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Carter Page Is Mr. Clean

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Carter Page Is Mr. Clean

Carter Page in Moscow, Russia, December 12, 2016 (Sergei Karpukhin/Reuters)

How many political players could survive such colonoscopic scrutiny?

However implausible it may seem now, there was a time when Carter Page was treated like a dangerous character. So much so that Special Counsel Robert Mueller was specifically tasked with investigating the one-time foreign-policy adviser to candidate Donald Trump.

After naming Mueller special counsel, Acting Attorney General Rod Rosenstein penned two secret memoranda detailing Mueller’s powers and focus. Rosenstein told him he “had been authorized since his appointment to investigate allegations that three Trump campaign officials — Carter Page, Paul Manafort, and George Papadopoulos — ‘committed a crime or crimes by colluding with Russian government officials with respect to the Russian government’s efforts to interfere with the 2016 presidential election.’” Page was not just tagged as an explicit target of Mueller’s probe; he was first on the list. Given what soon befell Manafort and Papadopoulos, one might have expected Page to be wearing the new black. And yet, not only is Carter Page a free man, Mueller never even managed to get him on an overdue parking ticket. The question isn’t so much what happened as what didn’t.

If anyone should have been prosecutable, it should have been Page — if he had committed any crime, that is. For starters, the FBI had Page under surveillance and all of his communications in their possession for a full year. How many political players could survive such colonoscopic scrutiny?

Add to this that Page behaved in ways that would have made it easy for any aggressive prosecutor to go after him. He allowed himself to be interviewed by the FBI repeatedly. He testified before a grand jury. He not only raised red flags, he waved them: Having been excoriated for his July 2016 trip to Moscow, where he gave a Putin-friendly speech, he went back to Moscow in December and tried to drum up some business. He appeared before Congress and made bold claims under oath.

Consider his opening statement before the House Intelligence Committee in November 2017: “Whereas I have never done anything wrong in Russia, no documents, records, electronically stored information including email,  communication,  recordings, data and tangible things could reasonably lead to the discovery of any facts within the investigation’s publicly announced parameters as it relates to actions by the Russian government.” If Mueller had anything at all on Page, nothing would have been easier than to add a lying-to-Congress charge to the indictment.

Nor is Page the sort of evil genius who would be needed to outwit some of the DOJ’s top lawyers. Read the transcript of Page’s House testimony and you’ll be struck by the witness’s odd and awkward responses. Trying to be his own lawyer, he keeps making legalistic distinctions, such as whether his contact with someone had been a “meeting” or a “greeting.” Page makes the mistake of talking about being careful rather than actually being careful. Being a careful deponent is rather like being a pilot with the right stuff. If you talk about having the right stuff, you don’t have it; if you testify you’re being cautious with your answers, you’re not being nearly careful enough.

Even the Republican members quickly lost patience with Page: “You seem to draw a distinction between a meeting, a greeting, a conversation, and you hearing a speech,” said Representative Trey Gowdy. “So to the extent you may have said that you have met with senior members of Russian Government or legislators in Russia, were those meetings, greetings, conversations, or were you sitting in the audience listening?”

Gowdy was referring not only to Page’s reliance on inconsequential legalisms, but also to his unfortunate habit of self-puffery. Page would take information he heard in a speech and present it to the Trump campaign as though he had learned it in a private conversation. For example, as Mueller puts it, “In communications with Campaign officials, Page also repeatedly touted his high-level contacts in Russia and his ability to forge connections between candidate Trump and senior Russian governmental officials.” Talk up your “high-level contacts in Russia” enough and people might just start to suspect that you’re a little too tight with Russian officials. Well, that, or a certain sort of political operative might get the idea to spread suspicion about you.

* * *

Page was in a bad enough position: Abandoned and shunned by Team Trump and annoying to Capitol Hill Republicans, Page was short on allies to help him contend with the Mueller squad. So what did he do? He painted a prosecutorial target on his back by refusing to accept Mueller’s enterprise as legitimate. Loudly and relentlessly he declared that the entire investigation was the outgrowth of a fraud perpetrated by Clinton operatives. Page demanded that what he calls the “dodgy dossier” itself be investigated.

That is a task the special counsel showed no interest in, though it was easily within the scope of Mueller’s mandate. Instead the special counsel did his best to prop up the FISA warrants against Page as perfectly normal and legitimate. Mueller writes, in a long footnote at the bottom of page 183, that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court “issued warrants based on a finding of probable cause to believe that Page was an agent of a foreign power.” Mueller is unconcerned by the thin and politicized evidence used to obtain those warrants: “The FISC’s probable-cause finding was based on a different (and lower) standard than the one governing the [Special Counsel] Office’s decision whether to bring charges against Page,” Mueller writes. The Special Counsel needed “admissible evidence [that] would likely be sufficient to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Page acted as an agent of the Russian Federation during the period at issue.” To issue its surveillance warrants, according to Mueller, the FISC needed only to meet the lowest of standards — “a fair probability.”

Thus does Mueller achieve two things at once: He maintains that the FISA warrants were handled properly; and he insinuates he could have found Page guilty, if only the standard of proof weren’t so daunting. (Someone might remind the great and powerful Mueller of Justice Edward Douglass White’s opinion in 1895’s Coffin et al. v. the United States: “The principle that there is a presumption of innocence in favor of the accused is the undoubted law, axiomatic and elementary, and its enforcement lies at the foundation of the administration of our criminal law.”)

There’s no room for presumption of innocence when the FBI is making the accusations needed to get a FISA warrant. The first of the four FISA applications declared that “the FBI believes that the Russian Government’s efforts are being coordinated with Page and perhaps other individuals associated with Candidate #1’s [Donald Trump’s] campaign.” The second warrant to surveil Page was secured in January 2017. The judge was told that “the FBI believes that Page has been collaborating and conspiring with the Russian Government.” The third and fourth warrant applications declared “The target of this application is an agent of a foreign power.” These were big claims. The Mueller report shows, even if grudgingly, that those claims were false.

* * *

Much has been made — and rightly so — about the FBI and DOJ’s lack of candor in describing dossier author Christopher Steele as a reliable source. But let’s put that aside for a moment and look at what, from the dossier, the FBI used in all four of its FISA applications. During a July 2016 trip to Moscow to give a speech, “the FBI has learned that Page met with at least two Russian officials.” Steele was the source and “reported that Page had a secret meeting with Igor Sechin, who is the President of Rosneft [a Russian energy company] and a close associate to Russian President Putin.” Page was also said to have met someone named Igor Divyekin secretly to discuss “kompromat” the Kremlin had on Hillary Clinton.

What ever happened to Igor Divyekin? He appears nowhere in Mueller’s report. You can be sure that had Page had any contact or communication with Divyekin, it would have been scooped up in the 24/7 surveillance of Page. And you can be doubly sure that any such evidence would have been front and center in a criminal-conspiracy case. Instead, Divyekin simply disappears. Sechin gets a similar treatment. In interviews on the Hill and with the FBI, Page acknowledges he spoke with an old friend who works for Sechin, but scoffed at the notion he could have met secretly with the oil tycoon. There is no proof offered by Mueller for the dossier claim that Page met secretly with Sechin. Indeed, the allegation itself doesn’t even appear in the Mueller report.

This is particularly telling as the Sechin claim had been central to the conspiracy narrative invented by Christopher Steele and flogged all over Washington by Fusion GPS. A writer savvy about Russia, Julia Ioffe, started working on an article about Page for Politico in the summer before the presidential election. Inclined to sneer at the amateurism of the Trump team, her working theory was that Page was a nobody trying to climb the greasy pole by inflating his credentials. But soon she was presented with an alternative take: “As I started looking into Page, I began getting calls from two separate ‘corporate investigators’ digging into what they claim are all kinds of shady connections Page has to all kinds of  shady Russians,” she wrote. “Both claimed to me that the FBI was investigating Page for allegedly meeting with Igor Sechin.”

Ioffe didn’t buy it. She knew enough about Russia not to be taken in by the fanciful stories Fusion GPS was peddling. “Was Page the shadowy messenger between the Kremlin and Trump Tower,” Ioffe asked, “or was he the nebbishy, not-very-successful man trying to profit” from being on a list of Trump advisers? She concluded that “whatever game the Russians were running, Page was firmly in the latter camp.”

Had the FBI been less credulous, maybe a smidgen more sophisticated, or perhaps just less eager to hobble Trump, they might have easily come to the same conclusion. It would have saved everyone a  lot of bother.

The special counsel was explicitly tasked with investigating Carter Page and given every tool —from wiretaps to grand-jury subpoenas — to get the job done. By contrast, Page ran through his savings and was reduced to being his own lawyer. With the odds stacked so profoundly against him, if there were anything to the stories told in the dossier, Page would not have been in any position to escape justice. That Robert Mueller had to grudgingly admit he had no proof Page had committed any crime is the most compelling rebuke to the collusion canard.

He may be goofy. He may be indiscreet. His views on Putin may be those of a Russophilic spaniel. But for all that, Carter Page may be the squeaky-cleanest man in America.

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