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Republicans Won’t Say if Spying on Carter Page Was Wrong

They call it a blockbuster scandal. But most Republicans who criticized the surveillance of a Kremlin-friendly Trump aide won’t say whether the snoops should’ve been called off.

Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast

All 13 Republicans on the House intelligence committee voted last week to declassify a GOP memo that “raise[s] concerns with the legitimacy and legality” of the process behind placing former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page under surveillance.

But only three of those 13 Republicans are willing to say that Page, who for years has been in contact with Russian spies, shouldn’t have been surveilled by the U.S. government.

As much as the White House, the House Republicans, and the 13 of them on the intelligence committee have claimed that their memorandum exposes a stinking taint at the bottom of the Trump-Russia inquiry, practically none have publicly taken it to its logical conclusion: that the FBI, supported by the Justice Department, wrongly targeted Page.

Even intelligence committee chairman Devin Nunes—whose staff authored the anti-FBI memo and who said it exposed “serious violations of the public trust” and “officials in crucial institutions [who] are abusing their authority for political purposes”—refused to say whether keeping watch on Page was wrong.

Or take House Speaker Paul Ryan, who has supported Nunes in the memo’s assaults on senior Justice Department and FBI officials involved in the Page surveillance application.

Ryan said “it is clear from this memo” that that the government didn’t fully present its facts, “and as a consequence an American’s civil liberties may have been violated.” Ryan had earlier supported releasing the memo to “cleanse” the FBI, without explaining what he meant.

When The Daily Beast asked if that meant Ryan believes Page ought not have been placed under surveillance, his office reiterated: “The problem he’s citing is omitting critical information on the application.” It turns out that information—financing of the Steele Dossier through by a political entity—was not, in fact, omitted, as even memo author Devin Nunes has acknowledged.

On Oct. 21, 2016—after Page had functionally left the Trump campaign—the secret FISA Court granted the warrant, indicating it found probable cause that Page was an agent of Russia, and renewed it at least three times, meaning Page was under surveillance for a year at a minimum. Page would later reveal that the FBI interviewed him “four or five times” in 2017.

The backstory behind Page’s surveillance, now central to the efforts of Trump’s Hill allies to discredit the Russia inquiries, may get yet another public airing. On Saturday, Trump hits a deadline to declassify the Democratic rebuttal to Nunes’ memo, already savaged by the FBI as a hatchet job. Either Trump releases a narrative hostile to his own or Democrats will savage him as a hypocrite hiding from the truth—particularly about the body of evidence connecting his old adviser to the Kremlin.

House Republicans, have claimed that their memo exposes a stinking taint at the bottom of the Trump-Russia inquiry. But practically none have publicly taken it to its logical conclusion: that the FBI wrongly targeted Page.

The Daily Beast asked Ryan and all 13 House Republicans—all of whom voted on Jan. 29 to release the memo—whether they believed the Justice Department and FBI ought not to have sought surveillance on Page and whether they believed the FISA Court (FISC) should have rejected their warrant application.

Only Russia inquiry leader Mike Conaway of Texas, Chris Stewart of Utah, and Peter King of New York were willing to say Page shouldn’t have been placed under surveillance. Another key figure on the panel, Trey Gowdy of South Carolina, said he was “agnostic,” concerned instead about the surveillance process, not the outcome. “Rep. Stewart believes that the FBI/DOJ should not have pursued one,” Stewart spokeswoman Daryn Frischknecht replied, referring to a FISA surveillance application.

King, through a representative, said that the FISA Court should have rejected the Page surveillance request. Asked if the Justice Department and FBI shouldn’t have pursued one, King replied: “Don’t know.”

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Conaway was also asked if the FISA Court made the right call to approve the warrant. He answered: “Based on what I know, no, it was not. I’m not a lawyer, I’m a CPA, so I’m relying on lawyers who have tried to convince judges to give warrants, and it looks like there were some omissions that—information that should have been available to the court.”

Gowdy said he “can’t answer that question definitely yes,” saying it wouldn’t be fair to the court. He said he “I cannot say that the FISC would not have authorized it without [Steele material] and the newspaper argument.”

Gowdy continued: “I am agnostic about the result because I have no way of knowing. I am not agnostic about the process because I have really high expectations for the Bureau and the Department, and you had to go to greater lengths to describe the source of the funding [for the Steele dossier] in the footnote.”

A representative for Florida’s Ileana Ros-Lehtinen declined to answer, citing a policy of not “usually comment[ing] on intel-related matters.” The other intelligence committee Republicans did not reply to multiple requests for comment.

Page’s particular history may help explain their reluctance.

In August 2013, according to a letter acquired by Time, Page, an energy consultant, described himself as “an informal advisor to the staff of the Kremlin” for a forthcoming economic summit. By then, for nearly half a year, according to government court filings, Page had been passing documents to a young Russian “diplomat” named Victor Podobnyy, whom federal prosecutors in New York later charged with attempting to recruit Americans as spies and collect economic intelligence.

Surreptitious FBI surveillance captured Podobnyy reminiscing openly in Russian about his history “processing for the SVR,” Russia’s foreign-intelligence agency.

That same surveillance caught Podobnyy bragging about an unnamed contact who “got hooked on [Russian energy giant] Gazprom… it’s obvious he wants to earn lots of money.” That contact, who “flies to Moscow more often than I do,” was highly susceptible to “empty promises,” Podobnyy boasted, because “I think he is an idiot.”

Podobnyy described his tradecraft for the contact: “This is intelligence method to cheat, how else to work with foreigners? You promise a favor for a favor. You get the documents from him and tell him to go fuck himself. But not to upset you, I will take you to a restaurant and give you an expensive gift.”

Page later admitted to BuzzFeed that he was the man Podobnyy described, though not that he knew Podobnyy was a spy. The documents Page provided Podobnyy, Page said in April 2017, were “basic immaterial information and publicly available research documents.” About Page, Podobnyy was quoted as on FBI intercepts saying: “For now his enthusiasm works for me.”

According to The Washington Post, the October 2016 surveillance warrant application included information taken from the Podobnyy intercepts. It also, the paper reported, included “other contacts [Page had] with Russian operatives that have not been publicly disclosed.” Page compared his surveillance saga to what Martin Luther King endured from the FBI.

In early July 2016, while a Trump campaign adviser, Page gave a speech at Moscow’s New Economic School highly critical of the “hypocrisy” he said U.S. foreign policy showed toward Russia. (Page’s speech competed with a visit from then-Secretary of State John Kerry to show support for the pro-Washington government in Ukraine besieged by Russia-backed separatists.)

Page emailed the campaign: ‘I’ll send you guys a readout soon regarding some incredible insights... I’ve received from a few Russian legislators and senior members of the presidential administration here.’ But Page told the committee that he was bullshitting.

Page’s explanations for the trip and its relationship to the Trump campaign have changed over time and under pressure.

Page initially insisted he traveled to Moscow as a private citizen, not a campaign representative,

In January 2017, he told ABC News he spoke “not one word” to anyone from the Kremlin while there—even though the Moscow correspondent for The Guardian noted the day before his New Economic School speech that Page was “likely to meet Russian officials” at the institution.

Under questioning for the House intelligence committee in November, Page acknowledged that he had, in fact, encountered the Russian deputy prime minister, Arkady Dvorkovich, though he insisted the encounter was fleeting and not substantive; Dvorkovich joined a dinner Page had on a return visit in December 2016.

On July 8, 2016, Page emailed the campaign: “I’ll send you guys a readout soon regarding some incredible insights and outreach I’ve received from a few Russian legislators and senior members of the presidential administration here.” But Page told the committee that he was bullshitting, and these “insights and outreach I’ve received” he boasted to the campaign were really derived from taking the temperature of “the man on the street” in Moscow.

Page also revealed he had given advance notification to Trump campaign officials Corey Lewandowski, Hope Hicks, and J.D. Gordon that he was traveling to Moscow to deliver his lecture. The notification, he said, was made out of an abundance of caution, as “there was starting to be some allegations about or concerns about Russia in general.

“Well, if you wanted to be super careful, why did you go?” Gowdy asked Page.

“Because I’m trying to live my life,” Page responded, “and it’s something—I’ve spoken at these universities for well over a decade.”

It was not the only time in the interview Gowdy evinced incredulity about Page. Page said he was not “thoroughly convinced” of Russian electoral intrusion in the 2016 election and downplayed its extensive social-media propaganda campaign.

“Regardless of scope,” Gowdy asked, “is it your position that Russia made no effort to interfere with or influence the 2016 election cycle?”

“I have seen no intent, based on all of the things I’ve read, studied, heard… based on my personal interactions, I saw no intent,” Page said.

“Personal interactions with whom?” Gowdy asked.

“Just in terms of the man on the street and people—scholars in Russia, for example,” Page said.

—with additional reporting by Betsy Woodruff