The foreign policy adviser at the center of the storm over accusations that the Donald Trump campaign has secret ties to the Russian government has decided to publicly fight back. He denies meeting with sanctioned Russian officials during a recent trip to Moscow. In a long interview, Carter Page also told me he is taking a leave of absence from his work with the Trump campaign due to the controversy.
“All of these accusations are just complete garbage,” Page said about attacks on him by top officials in the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and unnamed intelligence officials, who have suggested that on a July trip to Moscow, Page met with “highly-sanctioned individuals” and perhaps even discussed an unholy alliance between the Trump campaign and the Russian government.
Last month, Reid wrote to FBI Director James B. Comey asking him to initiate an investigation into Page’s Moscow visit, where Page gave a speech at the graduation ceremony of the New Economic School. Without naming Page, Reid said the FBI should investigate his meetings as part of the larger look into whether the Trump campaign was conspiring with the Russian government to tamper with the U.S. presidential election.
Citing “a well-placed Western intelligence source,” Yahoo news last week reported that the U.S. government had received intelligence reports that Page met with Igor Sechin, a friend of Vladimir Putin who runs Russian oil giant Rosneft, and Igor Diveykin, a high–ranking Russian intelligence official. The article floated accusations that Page had conducted “talks about the possible lifting of economic sanctions if the Republican nominee becomes president.” Various other reports have alleged Page met with Sergei Ivanov, who until recently was the chief of Putin’s presidential administration.
“All the ones that are mentioned in the various articles, I didn’t meet with any of those guys,” Page told me in his first public comments on the accusations. “It’s completely false and inconceivable that someone would even accuse me of that.”
Page said that as part of the school’s graduation program, he did briefly meet and shake hands with Russian Deputy Prime Minister Arkady Dvorkovich, who was also a speaker at the graduation event. That meeting was an exchange of pleasantries, he said.
In his speech and in his personal interactions, Page said he made clear that he was acting in his personal capacity and not as a member of the Trump campaign. He also said he made that clear to senior Trump campaign staff at the time, who he said approved his trip in advance with the understanding no campaign issues would be discussed.
Nonetheless, calling the accusations a “distraction,” Page told me he’s decided to take a leave of absence from working with the campaign.
“This is another distraction that’s been created here,” he said. “There’s so little time between now and the election, this is in the best interests of the candidate. It’s so ridiculous I want to have it behind us.”
Reid’s letter came after senior intelligence officials briefed him about Russian hacking of U.S. political organizations and election systems. During the briefing, intelligence officials told Reid they were looking into Page’s meetings during his Moscow visit, according to congressional sources familiar with the conversation. There’s been no evidence presented to Congress about who Page met with, and Page said he has not been contacted by any government agency so far.
Last Friday, however, in a statement terming the Yahoo report “chilling,” the Clinton campaign doubled down on Reid’s call for a full investigation of suspected meetings between “Trump’s foreign policy adviser Carter Page and members of Putin’s inner circle.”
Meanwhile, the Trump campaign has been distancing itself from Page. Although Page was one of Trump’s originally announced foreign policy advisers, campaign manager KellyAnne Conway told CNN on Sunday that Page is not really involved at with the campaign at this point.
“I have not spoken with him at all, in fact, meaning he’s not part of our national security or foreign policy briefings that we do now at all, certainly not since I have become campaign manager,” she said. “And I also will say, if he’s doing that, he’s certainly not doing it with the permission or knowledge of the campaign, the activities that you described.”
Other Trump campaign sources told me that Page was never really part of Trump’s inner circle, although he was an early member of the team who was working with Sam Clovis, one of Trump’s first campaign policy advisers. Page has never met with Trump one on one and hasn’t been deeply involved in Trump foreign policy speeches or events, they said.
After months of not commenting and with the realization that he is now on his own, Page said he decided he has no choice but fight back against the accusations publicly. This morning, he sent a letter (PDF) to Comey asking him to swiftly dispose of the investigation into his meetings in Moscow, if such an investigation even exists.
“For the record, I have not met this year with any sanctioned official in Russia despite the fact that there are no restrictions on U.S. persons speaking with such individuals,” he wrote. “Instead of allowing the staff of the FBI to focus the nation’s limited resources on real threats, these desperate and unfounded calls for my investigation as a private citizen to advance political interests based on nothing more than preposterous mainstream media reports is a true disgrace.”
In the letter, Page also disclosed that he has sold his stake in the Russian energy giant Gazprom, at a loss. Page’s investments in Gazprom, a company he has performed consulting work for in the past, have often been mentioned as evidence of a conflict of interest for the Trump campaign because Gazprom is a Putin-friendly entity that operates in collusion with the Russian government.
Page is an easy target for Reid and the Clinton campaign. He’s a relatively unknown, mid-level oil industry consultant who has business ties to Russia and happens to believe that U.S. policy in Russia, including economic sanctions, should be reexamined.
But the likelihood that Page is the center of a Kremlin-Trump conspiracy to undermine the U.S. democratic system is extremely low. He is simply not senior enough to play that role for either side.
In its zeal to fuel the Trump-Putin connection story, the Clinton campaign and Reid have gone beyond the facts to attack Page, and the Trump campaign apparently decided to throw him under the bus when the heat rose. Page is simply the latest Trump staffer to get chewed up and spit out by the sheer ugliness of this election cycle.
Trump’s ties to Russia are longstanding, complicated and a real potential conflict of interest. They deserve greater scrutiny. At Monday’s debate, Clinton should challenge Trump on this topic, while Trump should be more forthright about his potential conflicts of interest with Russia. Carter Page is no longer one of them. It’s questionable if he ever was.