The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Ex-Trump campaign aide Carter Page notches victory after inspector general hammers FBI for surveillance missteps

Carter Page arrives at theU.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York on the same day as a hearing regarding Michael Cohen, a longtime personal lawyer and confidant for President Donald Trump, on April 16, 2018 in New York City.
Carter Page arrives at theU.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York on the same day as a hearing regarding Michael Cohen, a longtime personal lawyer and confidant for President Donald Trump, on April 16, 2018 in New York City. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Carter Page fought the law, and the law lost.

The former Trump campaign adviser was one of the first four suspects identified by the FBI in the early days of its investigation of President Trump’s 2016 campaign aides, and the only one of that group to have his electronic communications secretly targeted by a U.S. foreign intelligence court. But when the dust settled three years later, he was also the only one of the four without a criminal conviction — a feat all the more remarkable in that he did much of it without a lawyer.

Former Trump national security adviser Michael T. Flynn pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI during a relatively brief interview at the White House in early 2017. Former Trump campaign aide George Papadopoulos pleaded guilty to lying to agents in a separate interview that same month. Former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort pleaded guilty in one case and was convicted in another for a host of financial crimes.

Page, now 48, testified before Congress without a lawyer. He spoke to the FBI for about 10 hours in March 2017, also without a lawyer. He went on television, repeatedly, to declare his innocence and offer sometimes hard-to-follow explanations for his trips to Moscow and his meetings there.

It was a bold strategy.

“It’s highly unusual and something that we strongly advise against,” said Gary Stein, a former federal prosecutor who is now at the law firm of Schulte Roth & Zabel. “In my view, any interaction with the government, particularly when they’re asking you questions, is fraught with danger, because an untruthful answer could be viewed as a criminal act. So we always think the right course is to have a lawyer in those interactions and to limit the number of statements you make publicly because those are all things that can come back to haunt you.”

Inspector General details problems with FBI’s Russia probe

Page had declared that the year-long surveillance of his communications was an abuse of government power, and he received a significant measure of vindication last Monday in a 434-page report from Justice Department Inspector General Michael E. Horowitz.

Horowitz concluded that the FBI made 17 significant errors or omissions in its applications to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to surveil Page.

“It doesn’t vindicate anyone at the FBI who touched this, including the leadership,” Horowitz told Congress.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) said, “If I was Mr. Carter Page, I’d hire me a lawyer and I’d sue the hell out of the United States.”

Acting as his own attorney, Page has already sued the government, claiming that news stories about the investigation made him a victim of terrorism, but a judge rejected that argument. He has filed a separate suit alleging violations of the Privacy Act, and his comments since the release of the inspector general report suggest that he intends to keep fighting in court.

He said the report is “a positive initial step, but it is just that,” arguing that the Justice Department needs to change how it handles Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) investigations.

“I am exceptionally grateful to the U.S. Department of Justice as well as members of the Senate Judiciary Committee from both parties who have underscored the importance of fixing this problem. I’m glad that it has become a high national priority,” Page said.

The twists and turns of the Page saga stretch to 2013, when he was caught up in a Russian spy investigation in New York City.

Page, who had worked in Moscow years earlier as an investment banker, met with a Russian official in January 2013 at an energy conference in New York. That official, Victor Podobnyy, was known as a Russian diplomat to the United Nations but was in fact a Russian intelligence agent, according to U.S. officials. In the months that followed, Page provided Podobnyy documents about the energy business. Prosecutors filed charges against the Russian suspects in the case in 2015. Court papers did not identify Page, but he was on the FBI’s radar.

FBI questioned Carter Page for hours

Then, in March 2016, Trump named Page as one of his foreign policy advisers. The next month, counterintelligence officials opened an investigation of him.

That summer, as the political parties had their nominating conventions, files and emails stolen from the Democratic National Committee were released publicly via the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks. U.S. intelligence officials had already determined that Russian intelligence hackers had stolen the files; now the Russians appeared to be using them to try to influence the election.

In late July, an Australian diplomat notified the U.S. government that a Trump campaign adviser, Papadopoulos, had suggested before the DNC hacking was known that the Russians were interested in helping the campaign.

That tip led senior FBI officials in Washington to open its investigation of Papadopoulos, and take over the inquiry of Page. As investigators pursued Page, they realized that other agents in the bureau had been sitting on an explosive set of allegations against him made by a former British intelligence officer, Christopher Steele, who had been hired, via another firm, by the Democrats.

That set of allegations, which became known as the Steele dossier, was used by FBI agents to get approval from a FISA court in October 2016 to secretly monitor Page’s communications. The court-approved surveillance was reauthorized three times, amounting to a year of surveillance. The inspector general found major problems with the assertions the FBI made to the court — relying on damaging accusations that the FBI could not substantiate, and not disclosing exculpatory information.

FBI obtained FISA warrant on former Trump adviser Carter Page

Among the most damning findings in the report was that an FBI lawyer had retroactively altered an email to make it look as though Page was not a source for the CIA, when in fact the agency had told the FBI as early as August 2016 that it had a previous relationship with Page.

The inspector general’s report does not identify the CIA by name, but people familiar with the case said that it was the agency in question. Page announced on television that he had spoken to the CIA in the past, forcing officials to scramble to figure out whether that was true.

To determine whether Page was a secret agent of Russia, the FBI sent a confidential informant to talk to him about his alleged relationship with Manafort. But in that secretly recorded conversation, Page denied knowing Manafort, saying that Manafort wouldn’t even respond to Page’s emails, according to the inspector general’s report.

But the investigation continued. In April 2017, while Page’s calls and emails were still under surveillance, The Washington Post reported what the FBI had been doing. Page said the activity was “unjustified, politically motivated government surveillance,” comparing the eavesdropping to secret recordings the FBI and the Justice Department made against civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1960s.

Rather than hire a lawyer, Page decided to speak out, giving media interviews and asking lawmakers to dig into his case.

“I want to get as much information out there as possible,” he told CNN in April 2017.

Page ultimately hired a lawyer to help him navigate his interviews with prosecutors working for Robert S. Mueller III, but for the most part he remained a one-man, nonlawyer advocate for his cause.

At times, that effort bordered on the comical, such as when reporters spotted him in a Senate office building delivering documents that had been requested by the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Wearing a boyish grin and a bright red bucket hat, Page dropped off his papers, and seemed to enjoy himself as the reporters followed, taking his picture and asking him questions.

Paul Kane contributed to this report.