Politics & Government

Why did FBI suspect Trump campaign adviser was a foreign agent?

Carter Page, then adviser to Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, speaks at the graduation ceremony for the New Economic School in Moscow, July 8, 2016. Page, once a little-known investment-banker-turned-adviser in the Trump campaign, is emerging as a central figure in the controversy surrounding campaign connections to Russia.
Carter Page, then adviser to Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, speaks at the graduation ceremony for the New Economic School in Moscow, July 8, 2016. Page, once a little-known investment-banker-turned-adviser in the Trump campaign, is emerging as a central figure in the controversy surrounding campaign connections to Russia. AP

He has a lengthy military background, academic credentials and, until recently, a largely apolitical financial career.

But now, Carter Page is a central character in the investigation into Russia’s meddling in the United States election. And this week, it was disclosed that he’s been under Justice Department surveillance because of suspicions he acted as a foreign agent.

In an interview Friday where he revealed new information about his military intelligence experience, the evasive Page said he had no idea why the Justice Department sought powers to surveil him.

“Let’s see what’s in this application (to the court) and we’ll see what comes out, because I have done nothing wrong,” he said.

Donald Trump announced in March 2016 that Page was one of his campaign’s foreign-policy advisers. Yet Page has for months refused to say who brought him into the campaign. On CNN earlier this week, he ruled out former campaign chief Paul Manafort as his conduit. Manafort himself faces questions about Russia ties. And Page told McClatchy last month that he had never met former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, fired for not being forthcoming about Russia ties.

Page told McClatchy on Friday that he has offered to testify before congressional panels investigating links between Russia and the Trump campaign. He remains involved in Russia through his investment firm Global Energy Capital LLC, which focuses on energy investment and advisory services in developing markets.

The company is privately held, so Page doesn’t disclose his investors. It has a small internet footprint; for example, in online documents, it doesn’t appear as a partner of other companies that file with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

What little is known about it comes from a June 9, 2008, confidential cable to the State Department from the U.S. Embassy in Turkmenistan. It details how Page and his then-partner James Richard had visited the embassy in Ashgabat three days earlier while attending an oil conference. The cable said the pair had met with the deputy prime minister for oil and were looking to assemble an investment fund of $1 billion.

The cable noted that the pair had offered to invest in state companies to make them “substantially more powerful than they currently are.” Page had described his work in Moscow, the cable said, as having helped take Russia’s Gazprom from a normal state oil company to “super major status.”

Page wanted to attract global investors to energy projects in former Soviet republics. That Turkmenistan project never got off the ground, he confirmed Friday, clarifying that he is involved in energy projects in the United States and globally, not just Russia.

So what were the Justice Department’s reasons for spying on Page, a U.S. citizen and military veteran? The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court documents are secret, but privacy advocates have long complained that the bar for surveillance is too low.

From June 8 to Dec. 31, 2015, the last period for which data is available, there were 1,010 applications for authority to surveil; all but five were approved. Another 169 were accepted after modification.

Page did have what he describes as an unwitting exchange with a spy who said he was a Russian United Nations official. Page confirmed that he cooperated with the FBI in its prosecution of a Russian intelligence operative and two other Russian agents. In an April 3 statement, Page said he had shared parts of a lecture that amounted to publicly available information with a person he thought was a U.N. official.

Page also received largely unreported attention from nationalist organizations within Russia that could have invited scrutiny. The Moscow television station Tsargrad covered him before, during and after his speech to the New Economic School in Moscow. Tsargrad is owned by right-wing nationalist Konstantin Malofeev, who was sanctioned by the Obama administration and European allies for allegedly bankrolling Russian nationalists in the Crimean peninsula, which was seized by Russian leader Vladimir Putin’s forces in February 2014.

Tsargrad is affiliated with a nationalist think tank called Katehon, also funded by Malofeev. Tsargrad’s editor in chief is Aleksander Dugin, a conservative sage who wrote confidently on Katehon’s website in February 2016 that Trump’s nationalist message would carry him to the U.S. presidency.

Page said Friday that he did not know Malofeev or Dugin, but they seemed to have taken special interest in him. Both are long allied with Putin.

“Konstantin Malofeev served as one of the chief financiers of Russian mercenaries fighting against the Ukrainian government. He was sanctioned by the United States for directly aiding and abetting Russia’s proxies,” said Mike Carpenter, deputy assistant defense secretary from 2015 until last January and a Russia specialist.

As a leader of the Eurasian Youth Movement, Dugin mobilized Russian volunteers to fight in Ukraine alongside Russian forces and Russian-backed separatists, said Carpenter, for which the United States sanctioned him.

Page’s speech in Moscow last July 7 drew this commentary on the Katehon website:

“After the reunification of Crimea with Russia and the beginning of operations in Ukraine, he was one of the few American experts who called for understanding the actions of Russia. Page came out openly against the interventionist policy of NATO, which, in his opinion, provoked Russia with its expansion.”

It was the speech, and media reaction in the United States – fanned by the Hillary Clinton campaign, insists Page – that led to Page’s separation from the campaign weeks later.

Page played a minor role in the campaign, said Sam Nunberg, a senior Trump strategist in 2015, adding that “now he’s a major liability. Free advice to Carter Page: Stay off of TV.”

Page took to TV news shows this week to push back on allegations that he has improper ties to Russia. He often refuses to answer questions.

The authority to surveil Page, reported first by The Washington Post on Tuesday, came in August after Page had stepped down from the Trump campaign, The New York Times reported Wednesday.

That Page is caught up in international intrigue doesn’t surprise Ian Bremmer, who runs the risk-analysis firm Eurasia Group. Page worked with him briefly as a researcher about 16 years ago.

“He struck me as extremely smart, but . . . I came to realize quite quickly pro-Kremlin,” Bremmer recalled in an interview last month.

In the late 1990s being pro-Kremlin was not unusual; even President Bill Clinton had a tight relationship with his Russian then-counterpart, Boris Yeltsin.

At the time, the Council on Foreign Relations had awarded Page one of its prized international affairs fellowships. The organization confirmed to McClatchy that Page was one of 11 who won the fellowship for the 1998-99 year, spending his time in residence at the council’s New York offices.

“I remember his being an appealing candidate for one of these difficult-to-get fellowships,” said a person who sat on the selection committee, who spoke only anonymously because selection is a private matter.

What attracted the committee, said the panel member, was Page’s assertion that he worked in military intelligence, stationed in the Western Sahara. This does not appear in any of Page’s personal or professional accounts, but Page confirmed Friday that he worked in Western Morocco as part of a U.N. peacekeeping mission.

At the Naval Academy, Page was a Trident Scholar, a prestigious designation that allowed him to serve as a researcher his senior year on the House Armed Services Committee. The scholarship put him in the office of Rep. Les Aspin, D-Wis., shortly before the congressman became Clinton’s defense secretary. Page also said he had served multiple tours in the Middle East and Europe as a surface warfare officer, and that he had later worked in the Pentagon on nuclear nonproliferation matters.

Page is also a frequent visitor to Moscow.

A person who has long known Page said that, while living in Moscow, Page dated a Russian ballet dancer but otherwise rarely shared details of his personal life. This longtime acquaintance was “dumbfounded” when the generally apolitical Page joined the Trump campaign team and echoed Trump’s admiration of Putin.

“I found the speech (in Russia) breathtaking in terms of his criticisms of the U.S., and of his love affair with Russia,” the acquaintance said.

Fast-forward to Jan. 10, when the online news site BuzzFeed published the 35-page private intelligence dossier compiled by a former British spy, Christopher Steele. It featured unsubstantiated claims of collusion between the Trump campaign team and the Kremlin. And it alleged that Page had met with Igor Sechin, the powerful chief of oil giant Rosneft. The Russian Foreign Ministry dismissed that allegation as “crap.”

The most explosive allegation about Page: Sechin offered him the right to broker a 19 percent stake in Rosneft if the Trump administration lifted financial sanctions on Russia.

“Come on now. We need to move on and look at real issues,” Page said when asked about that allegation.

The dossier’s references to Page re-emerged in news reports after former KGB chief Oleg Erovinkin was found dead in a Moscow alley on Dec. 26. The first news reports in Russia indicated he’d been murdered, then were changed to say he had died of a heart attack.

Erovinkin was a top aide to Sechin and was believed to be a go-between for his boss and Putin. His death drew attention in the British media in late January because the former KGB man fit the description of an informant mentioned in Steele’s dossier.

Page addressed the issue Friday, saying he never met Erovinkin and does not recall ever being in his presence but that perhaps he was at some conference or cocktail party at the same time Page was.

McClatchy special correspondent Peter Stone contributed to this article.

Kevin G. Hall: 202-383-6038, @KevinGHall

Carter Page’s career

In his biographical account to McClatchy, Page said:

▪  He was chief operating officer of Merrill Lynch’s Energy & Power Group.

▪ He also was deputy branch manager of Merrill Lynch’s representative office in Moscow, which he said he co-founded in 2004.

▪  From 2010 until 2016, he was a fellow at the Center for National Policy in Washington.

▪ He earned his MBA at New York University’s Stern School of Business, another master’s degree in national security studies from Georgetown University and a doctorate from the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies.