There’s plenty of evidence that the former Trump campaign adviser, for all his quirks, was on suspiciously good terms with Russia.
On Friday, Washington was convulsed by a contentious four-page document: the Nunes memo. The memo, according to its putative author, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Rep. Devin Nunes, revealed unprecedented abuses by the FBI and Justice Department. The counterview: That Nunes’ memo was a misleading, partisan and shoddy piece of work. In this second reading, the purpose of the memo was to offer succor to President Donald Trump and to discredit the investigation into Trump, Russia and collusion led by special counsel Robert Mueller.
Most remarkable was the unlikely hero at the center of this national row, Carter Page. The memo alleged that the bureau bugged his communications after deliberately duping the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. Not only that but using supposedly flawed material supplied by Christopher Steele, the former British intelligence officer whose dossier accused Trump of consorting with Russian president and former KGB operative Vladimir Putin. But who exactly was Carter Page? And were there, in fact, genuine reasons why the FBI might have ground for suspecting him?
To answer that question meaningfully it is necessary to go back—to 2013, and to a group of jaded Putin spies working deep undercover in downtown Manhattan. One of them was Viktor Podobnyy. Moscow had dispatched Podobnyy to the United States under his own name. He worked in New York under official “cover”: attaché to Russia’s delegation to the United Nations.
In reality, Podobnyy was employed by Russia’s foreign intelligence service, the SVR. Putin was the former head of the SVR’s domestic counterpart, the FSB. Podobnyy’s mission was to recruit Americans and to collect economic intelligence. One of his SVR colleagues was Igor Sporyshev, who was working covertly as a “trade representative.” Neither man was aware that the FBI had a bug inside their SVR office. The Bureau was secretly listening to their conversations.
One of their tasks was to liaise with another SVR officer, Evgeny Buryakov. Buryakov’s position was somewhat precarious. He didn’t have diplomatic immunity, which meant if he was caught he could go to jail. His official day job was at a branch of a Russian state bank in Manhattan, VEB.
As FBI wiretaps showed, the techniques for meeting with Buryakov were distinctly old-school. Typically, Sporyshev would ring Buryakov and tell him he had to give him “something”—a ticket, a book, a hat, an umbrella. The two would meet outdoors. This sometimes happened outside Buryakov’s bank office on Third Avenue—an inconspicuous brown tower with a 1960s abstract sculpture at street level opposite the foyer. They would exchange documents.
Sporyshev’s biggest headache was finding Americans willing to become intelligence sources for Russia. This was tough. He had approached two young women working in financial consultancy who had recently graduated from a New York university. Sporyshev told Podobnyy he was skeptical anything would come of it. Or, as he put it in chauvinist terms: “In order to be close you need to either fuck them or use other levers to execute my requests.”
The Russian spies, however, had one promising lead. This was a guy—an energy consultant based in New York City. Unlike the women, he was eager to help. And, it appeared, keen to make money in Moscow. There was a drawback: The source—whom the FBI called “Male-1”—was something of a dimwit.
The FBI intercepts record:
PODOBNYY: [Male-1] wrote that he is sorry, he went to Moscow and forgot to check his inbox, but he wants to meet when he gets back. I think he is an idiot and forgot who I am. Plus he writes to me in Russian [to] practise the language. He flies to Moscow more often than I do. He got hooked on [the Russian state energy company] Gazprom, thinking that if they have a project, he could rise up. Maybe he can. I don’t know, but it’s obvious he wants to earn loads of money.
SPORYSHEV: Without a doubt.
Podobnyy explained he intended to string Male-1 along. That meant feeding him “empty promises.” Podobnyy would play up his connections to Russia’s trade delegation, to Sporyshev, and pretend his SVR colleague might “push contracts” the American’s way.
PODOBNYY: This is intelligence method to cheat! How else to work with foreigners? You promise a favour for a favour. You get the documents from him and go tell him to fuck himself. But not to upset you I will take you to a restaurant and give you an expensive gift. You just need to sign for it. That is ideal working method.
These tactics may have been crude. In this instance they worked. Podobnyy approached the consultant at an energy symposium in New York. According to FBI court documents, the two swapped contacts. They emailed for several months. Male-1 co-operated, although he says he did not know the Russian was a spy. He even handed him documents about the energy world.
This was a strange business—Kremlin officers careening around Manhattan, spycraft involving fake umbrellas, and an American intelligence source who spent more time in Moscow than his Russian handlers. Plus espionage professionals who turned out to be suffering from ennui.
The American willing to provide information to Putin’s foreign intelligence officers rented a working space at 590 Madison Avenue. The building was linked by a glass atrium to a well-known New York landmark, Trump Tower. The atrium had a pleasant courtyard, with bamboo trees, where you could sit and drink coffee. Next door was a franchise of Niketown.
From the atrium you could take the elevator up to the Trump Tower public garden on the fourth floor, with its sparrows and maple trees. The din from West 57th Street meant the garden wasn’t exactly tranquil. Or you could queue up with Japanese and German tourists at the Trump Tower basement restaurant and salad bar. Failing that, there was Starbucks on the first floor.
Male-1 had a name. At this point few had heard of him. He was Carter Page.
Page is a balding figure in his mid-forties, with buzz-cut hair and the super-lean physique of a cyclist or fitness fanatic. When not on his Cannondale mountain bike, he is typically dressed in a suit and tie. When he is nervous, he grins. One person who met him around this period described the encounter as “excruciating.” Page was “awkward” and “uncomfortable” and “broke into a sweat.”
Page’s résumé was curious, too. He spent five years in the navy and served as a Marine intelligence officer in the western Sahara. During his navy days, he spent lavishly and drove a black Mercedes, according to a friend from his academy class, Richard Guerin.
He was smart enough to get academic qualications: fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, master’s from Georgetown University, a degree from New York University’s business school. And a PhD from the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London.
This, it transpired, was hard won. Page’s British academic supervisors failed his doctoral thesis twice, an unusual move. In a report they described his work as “verbose” and “vague”. Page responded by angrily accusing his examiners of “anti-Russian bias”.
Page’s apparent Russian sympathies were evident from much earlier. In 1998 Page spent three months working for the Eurasia Group, a strategy consulting firm. Its founder, Ian Bremmer, later described Page as his “most wackadoodle alumnus.” Page’s vehemently pro-Kremlin views meant that “he wasn’t a good fit,” Bremmer said.
In 2004 Page moved to Moscow, where he became an energy consultant with Merrill Lynch. As Page tells it, it was while working as an investment banker that he struck up a relationship with Gazprom. He advised Gazprom on transactions, including a deal to buy a stake in an oil and gas eld near Sakhalin, the desolate island on Russia’s Pacific coast. He bought Gazprom shares.
According to Politico, few people in Moscow’s foreign business community knew of him. Those who did were underwhelmed. “He wasn’t great and he wasn’t terrible,” his former boss, Sergei Aleksashenko, said, adding that Page was “without any special talents or accomplishments,” “in no way exceptional,” and “a gray spot.”
Three years later, Page returned to New York and to his new office next to Trump Tower. From there he set up a private equity business, Global Energy Capital LLC. His partner was Russian—a wealthy former Gazprom manager called Sergei Yatsenko. Did Yatsenko know Podobnyy and Sporyshev? Or indeed other members of Russia’s underground espionage community?
In the worsening dispute between Putin and the Obama administration, Page sided with Moscow. He was against US sanctions imposed by Obama on Russia in the wake of Crimea. In a blog post for Global Policy, an online journal, he wrote that Putin wasn’t to blame for the 2014 Ukraine conflict. The White House’s superior “smack-down” approach had “started the crisis in the first place,” he wrote.
Page’s rampant pro-Moscow views were at odds with the US State Department under Clinton and with almost all American scholars of Russia. After all, it was Putin who had smuggled tanks across the border into eastern Ukraine. Not that Page’s opinions counted for much. Global Policy had a small circulation. It was edited out of Durham University in the north of England.
His relationship with the journal fizzled out when he wrote an opinion piece lavishly praising a pro-Russian candidate ahead of the U.S. presidential election—Trump.
And then something odd happened.
In March 2016 candidate Trump met with the Washington Post’s editorial board. At this point it seemed likely that Trump would clinch the Republican nomination. Foreign affairs came up. Who were the candidate’s foreign policy advisers? Trump read five names. The second was “Carter Page, PhD.” Given Trump’s obvious lack of experience of world affairs, this was a pivotal job.
One former Eurasia Group colleague said he was stunned when he discovered Page had mysteriously become one of Trump’s foreign policy advisers. “I nearly dropped my coffee,” he told me. The colleague added: “We had wanted people who could engage in critical analysis of what’s going on. This is a guy who has no critical insight into the situation. He wasn’t a smart person.”
Page’s real qualification for the role, it appeared, had little to do with his restless CV. What appeared to recommend him to Trump was his boundless enthusiasm for Putin and his corresponding loathing of Obama and Clinton. Page’s view of the world was not unlike the Kremlin’s. Boiled down: the United States’ attempts to spread democracy had brought chaos and disaster.
Podobnyy and Sporyshev approached their duties with a certain cynicism laced with boredom and a shot of homesickness, the FBI tapes revealed. Page, by contrast, was the rarest of things: an American who apparently believed that Putin was wise and virtuous and kind.
By this point, the Russian spies had been spirited out of the United States. In 2015 their ring was broken up. As accredited diplomats, they were entitled to fly home. Buryakov was less fortunate. At the time that Page joined Trump’s campaign, Buryakov pleaded guilty to acting as an unregistered foreign agent. He got two and a half years in a US jail.
In July 2016 Page went back to Russia, in a trip approved by the Trump campaign. There was keen interest. Page was someone who might give sharper definition to the candidate’s views on future US–Russian relations. Moscow sources suggest that certain people in the Russian government arranged Page’s visit. “We were told: ‘Can you bring this guy over?’” one source said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
One of Russia’s top private universities, the New Economics School, invited Page to give a public lecture. This was no ordinary event but the prestigious commencement address to its class of graduating students. The venue was Moscow’s World Trade Center
Russia’s media hailed Page as a “celebrated American economist.” This, despite the fact that Page’s lecture was distinctly strange—a content-free ramble verging on the bizarre. Page, it seemed, was criticizing U.-.S-led attempts at “regime change” in the former Soviet world. Nobody could be sure. His audience included students and local Trump fans, some of whom were visibly nodding off by the end.
Shaun Walker, the Guardian’s Russia correspondent, had attended an event given by Page the previous evening. He described Page’s PowerPoint presentation as “really weird.” “It looked as if it had been done for a Kazakhstan gas conference,” Walker said. “He was talking about the United States’ attempts to spread democracy, and how disgraceful they were.”
Page was Trump’s leading Russia expert. And yet in the question-and-answer session it emerged that Page couldn’t really understand or speak Russian. Those seeking answers on Trump’s view of sanctions were disappointed. “I’m not here at all talking about my work outside of my academic endeavor,” Page said. At the end, Walker said, Page was “spirited off.”
Clearly, Page was reluctant to give any clues about a Trump administration’s Russia policy or how Trump might succeed in strengthening ties where Obama and George W. Bush had both failed.
So what was he doing in Moscow?
According to the Steele dossier —vehemently disputed by Page and subsequently rubbished by Nunes, and Republicans —the real purpose of Page’s trip was clandestine. He had come to meet with the Kremlin. And in particular with Igor Sechin. Sechin was a former spy and, more importantly, someone who commanded Putin’s absolute confidence. He was in effect Russia’s second most powerful official, its de facto deputy leader.
By this point Sechin had been at Putin’s side for more than three decades. He had begun his career in the KGB and served as a military translator in Mozambique. In the 1990s he worked with Putin in the mayor’s offce in St Petersburg. Sechin functioned as Putin’s scowling gatekeeper. He carried the boss’s briefcase and lurked outside Putin’s ground-floor office in St Petersburg’s city hall.
His appearance was lugubrious. Sechin had a rubbery face, narrow-set eyes, and a boxer’s squishy nose. When Putin was elected president, Sechin became his deputy chief of staff and, from 2004, executive chairman of the Russian state oil firm Rosneft, the country’s biggest oil producer. A stint as deputy prime minister was not successful. “He’s clever, despite looking like a dummy. But he can’t speak or do public politics,” Sergei Sokolov, deputy editor of the liberal Novaya Gazeta newspaper, said of Sechin.
In private Sechin impressed. Chris Barter—the former CEO of Goldman Sachs Moscow—described him as an “extremely charming and smart guy, on top of his numbers operationally.” It was clear that Sechin had Russia’s entire security services at his disposal. He would be willing to personally reward anyone who advanced the objectives of the Russian state, Barter added.
In 2014 Page had written a sycophantic piece that lauded Sechin for his “great accomplishments.” In a blog for Global Policy, Page wrote that Sechin had done more to advance U..S.-Russian relations than anybody in decades. Sechin was a wronged Russian statesman, in Page’s view, unfairly punished and sanctioned by the Obama White House.
This was the backdrop to Page’s Moscow trip.
Eleven days after Page flew back from Russia to New York, Steele filed a memo to Fusion GPS, the business intelligence firm headed by former Wall Street Journal reporter Glenn Simpson. Simpson had initially begun investigating Trump and Russia at the behest of the Washington Free Beacon, a conservative website. Only later— once Trump had all but secured the nomination—did a law firm employed by the Democrats take over the Trump contract. The fact that Republicans opposed to Trump had begun the inquiry was nowhere to be found in Nunes’ memo.
Dated July 19, 2016, Steele’s field memorandum was titled: “Russia: Secret Kremlin meetings attended by Trump advisor Carter Page in Moscow.”
Steele’s information came from anonymous sources. In this case that was someone described as “close” to Sechin. Seemingly, there was a mole deep inside Rosneft—a person who discussed sensitive matters with other Russians. The mole may have been unaware its information was being telegraphed to Steele.
In Moscow, Page had held two secret meetings, Steele wrote. The first was with Sechin. It’s unclear where this meeting, if it happened, took place. The second was with Igor Diveykin, a senior official from Putin’s presidential administration and its internal political department.
Based on his own Moscow experience, Barter said that meetings with Sechin came about at short notice. Typically, Sechin’s chief of staff would call up and order a meeting forty minutes later. “It was always off the cuff, last minute. It was, boom: ‘Can you come now?’” Barter said. He personally met with Sechin six times, he added.
Sometimes these meetings took place in the White House, the Russian seat of government. On other occasions they were in Rosneft’s tower HQ, overlooking the Moskva River. Of the Steele dossier, Barter told me: “Everything is believable.”
According to Steele, Sechin raised with Page the Kremlin’s desire for the United States to lift sanctions on Russia. This was Moscow’s strategic priority. Sechin offered the outlines of a deal. If a future Trump administration dropped “Ukraine-related sanctions,” there could be an “associated move” in the area of “bilateral energy co-operation.” In other words, lucrative contracts for U.S. energy firms. Page’s reaction to this offer was positive, Steele wrote, adding that Page was “generally non-committal in response.”
Steele obtained further information from his high-placed source, which said that the Sechin meeting had taken place on either July 7 or 8—the same day as or the day after Page’s graduate lecture.
According to an “associate,” Sechin was so keen to lift personal and corporate Western sanctions that he offered Page an unusual bribe. This was “the brokerage of up to a 19 per cent (privatized) stake in Rosneft in return.” In other words, a chunk of Rosneft was being sold off.
No sums were mentioned. But a privatization on this scale would be the biggest in Russia for years. Any brokerage fee would be substantial, in the region of tens and possibly hundreds of millions of dollars. Page “expressed interest” and confirmed that were Trump to become US president, “then sanctions on Russia would be lifted,” Steele wrote.
Sechin’s offer was the carrot.
There was also a stick.
The stick was flourished during Page’s alleged second meeting, with Diveykin. The official reportedly told Page that the Kremlin had assembled a dossier of compromising materal on Clinton. And might possibly give it to Trump’s campaign. However, according to Steele, Diveykin also delivered an ominous warning. He hinted—or even “indicated more strongly”—that the Russian leadership had damaging material on Trump, too. Trump “should bear this in mind” in his dealings with Moscow, Diveykin said.
This was blackmail, clear and simple.
Page was the go-between meant to relay this blunt message to Trump. He was part of a chain of cultivation and conspiracy that stretched from Moscow to Fifth Avenue. Allegedly, that is. Over the coming months, Page would vehemently deny any wrongdoing. He would assert that he was a victim. He said he didn’t meet Sechin.
However, in testimony to Nunes’ House Intelligence committee last November Page admitted meeting Andrey Baranov, Rosneft’s head of investor relations. Did sanctions come up? “Not directly,” Page replied. Did Baranov talk about privatization? He “may briefly have mentioned it,” Page admitted. Was Baranov relaying Sechin’s wishes? Almost certainly.
Page’s problem, then, was that he had an unfortunate habit of seeking out Russian spies—ones in their twenties like Podobnyy and older ones like Sechin, either directly or via underlings. And Russian ambassadors like Sergei Kislyak, whom Page met in summer 2016 at the Republican national convention.
Page’s multiple interactions with senior Russians were a matter of growing concern to US intelligence. In the coming months, the FBI seemed to grow suspicious that Page might be a Russian agent. That summer the bureau decided it was going to bug Page’s phone calls. This was no easy matter. To do this lawfully, federal agents had to obtain a warrant. Any application of this kind was voluminous—as then FBI Director James Comey put it, these were often thicker than his wrists.
The application included Page’s earlier testimony to the FBI. In June 2013 counter-intelligence agent Gregory Monaghan interviewed Page in connection with the Podobnyy–SVR spy ring. Page said he’d done nothing wrong. Since then, Page had held further meetings with Russian operatives that had not been publicly disclosed, the application said.
The FBI presented its evidence before a secret tribunal— the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance, or FISA, court, which handles sensitive national security cases. The bureau argued that there were strong grounds to believe that Page was acting as a Russian agent. The judge agreed. From this point on, the FBI was able to access Page’s electronic communications. An initial ninety-day warrant was later renewed.
As the Wall Street Journalreported on Friday, Steele’s research formed only part of the application. Four separate federal judges approved these renewals. All were appointed by Republican presidents.
Meanwhile, Page’s career as a Trump adviser was entering its terminal phase. His speech in Moscow had provoked comment, much of it adverse. The campaign’s ties with Russia were becoming a source of controversy. According to the Washington Post, quoting a campaign manager, Page wrote policy memos and attended three dinners in Washington for Trump’s foreign advisory team. He sat in on meetings with Trump. Apparently, his attempts to meet Trump personally failed.
In the classified briefing to congressional leaders in late August 2016 Page’s name figured prominently. The CIA and FBI were sifting through a mound of intercept material featuring Page, much of it “Russians talking to Russians,” according to one former National Security Council member. When Senate minority leader Harry Reid wrote to Comey in early autumn, he cited “disturbing” contacts between a Trump adviser and “high-ranking sanctioned individuals.” That was Page. And Sechin.
These embarrassing details surfaced in a report by Yahoo! News. Within hours, the Trump campaign had disavowed Page—casting him out as a nobody who had exaggerated his links to Trump. All of which made his subsequent rehabilitation by Nunes more bizarre. Page exited the campaign in late September. It was an inglorious end, and his troubles were just beginning. Steele’s Rosneft source was right. In early December—less than a month after Trump won the White House—Rosneft announced it was selling 19.5 percent of its stock. This was one of the biggest privatizations since the 1990s and, on the face of it, a vote of confidence in the Russian economy.
Steele’s mole had known about the plan months before Rosneft’s management board was informed. The board only discovered the deal on December 7, hours after Sechin had already recorded his TV meeting with Putin revealing it. Even the Russian cabinet had been kept in the dark. “Sechin did it all on his own—the government did not take part in this,” one source told Reuters.
In the weeks to come, US and other Western intelligence agencies would examine this deal closely. Where did the money go? Russian journalists were sceptical that it had ended up with Trump; it was more probable, they reasoned, that it would have travelled to Putin and Sechin. There was no proof of this, and neither the Kremlin nor other parties would offer comment.
A day after the Rosneft deal was unveiled, Page flew back to Moscow. During his previous July visit he’d been feted. Since then, however, Page had become a liability to the Trump campaign—and therefore to Russia, too. This time Page was an unperson, a toxic figure, at least officially. Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s press spokesman, said government leaders had no plans to meet with him.
Page’s own explanation for his visit was vague. He had come to see “business leaders and thought leaders,” he told RIA Novosti, the Russian state news agency. He would be in Moscow for six days, he said.
In the months to come, Page would vehemently deny the allegations against him. He portrayed himself as a “peace-seeker.” He even expressed sympathy for Podobnyy, the spy— whom he described as a “junior Russian diplomat.” In an email to the Guardian, Page complained that Obama had persecuted Podobnyy, Sporyshev, and him “in accordance with Cold War traditions.”
He wrote: “The time has come to break out of this Cold War mentality and start focusing on real threats, rather than obsolete and imagined bogeymen in Russia.”
Page’s loyalty to the SVR was breathtaking. Podobnyy wasn’t an “imagined bogeyman” but a career operative working against the interests of the United States. And, moreover, one who had bad-mouthed Page behind his back, calling him “a bit of an idiot”.
Whatever Page’s motives were for helping Russian intelligence—greed, naivety, stupidity—his actions surely justified the FBI’s interest in him. There was a simple way of avoiding U.S. surveillance and a FISA court warrant. It could be summed up like this: Don’t hang out with Russian spies.
From COLLUSION by Luke Harding. Copyright (c) 2017 by Luke Harding. Reprinted by permission of Vintage Books, an imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House.