An answer by FBI Director James Comey during his May 3 testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee caught my attention.
During the hearing, Sen. Lindsey Graham asked him a few questions about Carter Page:
GRAHAM: OK, Carter Page; was there a FISA warrant issued regarding Carter Page’s activity with the Russians.
COMEY: I can’t answer that here.
GRAHAM: Did you consider Carter Page an agent of the campaign?
COMEY: Same answer, I can’t answer that here.
GRAHAM: OK. Do you stand by your testimony that there is an active investigation counterintelligence investigation regarding Trump campaign individuals in the Russian government as to whether not to collaborate? You said that in March…
COMEY: To see if there was any coordination between the Russian effort and peoples…
GRAHAM: Is that still going on?
GRAHAM: OK. So nothing’s changed. You stand by those two statements?
GRAHAM: But you won’t tell me about Carter Page?
COMEY: Not here I won’t.
The curious part of this is the section I’ve highlighted in bold. It seems a fairly benign question: Was Carter Page an agent of the Trump campaign?
Yet, Comey declined to answer in public.
Sometimes in these “I can’t answer these questions” hearings, the questions are more interesting than the answer. They can be a way of signaling important things if you’re paying attention.
Comey’s refusal to comment on whether Page was an agent of the campaign suggests that the question touches on an aspect of the FBI’s investigation. Comey could not have answered without divulging something about the investigation. In other words, the FBI is likely examining the nature of Page’s role in the campaign. As a Senate veteran and lawyer himself, Graham also certainly knew that Comey wouldn’t answer the FISA question. But did he also know that he wouldn’t touch the question on Page’s role in the campaign? I would venture to guess that he did.
Almost since Trump in March 2016 named “Carter Page, PhD” as one of his foreign policy advisers, everything about Page and the campaign has been a mystery. He traveled to Moscow in July 2016 to give a speech critical of U.S. policy at Moscow’s New Economic School, but exactly who he met with is unclear. Page did reluctantly admit to meeting with Sergey Kislyak, the Russian ambassador to the US at the Republican National Committee meeting in Cleveland, but what they discussed isn’t known. Also unclear is how Page wound up on the campaign is still very much a mystery, as I’ve explored previously.
So if Page wasn’t an agent of the campaign, what was he?
How did Carter Page get his ticket to board the Trump train?
Page, reportedly the subject of a secret intelligence court warrant, was one of the Trump advisors Russian intelligence tried to use to infiltrate the campaign, CNN is reporting.
Did he ever meet Trump? Who introduced him to the campaign? Like most things with the whole saga of Donald Trump and Russia the answers are not so clear.
On March 21, 2016, Trump met with the editorial board of The Washington Post. Frederick Ryan, the Post’s publisher, asked Trump whether he could share any names of his foreign policy team. Among the names that Trump reeled out was “Carter Page, PhD.”
A former investment banker with Merrill Lynch, Page opened the firm’s Moscow office, and then left to found Global Energy Capital LLC of New York, an investment company specializing in the oil and gas sector in Russia. He had partnered on some deals with Sergey Yatsenko, a former deputy chief financial officer at Gazprom, the Russian gas giant with close ties to the Kremlin.
Page was unknown in Washington’s foreign policy circles and no one paid him much attention until he made a trip to Moscow in July and gave a speech critical of U.S. policy at Moscow’s New Economic School. Washington had a “hypocritical focus on ideas such as democratization, inequality, corruption and regime change” in its dealings with Russia, Page said.
What else did Page do in Moscow? Once again, it’s not clear. Page has never said whom he met with in Moscow. When he was asked by Reuters whether he was planning to meet anyone from the Kremlin, the Russian government or Foreign Ministry during his visit, Page declined to comment. Russian Deputy Prime Minister Arkady Dvorkovich also spoke at the graduation. Page has given conflicting stories on whether he met him. On March 2, Page told Christopher Hayes of MSNBC that he only met with “scholars and professors and some students there.”
Page’s Moscow visit got the FBI’s attention. Something that happened during his Moscow trip — exactly what isn’t clear — led the FBI to seek a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court warrant for Page after his departure from the campaign, according to a front-page story in The New York Times. To obtain the warrant, which reportedly has been renewed, the FBI convinced a judge that there was evidence showing Page was an agent of a foreign power. Page has strongly denied this.
[For the background on Page’s contacts with Russian officials, see the Carter Page Timeline.]
By August, the Trump campaign was already distancing itself from Page and on September 26, he announced he was leaving the campaign, saying his continued presence had become a distraction. Looking back, Page viewed his time on the Trump campaign as one of his greatest experiences. “The half year I spent on the Trump campaign meant more to me than the five years I spent in the Navy,” he told The Times.
Page is full of strange comments like that. He has often changed his stories. He has refused repeatedly to say what he did for the Trump campaign. He also has not been well-served by his habit of reflexively refusing to comment every time he gets in front of a microphone.
From the get-go, Page has been cryptic about how he came to join the Trump campaign. In a Bloomberg story published nine days after Trump announced him as a member of his foreign policy team, Page declined to say how he and Trump connected.
Much later, it emerged that Sam Clovis, a GOP activist and economics professor on leave from Morningside College in Sioux City, Iowa, produced a list of foreign policy advisers that included Page’s name. Julia Ioffe quoted a Trump advisor naming Clovis as the intermediary in this exhaustive Page story in Politico back in September:
According to the Trump policy adviser, this winter, Clovis began to draw up a list of people who could serve as policy advisers to the campaign and give it some intellectual and policy heft. At a time when established Republican foreign policy specialists were tripping over each other to get away from Trump, “a lot of people came to Sam Clovis in February, March, and said, ‘I want to be part of the team,’” says the Trump adviser. And that’s how it happened. “He’s just a guy on a list. Trump looked at the list and said, ‘He’s an adviser.’ And now he’s milking it for all it’s worth.”
[Editor’s note: an earlier version of this post incorrectly named The Daily Caller as the first to report the Clovis connection.]
But it seemed unlikely that an Iowa politico would come up with Page’s name on his own. And, on April 12, Page was interviewed on CNN by Jake Tapper, and Page once again muddied the waters about how he came to join the campaign.
TAPPER: Was it Sam Clovis? Was it Sam Clovis?
PAGE: I have no comment. I have no comment.
TAPPER: Well, I mean, I know you want to get out all this information, but then you refuse to answer questions.
TAPPER: There’s nothing wrong with somebody bring you into the campaign. I’m just trying to find out who it was.
PAGE: It’s an irrelevant point. He was not the first person that brought me in. I can assure you of that.
A day later, on April 13, The Daily Caller, citing multiple sources, reported that the mystery man who had introduced Page to Clovis was Corey Lewandowski, Trump’s former campaign manager. Lewandowski introduced Page to Clovis sometime in late 2015 or early 2016, according to The Daily Caller.
To date, no other news outlet has verified this. Lewandowski insisted (a bit too strongly, perhaps?) that he didn’t know Page in a March 5 Fox News interview.
“I was on the campaign for 18 months. I never met the guy and for anybody to say otherwise is factually inaccurate,” Lewandowski said. “I don’t know who Carter Page is. I never had a conversation with Carter Page. I never met Carter Page and anybody who says otherwise is not being truthful. And let me tell you this: A lot of people now want to claim that they were on the Trump campaign because he’s now president of the United States who had nothing to do with the campaign and Carter Page is one of those guys.”
Despite his denials, the Lewandowski connection, if true, backs up an earlier report in Politico about Page’s Moscow Trip. Lewandowski had approved Page’s Moscow trip over the objections of J.D. Gordon, another Trump advisor.
Lewandowski overruled Gordon and told Page he could go, but not as a representative of the Trump campaign. But that was not how Page’s visit was received in Moscow.
At Moscow’s New Economic School, a newsletter announcing Page’s visit read: “You are invited to a lecture by Carter Page, foreign policy adviser for Donald Trump’s election campaign.” Katehon, an influential, conservative Russian think tank, warmly welcomed Page’s visit, published excerpts of his speech and described his visit in glowing terms in a post headlined, “Trump’s Advisor in Moscow: An Alternative for the US.”
The Politico story also contained a quote that I found hard to forget. When asked what Page did while in Moscow, an unnamed campaign advisor said this: “I have no idea. I didn’t want to know.”