As someone who has followed Russia for four decades, I perceive Carter Page as a bit of a naif. Our assessments of Russian foreign policy, by all accounts, are diametrically opposed, and Page’s inclusion, along with Mike Flynn, on the Trump campaign’s foreign-policy team gave me yet another reason not to vote for The Donald. With all due respect for Page’s native intelligence and high level of education, he comes across as what Lenin pithily called a “useful idiot.” Useful idiots were stock characters during the Cold War—earnest, deeply concerned Westerners, often Communist sympathizers, who wondered why can’t we all just get along, and who were convinced that we could resolve our differences with Moscow by meeting the Russians halfway (wherever that might be). While having no discernible effect on the course, let alone the outcome, of the Cold War, such people have nevertheless been considered by the Russians to be of some utility.
Indicative of this attitude is the surreptitiously taped characterization of Page by the Russian intelligence operative who vetted him in 2013 for possible recruitment: “I think he is an idiot.” Apparently, however, Page didn’t even qualify as a useful one—the operative decided he was not even worth recruiting.
This assessment should be borne in mind, since Trump’s detractors, to the contrary, have decided that Page is extremely useful indeed, albeit in an entirely different way.
Following the February 2 release of the Nunes memo, Trump’s political and journalistic enemies have been at pains to justify the FISA warrant to surveil Page by alleging that his suspicious activities—quite apart from any unverified allegation in the Steele dossier—had already deservedly brought him to the FBI’s attention. “You actually had been on the FBI’s radar for working with Russia for several years,” charged George Stephanopoulos in an interview with Page, adding ,”You were recruited at one point by a Russian agent, then you wrote yourself that you were an informal adviser to the Kremlin.”
A little bit of clarification is in order here.
Reading some of the recent hyperventilating headlines (“Carter Page admits to advising the Kremlin”), one could be forgiven for wondering whether Page’s years in Moscow were spent working from an office adjoining Putin’s. The reality is disappointingly pedestrian. What Page actually wrote in a 2013 letter is that, “over the past half year, I have had the privilege to serve as an informal advisor to the staff of the Kremlin in preparation for their Presidency of the G-20 Summit next month, where energy issues will be a prominent point on the agenda.”
Color me underwhelmed. So, it evidently was not Page, after all, who first suggested that Putin use the Ukrainian domestic crisis as a pretext for seizing the Crimea, or who counseled the Russian government to expel USAID, declare NGOs to be foreign agents, or murder Nemtsov and Magnitsky. Rather, he offered his thoughts (quite possibly unsolicited) on energy matters to working-level Kremlin staffers preparing to host a routine G-20 summit in St. Petersburg. Did any of his ideas have any impact on the summit deliberations? Did the summit lead to any noteworthy energy-related developments? For that matter, can anyone recall any results of any consequence whatsoever from the 2013 St. Petersburg G-20 summit? No, no, and no. Nevertheless, Page’s banal indulgence in a little résumé-padding is being magnified into sedition and used to justify the FBI’s interest in Page. Quite apart from the inherent flimsiness of the pretext, it’s not clear from the accounts I’ve seen whether this letter, which has only recently been publicized, was even known to the FBI when it sought the FISA warrant.
Equally disturbing is Stephanopoulos’ mendacious assertion that Page was “recruited by a Russian agent.” Of course Page was not “recruited.” He was only vetted for a possible recruitment attempt—and found to be not worth the effort. But such vetting is standard operating procedure for the Russian intelligence services, who have doubtless conducted a similar vetting of virtually every American diplomat, journalist, and businessman who has spent any time in Russia, or dealing with Russia. If an American being vetted by the Russian security services merits an FBI investigation, then the U.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court had better start hiring and training the hundreds of judges that will be required to issue all those FISA warrants.
The assault on Page goes beyond mere misrepresentation of his relationships with Russians. Luke Harding’s recent article on Page gratuitously denigrates the man as a nerdy, ill-at-ease, socially inept misfit. It then goes on to accept at face value what is possibly the most improbable episode in the entire Steele dossier: the allegation that Igor Sechin, the second most powerful man in Russia, invited Page to a secret conclave during Page’s July 2016 visit to Moscow. There Sechin supposedly laid out a deal—the dropping of U.S. sanctions on Russia in return for a large financial consideration in connection with the privatization of a portion of Sechin’s company, Rosneft. In a follow-on meeting, one of Sechin’s subordinates allegedly dangled the prospect of sharing damaging information about Hillary Clinton, but warned that the Russians had dirt on Trump as well.
Never mind that this account contradicts one of the main allegations in the Steele dossier—that the Russians had already been feeding the Trump campaign compromising information on Clinton for years. Harding’s disparaging portrayal of Page as a hapless “wackadoodle” (his sneering quote of Page’s former employer) completely undermines the plausibility of the scenario Harding so desperately wants us to swallow. It is an enormous stretch to believe that Trump would entrust such a sensitive and fraught mission, not to a member of his inner circle, but to a campaign volunteer with whom he was barely even acquainted. However, it simply beggars the imagination to suppose that Sechin, Russia’s Darth Vader, would summon a nonentity like Page to his Death Star to lay out his proposal for collusion between Russia and Team Trump. Make no mistake: If the account in the Steele dossier were true, it would represent a quantum leap in Russian risk-taking with regard to manipulation of foreign elections. Things like hacking and leaking, or planting slanted stories, are low-cost, low-risk activities impossible to trace back to senior Russian officialdom. However, if the Russian leadership were taking the gamble of personal involvement in such a high-risk scheme, would it trust a man whom their own intelligence services had assessed as worthless? What would prevent such an individual from flying home from Moscow and taking the story straight to the press, or the FBI? Sorry, but from the Russian perspective, high-level intrigue is emphatically not a game for useful idiots.
The coup de grâce in Harding’s Picassoesque portrait of Page is a liberal helping of good old-fashioned slander and innuendo. Page, Harding intones ominously, “was on suspiciously good terms with Russia.” His pro-Russian proclivities, we are led to believe, provide ample evidence of his treasonous intent. Page gave some innocuous energy-related papers to a Russian acquaintance who turned out to be an undercover agent, an incident Harding twists beyond all recognition to describe Page as “[an] American willing to provide information to Putin’s foreign intelligence officers.” Even Harding’s apparently random comment that “during his navy days, [Page] spent lavishly and drove a black Mercedes” is intended to elicit a knowing smile from the reader (“Aha, you see—he was probably already on their payroll!”).
The point of this brutal character assassination, of course, is to demonstrate that the tainted, politicized nature of the Steele dossier and the investigation it engendered does not compromise the validity of either Page’s surveillance or the wider collusion allegations against Team Trump.
A frisson of gleeful anticipation greeted the news in fall 2017 that charges were being brought against Paul Manafort and his protégé Rick Gates, and that Mike Flynn and George Papadopoulos had pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI and were cooperating with the authorities. Amid the satisfaction and self-congratulation about Trump’s impending downfall, no one seems to have paid much attention to the fact that none of the charges had anything to do with collusion with Russia, nor did they suggest that any of the damning allegations in the Steele dossier had been verified. Rather, there was an assumption that Trump’s associates, nabbed by the long arm of the law, would start “singing,” and that their chorus would quickly and undeniably implicate the President in impeachable wrongdoing.
But the hopes of autumn are giving way to a silent spring. Is this deafening silence from Manafort et al. a token of their undying loyalty to The Donald—the omerta of mafia thugs? Or is it just possible that there is simply no song to sing—no collusion, no payoffs, no information-sharing—maybe not even any “golden rain?” And what did the FBI, armed with its FISA warrant, learn about Page during the months its agents were surveilling him? Did this unlikely hypostatic union of awkward geek and master of intrigue manage to cover his tracks so well that the Feds could not even muster the risible amount of evidence required for a conspiracy charge?
It’s hardly a secret that, for a broad swath of the U.S. political classes and the American press, the removal of Trump has become the Holy Grail, the goal to which all other things must be subordinated. In this sacred endeavor, Carter Page is useful in ways that even the most cynical Russian handlers could hardly have imagined. And if his dignity and reputation must be utterly trashed in the process—well, so much the worse for Page.
Responsible journalism dies in darkness. Or is it dankness?