Whether or not there was collusion with Russia, Carter Page probably was, and still is, a dead end. A former volunteer foreign policy advisor to Trump’s campaign, Page was by all appearances a relatively minor player operating well outside of Trump’s inner circle. But, in the weeks before the 2016 election, as U.S. intelligence agencies watched an intensifying Russian effort to throw the vote into chaos with increasing alarm, Page was the best lead the FBI had.
When the U.S. intelligence community learned of George Papadopoulos’ drunken brag to Australia’s ambassador to Great Britain about Russia’s possession of emails damaging to Hillary Clinton, which established at least one member of the Trump campaign’s prior knowledge of Russia’s plans to release hacked emails, they were justifiably alarmed. By late summer of 2016, the CIA determined that the Russian hacks of the DNC were just one part of a massive effort to meddle in the November election being directed by Russian President Vladimir Putin himself. There was disagreement about whether they sought to simply sow chaos, a view favored by the FBI initially, or explicitly to help Donald Trump. Either way, it shook the U.S. intelligence community to its core.
“It was something that, I think, was worrying to all of us,” John Brennan, CIA director under President Obama told PBS Frontline. “particularly since we didn’t know the extent of what it is the Russians are engaged in, and we didn’t know how far they would go to really threaten the integrity of the election.”
It is in the context of this urgent concern about unraveling whatever it was the Russians were up to that the FBI sought, and received, a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) warrant authorizing surveillance on Carter Page in late October 2016. Now, a pair of memos from Republican lawmakers has put that warrant squarely at the center of allegations of a purported FBI conspiracy to derail Trump.
The first memo, prepared by Republican staff of the House intelligence committee at the direction of its chairman, Devin Nunes, claimed that the warrant was obtained principally by relying on an opposition research Dossier prepared by Christopher Steele, who had retired a few years earlier as the head of the Russia desk at Britain’s foreign intelligence service, MI-6. Steele’s research was paid for by Hillary Clinton’s campaign and the Democratic National Committee a fact, the memo alleges, was deliberately withheld from the court in order to bolster the Dossier’s credibility. Further, the memo said, the FBI failed to disclose Steele’s fervent belief that Donald Trump should not be President of the United States. Unmentioned is the reason for this view. Steele believed strongly that Trump had been compromised by the Kremlin.
A second memo, prepared by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley and South Carolina Senator Lindsay Graham echoed the Nunes memo’s accusations, supported by greater detail. It also added concerns that Steele had not been forthcoming with the FBI about his interactions with the media. This, they said, suggests Steele misled the FBI in violation of section 1001 of the criminal statutes, which prohibit lying to federal officials, including the FBI.
For those inclined to believe that the FBI was out to get Donald Trump, the memos were taken as a triumphant vindication of Trump’s claim that the Russia investigation was a baseless partisan witch hunt. However, even Republicans who have seen the memos argue that’s a bridge too far.
Was the Dossier the only evidence presented to the Court? “No,” South Carolina Republican Rep. Trey Gowdy, one of the few members of Congress who has seen the FISA warrant application and was central to the drafting of the Nunes memo, told CBS’ Face the Nation. “It was not the exclusive information relied upon by the FISA court.” But, Gowdy maintains, the warrant would have never been issued without it.
Why Carter Page?
As the FBI sought to unravel what was going on, Carter Page seemed like an obvious first place to look. Page was on the FBI’s radar screen long before there was a Dossier, and long before his association with Trump. Several years earlier, as part of a counterintelligence investigation of a Russian spy ring in New York, the FBI intercepted wiretapped conversations between Russian spies talking about recruiting Page. Although the FBI concluded that the Russians didn’t succeed in that effort, in 2013, Page insisted in a letter to an academic journal that he was “an informal advisor to the Kremlin.”
Given Page’s history with Russia’s intelligence services, if there was coordination between the Trump campaign and Russia, it’s reasonable to suspect that Page might be at the center of it.
After Page joined the Trump campaign in the spring of 2016, the Russians were likely to reach out and Page, whose affinity for Russia is no secret, was sure to receive such overtures warmly. At some point Moscow called, at least to extend an invitation for Page to deliver a speech at a Moscow university in July. Given Page’s history with Russia’s intelligence services, if there was coordination between the Trump campaign and Russia, it’s reasonable to suspect that Page might be at the center of it.
By October of 2016, the intelligence community’s hair was standing on end. Russia’s intelligence services had been engaged for months in an aggressive clandestine effort to meddle in the election. Emails hacked from the DNC were leaking, disinformation supercharged by Russian troll networks was ricocheting around social media, and Russian hackers had been detected probing state election systems for vulnerabilities. In September, President Obama warned Russian President Vladimir Putin to cut it out. But, a month later, the Russian efforts were only getting more intense. As Election Day closed in, there was palpable fear of what they might be planning next.
The intelligence community understood bits and pieces of what was happening — cyberattacks probing election systems, hacked emails, Trump’s odd and unshakable affinity for Putin, Papadopoulos, Page. The Dossier provided context that tied it all together. It’s important to understand this context in evaluating the FBI’s response to the Dossier and the decision to seek a FISA warrant on Page.
Page’s July visit to Moscow was met with fawning converge in the Russian press, but the account of his trip that made it back to Christopher Steele was more sinister. According to the Steele dossier, Page met with Igor Sechin, one of Putin’s closest allies to discuss what the Russians wanted out of a Trump Presidency, namely the lifting of sanctions. Elsewhere in the Dossier, Russians allegedly suggested that Trump use his influence to quash Republican calls for arming Ukraine against Russian separatist rebels and raise complaints about allied defense commitments to NATO and willingness to fulfill the U.S.’s Article V mutual-defense obligations in the event of an attack on Baltic State NATO members and elsewhere along the Russian frontier — all of which Trump did. And other things tracked too. For example, tensions between Putin and his longtime chief of staff, Sergey Ivanov, reported in the Dossier foreshadowed Putin’s surprise decision to sack Ivanov in August 2016.
While the FBI had suspicions about many of the Dossier’s claims, there was enough that seemed to align with other sources that it was worth taking seriously, in spite of its political origins. Moreover, Steele’s past work with the FBI and well-established reputation for reliable reporting on Russia bolstered their bias towards considering his claims.
To recap: by late October the FBI was working feverishly to figure out what Russia is planning for Election Day; they were certain that at least one member of the Trump campaign, George Papadopoulos, knew about Russia’s plans in advance; and they had information from Steele, a source they thought credible, that suggested Carter Page was in the middle of whatever Putin had in store. And so they went to the FISA Court and applied for a warrant to surveil Page, someone they knew to have been targeted by Russian spies in the past and that had been in touch with Moscow during the campaign.
There are legitimate criticisms of this decision. Was the FBI too credulous of Steele? Did the personal opinions about Trump among FBI agents cause them to be too quick to believe Steele’s claims? Did they properly consider the problems posed by Steele’s research on behalf of Trump’s political rival? The answer to all these questions might be yes. Yet, the allegations of an FBI conspiracy to get Trump is too far a leap. More likely, the FBI grasping for any lead that might help them figure out what Russia was up to in meddling in the election, rushed out a FISA warrant on Carter Page because he was their best chance to figure out Russia‘s plan and stop it.
It is hard to conclude that the FBI was engaged in an active conspiracy to derail Trump’s election when all their actions in the lead-up to the election had the opposite effect.
If the objective was to spy on the Trump campaign in order to help Hillary win, the FBI did nothing to affect that end. Quite the opposite, the FBI tamped down speculation about Trump and Russia in the lead-up to the election rather than stoking it and the FBI’s decision to reopen the Clinton email investigation boosted Trump’s election prospects, not Clinton’s. It is hard to conclude that the FBI was engaged in an active conspiracy to derail Trump’s election when all their actions in the lead-up to the election had the opposite effect.
In the weeks before the election, the FBI’s focus on coordination between Trump and Russia was rooted foremost in a concern about securing the integrity of the election. Criminal prosecution was, at best, a secondary concern. The grand conspiracy being alleged on Fox News each night, and implied by the Republican memos, ignores all of this to instead focus on the text messages between FBI agents who, like millions of other people, were not wild about the idea of a Trump Presidency. While there may be legitimate questions to be asked about how faithfully the FBI followed the processes and procedures of the FISA court, this is not what the current debate is about.