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The Curious Case of Carter Page

March 7, 2017

Carter Page

Carter Page, PhD, was vaulted suddenly from obscurity into the limelight in March of last year, when Donald Trump named him along with four others as a member of his foreign policy team in an interview with the Washington Post editorial board. By late September, Page had become a non-person to the Trump team. In mid-January, Sean Spicer stated that, “Carter Page is an individual whom the President-elect does not know and was put on notice months ago by the campaign.” So what happened between March and September to cause his meteoric rise and precipitous fall? This is a long post, but it’s pretty interesting, so stick with me.

Trump’s statement a year ago sent the media scurrying to find out who this guy was.  There was general puzzlement at all of the choices, as none were very prominent in the foreign policy world. It turned out that Page was founder and managing partner of a company called Global Energy Capital, and had graduated from the US Naval Academy.  He had worked in the energy sector at Merrill, Lynch in London and Moscow, and had had a fellowship from the Council on Foreign Relations in the late 90s. Oddly, his bio on the Global Energy Capital website does not mention the PhD that Trump attached to his name. (Page told BloombergPolitics that the PhD came from the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, but didn’t say when.)   The website bio states that “he spent 3 years in Moscow where he was responsible for the opening of the Merrill office and was an advisor on key transactions for Gazprom, RAO UES and others.” Page is the only person listed on the management tab of the GEC website, which seems remarkably short on detail about the enterprise.

In the Bloomberg interview, Page said that while at Merrill Lynch in Moscow from 2004 to 2007, “he advised Gazprom [the huge Russian gas company] on its largest deals during this period, such as buying of a stake in the Sakhalin oil and gas field in the Sea of Okhotsk. He also helped the company court Western investors, assisting in setting up the first regular meetings with shareholders in New York and London.”

It’s not clear whether Page’s role in Moscow was quite as prominent as he has suggested. The Bloomberg piece cites a former top executive from the Merrill Lynch Moscow office, who described him as a junior banker with little understanding of the country. “I could not imagine Carter as an adviser on foreign policy…It’s really surprising.” In September, Julia Ioffe, a writer for Politico , started digging further and found a number of respondents who said that Page’s role in Moscow was much more junior and mundane than the rainmaker he was presenting himself as. She found that the Madison Avenue address for his company was actually a shared work site. This is a fascinating article, which presents Page as a kind of Zelig figure who kept popping up in important places, but who had no great influence on what was going on there. Well, he wouldn’t be the first guy to inflate a resume.

According to the Bloomberg article, Page took a buyout from Merrill Lynch in 2008 and started his company, but then the Great Recession hit and since then he had mostly done low-profile advisory assignments, such as counseling foreign investors on buying assets in Russia.

So how did he come to Trump’s attention? That, too, is a murky question. Ioffe tried to find out, but by that time none of the obvious suspects would admit to having recruited him. In his bizarre interview with MSNBC’s Chris Hayes last week, Page refused to answer a direct question on this point. (Speculation now seems to hover around Sam Clovis, the former co-chair of the Trump campaign.)

In recent years, Page has published a series of essays in an online journal called Global Policy (sponsored by Durham University in England). The articles are a mystifying series of non-sequiturs and jarring juxtapositions. An example is The Secret and the Surge: ISIS Response Self-help Principles for Would-be Warriors of the West, which seeks to apply the principles of Rhonda Byrnes’ self-help book “The Secret” to Middle East policy. 

In another article from 2015 (New Slaves, Global Edition: Russia, Iran, and the Segregation of the World Economy), Page writes: In the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case of 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that it was unconstitutional to create separate public schools for black and white students. In February of that same year, the Soviet Union completed an internal transfer of the Crimean peninsula from the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic to the Ukrainian SSR…. Despite the long-standing close cultural ties between Russia and Crimea, the administrative reshuffle of 1954 was based on the false assumption that no Western official could ever be foolish enough to lead a revolution in Ukraine that promotes pro-U.S. radicals to power in Kiev. Even more unthinkable is that such hand-selected rebels would be hostile to Russia’s interests. In the wake of such careless decisions, the March 2014 democratic referendum which followed in Crimea thus led to a predictable result.

You may, like me, find that paragraph difficult to parse, but it does contain a frequent theme in Page’s writing, which is that the US should be nicer to Russia and let Moscow do whatever it feels it has to do in Ukraine. It seems likely that ideas like this were what attracted the Trump team’s attention.

It’s unclear what role Carter Page played in the Trump team. (He was very cagey about this in the Chris Hayes interview.) But the press reported that he turned up in Moscow again in July two weeks before the Republican convention in Cleveland and again publicly criticized US policy. According to Yahoo News, Page made a commencement address for the New Economic School, an institution funded in part by major Russian oligarchs close to Putin, where he asserted that “Washington and other West capitals” had impeded progress in Russia “through their often hypocritical focus on ideas such as democratization, inequality, corruption and regime change.”

Whether he met with other Russian officials then, either on his own or representing the Trump campaign, is still unclear.  John Podesta, whose emails were published by WikiLeaks perhaps after being obtained by Russian hackers, stated in December that “Carter Page, one of Trump’s foreign policy advisers, went to Russia before the Republican convention and met with a person in the Russian hierarchy who was responsible for collecting intelligence.” According to Politifact, in an interview with the state-run news agency, Interfax, Russian deputy foreign minister Sergei A. Ryabkov said “there were contacts” with Trump’s “entourage” throughout the election, according to multiple translations of the interview. “I cannot say that all of them, but quite a few have been staying in touch with Russian representatives.” The Trump campaign denied this, and the Russian foreign ministry later clarified that Ryabkov meant Russian officials had met with Trump’s political allies and supporters, not his campaign staff directly.

Page attended the Republican convention in Cleveland later in July, where he met with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak.  Chris Hayes got him to confirm that this meeting took place after a great deal of hemming and hawing on Page’s part, though he maintains that this was just an anodyne and totally legitimate general conversation.  It is interesting to note that Kislyak apparently did not go to the Democratic national convention.

On August 27, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid sent a letter to FBI Director Comey asking for an investigation into reports that Russian was trying to tamper with the US election. In his letter, Reid referred indirectly to a speech given in Russia by one Trump adviser, Carter Page, who criticized American sanctions policy toward Russia–apparently referring to the July commencement speech at the New Economic School.

Then on September 23, the Yahoo News story appeared with the following lede: “U.S. intelligence officials are seeking to determine whether an American businessman identified by Donald Trump as one of his foreign policy advisers has opened up private communications with senior Russian officials — including talks about the possible lifting of economic sanctions if the Republican nominee becomes president, according to multiple sources who have been briefed on the issue. The activities of Trump adviser Carter Page, who has extensive business interests in Russia, have been discussed with senior members of Congress during recent briefings about suspected efforts by Moscow to influence the presidential election, the sources said.”

And suddenly, the Trump campaign team couldn’t quite recall if they knew who Carter Page was. On September 24, Steven Cheung, the campaign’s director of rapid response, told ABC News when asked about the report: “He has no role. We are not aware of any of his activities, past or present.” On the following day, when CNN’s Jake Tapper asked Kellyanne Conway about the Yahoo reports, she said, “Well, I have not spoken with him at all, in fact, meaning he’s not part of our national security or foreign policy briefings that we do now at all, certainly not since I have become campaign manager.” Carter who??!!

Page publicly denied the reports, calling them “complete garbage”, and then largely dropped out of sight for a while. Then in January, Buzzfeed published the “dossier” compiled by British investigator Christopher Steele, which among other sensational allegations claimed that Igor Sechin, the CEO of Russia’s state oil company, offered Carter Page and his associates the brokerage of a 19% stake in the company in exchange for the lifting of US sanctions on Russia. This was sourced to “a trusted compatriot and close associate” of Sechin. The report claimed that the offer was made in July when Page was in Moscow for the commencement speech. According to the dossier, “Page had expressed interest and confirmed that were Trump elected US president, then sanctions on Russia would be lifted.”

In February, the website The Intercept published a bizarre letter apparently written by Page to the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice demanding an investigation into “the severe election fraud in the form of disinformation, suppression of dissent, hate crimes and other extensive abuses led by members of Mrs. Hillary Clinton’s campaign and their political allies last year.” The letter went on to claim that “the actions by the Clinton regime and their associates may be among the most extreme examples of human rights violations observed during any election in U.S. history since Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was similarly targeted for his anti-war views in the 1960’s.” According to The Intercept, Page appended three documents to the letter:  a July 2016 speech he delivered at the New Economic School in Moscow; a response to the director of national intelligence’s report claiming that Vladimir Putin ordered the Russian government to intervene in the 2016 election to help Trump; and a September 15 letter to FBI Director James Comey asking him to close any inquiry into Page.

This took place in the context of Trump’s unsubstantiated allegations of widespread voter fraud in favor of Hillary Clinton. So was this an attempt by Page to get back into Trump’s good graces? If so, it doesn’t appear to have worked, and Page evidently remains in the Siberia of TrumpWorld.

Which bring us to Carter Page’s cringeworthy interview on March 2 with Chris Hayes on MSNBC. I would charitably describe Page’s performance as evasive, and less charitably as weaselly. If you haven’t seen the video yet, watch it and judge for yourself.This was followed the following day by an even more detailed and excruciating grilling by Anderson Cooper in which Page seems to be trying simultaneously to downplay his role and still claim some importance and status. At some point in the interview, Cooper exclaimed “Weird!”, which pretty much sums it up. I would judge that the objective of his appearance on the interviews was to play down his role in the Trump team and place all discussions that he “might or might not have had” with Russian officials in the context of normal exchanges with foreign emissaries.

So what does all this add up to? Obviously, no smoking gun, but there sure is a lot of smoke. The fact that the Trump team dropped him like a flaming turd after the Yahoo story, suggests that they were worried that he could provide information validating the allegations of collusion with the Russian government and oligarchy. At this point, both Page and the Trump team clearly share an interest in minimizing his importance. But if he was such a nobody, why would the Russians have invited him to make his July speech? The fact that they did that implies that at least they thought he had some influence on the Trump team.

We still don’t really know if he was just a clever, fast-talking hustler on the make or something much more.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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