Intelligence and law-enforcement veterans broadly agree that President Donald Trump’s latest directive to the FBI and Justice Department—issued after much urging from a small group of his GOP supporters in Congress—to declassify portions of a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) warrant and other documents that are part of the ongoing Russia investigation is remarkable.
“This appears to be an unprecedented use of the president’s discretionary authority to declassify information for purely partisan political reasons,” said David Laufman, a former high-ranking DOJ official who served as the chief of the Counterintelligence and Export Control Section before leaving in February. “I believe it raises the resignation issue more forcefully than anything the president has done so far,” said John McLaughlin, a former acting director of the CIA.
But one of the more bizarre subplots in the ongoing saga of Trump and House Republicans condemning alleged “deep state” corruption has been the martyrdom of Carter Page—a former Trump campaign adviser suspected by the FBI of acting as a foreign agent for Russia, and the subject of the FISA warrants that Trump and his allies now want declassified. “Carter Page is a very unlikely GOP hero,” Democratic Congressman Adam Schiff, the ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, told me. “But there’s a desperation by Republicans to cast the initiation of the Russia investigation as illegitimate. And that includes creating a completely different story around Carter Page.”
One month before the 2016 election, the FBI applied for a FISA warrant to surveil Page, which House Republicans—led by Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes—have tried repeatedly to characterize as but one part of a politically motivated spying operation targeting innocent Trump campaign associates carried out by the Obama administration and its holdovers, justified by nothing more than raw intelligence collected by a former British intelligence agent named Christopher Steele. The warrant application needs to be fully declassified, Nunes told Fox News on Monday, so that the public can “really understand just how broad and invasive this investigation has been to many Americans, and how unfair it has been.”
But it’s looking more and more like House Republicans have chosen to die on a hill that’s shifting below their feet. “Be careful what you wish for,” Democratic Senator Mark Warner, the ranking member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, told reporters on Tuesday. He was indicating, according to an aide, that “it’s simply impossible to review the documents” on Page and conclude anything other than that the FBI “had ample reason” to investigate him. It’s not only Democratic senators who believe that: Republican Senator Richard Burr, the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, told CNN in July that he believes the FISA judges had “sound reasons” for issuing the Page surveillance warrant to the FBI. “I don’t think I ever expressed that I thought the FISA application came up short,” Burr said at the time.
There was a reason why Trump and his allies worked so hard to distance themselves from Page toward the end of the election and into last year: He had come under scrutiny for traveling to Russia in July 2016, at the height of the election, ostensibly just to deliver a speech at Moscow’s New Economic School. The Steele dossier, which alleged a conspiracy between Trump and the Kremlin to win the 2016 election, said that while in Moscow Page had met with Igor Sechin—a Vladimir Putin ally and the executive chairman of Russia’s state oil company, Rosneft—to discuss lifting U.S. sanctions in exchange for the brokerage of a 19 percent stake in the oil giant. Unredacted portions of the Page FISA applications, released by the Justice Department in July in response to a Freedom of Information Act request, said that “the FBI believes that the Russian government’s efforts are being coordinated with Page and perhaps other individuals associated with” Trump’s campaign, and that Page “has established relationships with Russian government officials, including Russian intelligence officers.”
Page, who lived in Moscow in the early 2000s while he was an investment banker for Merrill Lynch, wrote occasional blog posts from 2013 to 2014 in which he praised Sechin for his “accomplishments” in advancing U.S.-Russia relations and criticized the U.S. sanctions on Russia as “sanctimonious expressions of moral superiority.” In numerous interviews and television appearances following the dossier’s publication in January 2017, Page vehemently and indignantly denied the document’s accusations—including that he had met with any government officials while in Moscow—and agreed to testify before the House Intelligence Committee last October. There, his story changed.
Pressed by Schiff over hours of closed-door testimony, the transcript of which was released a week later, Page revealed that he had met with members of Russia’s presidential administration while in Moscow, as well as with Andrey Baranov, the head of investor relations at Rosneft. Page said that he “possibly” spoke to Baranov before traveling to Moscow, and acknowledged that Baranov “may have briefly mentioned” a potential Rosneft sale during their conversation. Asked whether he had brought up the issue of sanctions, Page was similarly evasive: “Not directly,” he replied. And after initially denying it, Page said he “may have” greeted the overseas professor Joseph Mifsud, who told another Trump campaign aide, George Papadopoulos, about the Kremlin’s dossier of incriminating Hillary Clinton emails.
If the fluidity of Page’s recollections over the past 20 months isn’t enough to make Republicans think twice about hanging their hat on his innocence, his run-in with two Russian spies three years before he joined the campaign should. According to the Justice Department, Page met with, emailed with, and “provided documents to” one of the spies, Victor Podobnyy, who was posing as a diplomat in New York City while acting as an agent of Russia’s foreign-intelligence agency, known as the SVR. Page gave Podobnyy information “about the energy business” from January to June of 2013, according to the DOJ’s criminal complaint, and Podobnyy appeared to acknowledge in intercepted conversations that he was using Page as a “useful idiot” for intelligence-gathering purposes. Page evidently wasn’t the wiser: In August 2013, he wrote a letter to a book editor claiming that he had been serving as “an informal adviser to the staff of the Kremlin” on “energy issues.”
Page told the FBI he didn’t know the Russians were spies. But the bureau was evidently not convinced—while descriptions of Page’s interactions with the spies remain redacted, the FISA application did discuss the efforts by Podobnyy and two other Russian intelligence operatives to recruit “New York City residents” as assets in 2013, when Page was first interviewed by FBI counterintelligence agents. The FBI interviewed Page again in March 2016—just before he joined the Trump campaign, and months before the FBI officially began its probe of possible collusion between the campaign and Russia.
Page, for his part, says he has not been in touch with House Republicans throughout their fight to declassify the warrant application. But he has, over the past few weeks, sent me some eerily well-timed text messages. “You’ll see,” Page wrote me on August 31, after tweeting that “the Corrupt DOJ, co-conspirators in the DNC and their high-priced consultants correctly believed they had American democracy and the FISA Court over a barrel” in 2016. “Read between the lines and give things a few more weeks with further exposure of the full facts.”
Ten days later, Axios reported that Trump was considering declassifying Russia-probe documents. “Every week more and more truth comes out,” Page told me that day. “Who knows what good news this week might bring!”