program, but left the Navy before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. He earned an MBA at New York University and completed a doctorate a decade later at SOAS University of London.

Richard Guerin, who was in his academy class and remains in regular touch, said Page had "a complicated mind." "He's genuinely one of the smartest people I've ever met," Guerin said. "I get a bit offended when I read reports of people calling him an ‘idiot.'"

Guerin also said that, ever since Page's Navy days, when he drove a black Mercedes, his friend had reveled in lavish spending that sometimes seemed to exceed his means.

In April 2013, Page was caught on an FBI wiretap in an investigation of suspected Russian intelligence officers in New York. Victor Podobnyy, one of three men later charged with being unregistered agents of a foreign power, had met Page at an energy symposium and was recorded describing him as "an idiot" with dreams of lucrative deals. There is no evidence that Page knew the man was an intelligence officer.

In 2014 and 2015, in articles for an online journal, Page mixed quirky observations with praise for Russia and criticism of U.S. policy. The war in Ukraine, he wrote, was "precipitated by U.S. meddling." And Igor Sechin, a close Putin ally and chief executive of the oil company Rosneft, Page wrote, "has done more to advance U.S.-Russian relations than any individual in or out of government from either side of the Atlantic over the past decade."

In recent months, Page has often seemed to revel in the attention he has drawn. In December, he gave another speech at the New Economic School, complaining that "fake news" had hurt U.S.-Russia relations.

His conduct has disturbed some who know him. Guerin said it was "disheartening" to hear that Page rated his time at the margins of the Trump campaign more highly than his Navy service. "I thought we were both patriotic," Guerin said. "I would like to assume that as well right now. But events are unfolding that make you question that."

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