Trump Campaign Aide Faces Scrutiny Amid Russia Probe Interview

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(Bloomberg) -- A free-wheeling energy consultant once listed by Donald Trump as a foreign policy adviser during the presidential campaign is to be interviewed Thursday by the House Intelligence Committee looking into Russian involvement in the 2016 election.

The appearance by Carter Page has taken on added significance after the disclosure earlier this week that another member of the campaign’s foreign policy team, George Papadopoulos, is cooperating with the criminal probe being led by Special Counsel Robert Mueller.

Page originally sought to be questioned by the House Intelligence panel in public, but the panel insisted the appearance be conducted in private. As a compromise, the committee agreed to release a transcript three days after the interview. 

"We’ll have a long list of questions for Mr. Page," the committee’s top Democrat, Adam Schiff of California, said Wednesday.

Page’s committee appearance comes after he told MSNBC Monday that the topic of Russia "may have come up" in emails with Papadopoulos.

Papadopoulos Plea

Court papers released Monday by Mueller show that Papadopoulos pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his contact with Russian government officials.

Page has previously said he’d had some "brief" contacts with low-level Russians in 2013, and even traveled to Moscow in July 2016. But he has said he wasn’t representing the Trump campaign.

"He’s a relevant witness -- one of the five senior foreign policy advisers that the president named. He went over to Moscow with the permission of the campaign at a time that Russia was interfering," Intelligence Committee member Eric Swalwell, a California Democrat, said Wednesday.

"So we want to understand what he was doing, what the campaign knew about his involvement, and, of course, his interactions with Papadopoulos," said Swalwell.

The committee had wanted to interview Page even before Monday’s news about Papadopoulos -- for a lot of reasons.

He has dodged questions about whether he has been contacted by Mueller’s investigators, but said he met about five times with the FBI in March.

Steele Dossier

Still, he frequently talks to the media, including his recent MSNBC appearance where he said he may have exchanged emails with Papadopoulos about Russia.

Much of the original intrigue surrounding Page stemmed from the controversial dossier that was compiled as opposition research on then-candidate Trump and his associates, mainly by former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele.

Trump has denied its mostly unverified assertions about himself and his campaign’s interactions with Russia, as well as claims that Moscow possesses compromising information about Trump.

That document paints a somewhat sinister role for Page. Quoting an unidentified source, it says the Trump campaign maintained a “well developed conspiracy of cooperation between them and the Russian leadership.” The dossier claimed it was managed by Paul Manafort -- Trump’s former campaign manager, who was indicted on multiple charges Monday -- while Page served as one of the intermediaries.

The dossier goes on to allege that Page held secret meetings with top Russian officials, while making a speech in Moscow in July 2016, and discussed lifting Western sanctions against Russia and Ukraine in exchange for a stake in Rosneft, the state-owned oil company. They also discussed releasing compromising material on Trump’s opponent, Hillary Clinton, Steele’s report says.

‘Unpredecented’ Violations

Page said in an interview last week that he has been the victim of “unprecedented legal violations” and denies the allegations made in what he calls the “dodgy dossier.” Page has argued that he is a victim of a conspiracy by Clinton, former President Barack Obama and former FBI director James Comey.

In an email to reporters promoting a book he is writing, he called Comey "the principal mastermind behind oppressive police state tactics amidst one of the most blatant attempts to rig a U.S. presidential election by a sitting administration."

Trump named Page and Papadopoulos as foreign policy advisers at a time when many established experts in the field from both parties were publicly shunning his campaign. Many of the established foreign policy experts had been signed on by Jeb Bush’s campaign, said one former Trump campaign adviser.

Prior to joining Trump’s campaign, Page was a globe-trotting investment banker who built a career on deals with Russia and its state-run gas company, Gazprom.

Page has said his interest in Russia dates to his youth in New York’s Hudson Valley, while watching a TV news program about arms control talks. An adviser positioned behind then-President Ronald Reagan was wearing a Navy uniform.

Naval Academy

He later enrolled in the U.S. Naval Academy and eventually earned three graduate degrees, including a Ph.D from SOAS University of London. He completed a fellowship at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. Page also worked as an investment banker for Merrill Lynch’s capital markets group in London and Moscow.

In Russia, he met executives at Gazprom, the former Soviet gas ministry that was partially privatized in the 1990s. By 2005, with Putin consolidating his power, the state boosted its stake and became a majority owner.

Page said he advised Gazprom on deals during this period and helped the company woo Western investors.

One former Trump campaign adviser was told by an associate of Page that he came to the Trump campaign through the front door -- dropping off his resume in the lobby of Trump Tower. It made its way up the elevators to Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski and Sam Clovis, who was doing research for the campaign and was tasked with putting together a foreign policy team for Trump, the adviser said.

Page said U.S. sanctions against Russia had hurt his business, and had suggested that his work for Trump could help his business.

Page may find some sympathetic ears on the House Intelligence Committee, with some Republicans concerned he may have been unfairly targeted for scrutiny based on the unverified dossier.

The Republican leading the Russia probe, Michael Conaway of Texas, said, "We’ll ask him all the number of questions you’d expect us to ask."

Conaway said he isn’t aware of any request by Mueller to the committee to stay clear of some subject areas.

©2017 Bloomberg L.P.

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