In early June, a little-known adviser to Donald Trump stunned a gathering of high-powered Washington foreign policy experts meeting with the visiting prime minister of India, going off topic with effusive praise for Russian President Vladimir Putin and Trump.
The adviser, Carter Page, hailed Putin as stronger and more reliable than President Obama, according to three people who were present at the closed-door meeting at Blair House — and then touted the positive effect a Trump presidency would have on U.S.-Russia relations.
A month later, Page dumbfounded foreign policy experts again by giving another speech harshly critical of U.S. policy — this time in Moscow.
The United States and other Western nations have “criticized these regions for continuing methods which were prevalent during the Cold War period,” Page said in a lecture at the New Economic School commencement. “Yet ironically, Washington and other Western capitals have impeded potential progress through their often hypocritical focus on ideas such as democratization, inequality, corruption and regime change.”
Page has an ambiguous role in Trump’s campaign. But since being named to the Republican nominee’s team in March, his stature within the foreign policy world has grown considerably, drawing alarm from more-established foreign policy experts who view him as having little real understanding about U.S.-Russia relations. Many also say that Page’s views may be compromised by his investment in Russian energy giant Gazprom.
Other foreign policy experts from both parties say they are distressed with Page for his criticism of sanctions, praise for Putin and his advisers, and his tepid response to what most U.S. policymakers see as Russian aggression.
“It scares me,” said David Kramer, who was responsible for Russia and Ukraine at the State Department during the George W. Bush administration. He called Page’s speech in Moscow and recent comments by Trump on the possibility of lifting sanctions against Moscow “deeply unsettling.”
Asked to comment on Page’s public statements and campaign role, Trump spokeswoman Hope Hicks said Page was an “informal foreign policy adviser” who “does not speak for Mr. Trump or the campaign.” Trump first named Page as one of a handful of his foreign policy advisers during a meeting at The Washington Post.
The open embrace of a controversial foreign leader is unusual for an adviser to a presidential candidate — and a break from a decades-old Republican tradition of tough stances toward Moscow.
Page, who worked in Moscow for Merrill Lynch a decade ago and who has said he is invested in Gazprom, joins other Trump advisers who have done business in Russia while advocating closer relations. Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, for example, has wooed investments from oligarchs linked to Putin and advised the now-toppled pro-Russian Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych.
Trump has also expressed admiration for Putin, questioned U.S. obligations to defend NATO allies and most recently — after hacked emails were released on the eve of the Democratic National Convention — asked for Russian help to find the deleted emails of presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. At the time he spoke, the FBI was investigating a break-in at the Democratic National Committee by alleged Russian hackers. Later, Trump said the request was made sarcastically.
While his comments have drawn derision from some quarters, friends of the 45-year-old Page say that he is knowledgeable about Russian affairs, and they profess astonishment that he has chosen to advise Trump.
A graduate of the Naval Academy later posted as a Marine intelligence officer in Western Sahara, Page won a fellowship from the Council on Foreign Relations, where he wrote about Turkey’s role as a hub for oil and natural gas being taken by pipeline from the Caspian Sea region to Europe. After earning a degree from New York University’s business school, Page moved in 2004 to Moscow, where he worked for Merrill Lynch until 2007.
Page, who declined to comment for this article, has said in other media interviews that he also struck up a relationship with Gazprom. His Web biography says he was an adviser “on key transactions for Gazprom,” the Russian electric utility and other energy companies. In a two-hour interview with Bloomberg News in late March, he said he advised Gazprom on its largest deals, including buying a stake in an oil and natural gas field near Russia’s Sakhalin Island and the merging of two classes of Gazprom stock, one of which was restricted to foreigners and the other to Russians.
Page has offered that experience as one of his main areas of expertise, but his boss at Merrill Lynch at the time says that Page’s claims are exaggerated.
Sergey Aleksashenko, former deputy chairman of the Russian central bank and former chairman of Merrill Lynch Russia, says that Page did not play a key role at that time. “He was a vice president, and the job of vice president is not to organize deals but to execute,” Aleksashenko said.
He also said that no one at Merrill Lynch advised Gazprom on its purchase of Sakhalin oil and gas assets from a group led by Royal Dutch Shell, because the deal was driven by the Russian government, which strong-armed Shell by holding back environmental permits, complaining about the extent of local content and slowing Shell’s work to a crawl.
“Gazprom did not need any advice,” Aleksashenko said. “It was not a commercially driven transaction.”
Merrill Lynch was one of three firms that issued a fairness opinion on the price Gazprom eventually paid the Shell group.
Aleksashenko said when he heard that Trump named Page as an adviser, “I was laughing because he was never ready to discuss foreign policy.”
After he left Moscow, Page worked as chief operating officer of Merrill Lynch’s energy and power department in New York. Later, he set up Global Energy Capital, which is around the corner from Trump Tower. But he told Bloomberg News that he failed to raise money for a private-equity fund to buy assets in Turkmenistan. Instead, he says on his website that he advised others on investing in Russia and emerging markets.
Page’s position as a Trump adviser has catapulted him into the most prestigious policy events, such as a closed-door session co-chaired by former secretary of state Madeleine K. Albright and Republican consultant Vin Weber at Cambridge University in July. After his speech at the New Economic School in Moscow, Page spoke briefly with another speaker, Arkady Dvorkovich, who is a graduate of the school, deputy to Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and now chairman of the Russian Railways board.
Page also went to the Republican National Convention, where he attended a session held by the International Republican Institute and a separate, sponsored foreign policy event.
Page has left a trail of blog posts on the Global Policy Journal that has traditional foreign policy experts scratching their heads. For example, on Feb. 10, 2015, he compared the 2015 National Security Strategy rationale for imposing sanctions on Russia to an 1850 publication offering slaveholders guidance on how to produce “the ideal slave.”
After the Obama administration added Rosneft Chairman Igor Sechin to its sanctions list in 2014, limiting Sechin’s ability to travel to the United States or do business with U.S. firms, Page praised the former deputy prime minister, considered one of Putin’s closest allies over the past 25 years. “Sechin has done more to advance U.S.-Russian relations than any individual in or out of government from either side of the Atlantic over the past decade,” Page wrote.
Another blog post on March 31, 2015, titled “ISIS Response Self-help Principles for Would-be Warriors of the West” approvingly cites Dale Carnegie’s classic “How to Win Friends and Influence People” as a strategy for dealing with the Islamic State.
Since being named as a member of the Trump team in March, Page’s background in Russia has raised questions about potential conflicts of interest.
During his interview with Bloomberg News, he said that he owns shares of Gazprom and that his stock portfolio had suffered since 2014, when the United States and Europe imposed economic sanctions on Russia after its annexation of the Crimean Peninsula.
In his Moscow speech in July, Page suggested that investment was the key to better relations. He said the United States should provide Russia with “emerging technologies and potential capital market access contingent upon the U.S.’s refocus toward resolution of domestic challenges.” Russia would, in turn, approve “collaborative partnerships in the energy industry and other diversified sectors.”
“So many people who I know and have worked with have been so adversely affected by the sanctions policy,” Page told Bloomberg News. “There’s a lot of excitement in terms of the possibilities for creating a better situation.” While acknowledging his own investments in Russia, Page told Bloomberg News his work on the campaign was unlikely to help his portfolio.
All holdings in Russia by members of the Trump team should be fully disclosed, said Michael McFaul, a former U.S. ambassador to Russia under Obama who is now teaching at Stanford University.
Trump is not the first national political figure to suggest improved relations with Russia; Obama and Clinton advocated a “reset” a few years ago, which they have since abandoned. Trump is also not alone in seeking more military spending from U.S. allies in Europe. But he is the first to cast doubt on NATO’s mutual defense commitment or to request help from Russia in undermining his opponent.
“I think what we are offering is a very clear, mature, adult, realistic view of the world,” said Sam Clovis, an Iowa talk-show host and former Senate candidate who backs Trump and makes the case for rethinking U.S. commitments around the globe.
The Republican platform committee at the party’s convention last month was one place Trump campaign aides have promoted that view, according to national security experts who were there. They said Trump campaign staffers weakened language that would have called for military support of Ukraine.
“It was troubling to me that they would want to water down language that supports a country that has been invaded by an aggressive neighbor,” said Rachel Hoff, a member of the platform committee. “I think the U.S. should properly come to Ukraine’s aid in that struggle. In the past, that would not be considered a controversial Republican position.”
Manafort denied on “Meet the Press” this week that the campaign had sought to alter platform language related to Russia. However, those present said they negotiated directly with people who worked for the campaign.
Democrats, however, have suggested something more sinister lies behind Trump’s unusual views on Russia. McFaul, who reviewed Page’s early July speech in Moscow, said he disagreed with the content and added that he knew of no precedent for a presidential campaign adviser publicly criticizing U.S. policy in a foreign capital. The ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, Adam B. Schiff (Calif.), has said that the Russian ties of Trump’s advisers show that the “Kremlin has tentacles into the Trump campaign.”
Meanwhile, in Moscow, all this is being watched closely.
“I think Donald Trump is a very interesting internal American phenomenon,” said Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs and chairman of the presidium of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy. He said that in July, Page had not established contacts with the Kremlin and had only met with some university professors for informal coffees.
“I don’t think he has any direct support here,” Lukyanov said of Trump. “What he’s saying sounds very much refreshing to Russian ears. If he by chance were elected president, I think many people in Russia would love it.”
Rosalind S. Helderman, Will Englund and Andrew Roth contributed to this report.