The old adage that a man who represents himself has a fool for a client has seldom been demonstrated quite so colorfully as in the transcript of Carter Page’s testimony before the House Intelligence Committee on November 2.
Page, a former foreign-policy adviser to the Trump campaign, does not have a lawyer. He agreed to testify on the condition that the transcript be made public, and while it’s hard to know what motivated him to make that deal—in fact, it’s often hard to figure out what motivates him—the result does not reflect kindly upon him.
If there is one major focus to the 243-page transcript, it is Page’s July 2016 trip to Russia, where he delivered a commencement speech at the New Economic School in Moscow. Page made the trip in a private capacity, rather than as a Trump campaign official, as he took pains to point out. One of the people in attendance was Arkadiy Dvorkovich, a deputy prime minister of Russia.
“The only brief interaction I had with any Russian government official is after this commencement program or after the—after my commencement speech on that Friday in July—I believe it was July 8th—I briefly said hello to Arkadiy Dvorkovich,” Page said.
Adam Schiff, the ranking Democrat on the committee, quizzed Page about that, noting that Page said last week on Chris Hayes’s MSNBC show that he had only spoken to “men on the street.” Did he not consider Dvorkovich an official, Schiff asked? Page replied that he had not met with him, only greeted him.
Schiff pointed out that in a memo to Trump campaign staffers after the trip, he had written, “In a private conversation, Dvorkovich expressed strong support for Mr. Trump and a desire to work together toward devising better solutions in response to the vast range of current international problems.” He also wrote an email to Trump campaign staffers Tera Dahl and J.D. Gordon, saying, “On a related front, 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.”
Page acknowledged writing all this, but still claimed he had not spoken more than a few words to Dvorkovich, and had instead derived his insights from hearing speeches. Page was also fuzzy about an encounter with a man who works for the Russian oil giant Rosneft, whom he called an old friend, saying he could not recall who had contacted the other or whether they had discussed U.S. sanctions on Russia.
Schiff summed the situation up cleanly: “Were you being honest in your communication with the campaign? Are you being honest in your testimony? Because it doesn’t seem possible for both to be true.”
Schiff wasn’t the only one baffled. Republican Trey Gowdy, who frequently sounds incredulous during his portions of the testimony, asked, “I didn’t think I’d ever be going through this with anyone, but we’ve got to, I guess. You seem to draw a distinction between a meeting, a greeting, a conversation, and you hearing a speech.”
It’s just one example of how Page comes across as hopelessly self-aggrandizing throughout the testimony. He brags about his connections and credentials, dropping references to Harvard, Cambridge, and New York universities, and even noting his Delta frequent-flyer status. Describing his several email accounts, Page mentioned receiving many emails from Gary Sick, a respected Middle East scholar at Columbia University. Reached by email, Sick told me he’d briefly met Page in the 1990s or early 2000s and had not had any contact since, and that the emails in question came from a listserv of some 2,000 people.
There develops a strange dichotomy, in which Page presents himself as an important and respected man in Russia, invited to give a commencement speech independent of his work for the Trump campaign, and yet also downplays his importance to the Trump team, calling himself a very junior staffer. (Gowdy, again: “Mr. Page, I wrote down: volunteer, unpaid, informal, unofficial. I’m still trying to figure out what the hell your role was with the Trump campaign.”)
Trump and his aides, as well as Page himself, have tried to argue that whatever Page did had no connection with the campaign—they were the rogue actions of a low-level figure. And while the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia, from George Papadopoulos to Jeff Sessions to Jared Kushner to Michael Flynn to Paul Manafort, seem hard to comprehend as coincidences, it does seem plausible from Page’s marble-mouthed explanations that he was puffing up his role and importance and connections to Russian figures in order to enhance his status with the Trump campaign.
This possibility shades the revelation, delivered by Page to reporters after his testimony, that he had told now-Attorney General Jeff Sessions about his trip prior to making it.
Speaking to the committee, Page said he had a “standing invitation” to make the speech. Asked who invited him he said, “I was just invited,” though he later named Shlomo Weber, rector of the New Economic School, as his host. First, Page said that Gordon was aware of the trip, as well as a few other members of Trump’s campaign team.
Why had he told them, Gowdy wondered? “I wanted to be very careful, because there was starting to be some—there was starting to be some allegations about or concerns about Russia in general.” Then why go, Gowdy pressed. “Because I’m trying to live my life and it’s something—I’ve spoken at these universities for well over a decade.” A few moments later, Page said he’d told then-campaign manager Corey Lewandowski and spokeswoman Hope Hicks, now the White House communications director.
Later in the testimony, Page admitted he’d also told then-Senator Jeff Sessions, but said (like the Dvorkovich conversation) that it had been very brief, as they left a meeting in Washington. Schiff couldn’t understand why Page would bring it up if it was so brief, and Page’s answer didn’t really clarify: “The point of bringing it up is I changed my schedule around. It was going to be my last two days in the United States for three weeks that Thursday night, just—just mentioned that I’m glad to have been able to do that. So it was more just sort of an administrative point.” Indeed, Page seems like the sort of person who speaks incessantly about himself without being invited.
According to Page, the list of Trump officials who were informed about the trip includes at the very least Sessions, Hicks, Gordon, Lewandowski, and Sam Clovis, who last week withdrew his nomination for a USDA chief scientist job. This is difficult to square with repeated campaign denials of any contacts with the Russians, no matter Page’s level on the campaign.
Despite Page’s repeated assertions that he made the trip outside of his campaign job, Representative Jackie Speier, a Democrat, pointed out that in an email to the campaign, Page wrote, “Please let me know if you have any reservations or thoughts on how you’d prefer me to focus these remarks.”
“What is that supposed to mean?” Speier asked. “It would appear that you were soliciting from the campaign any messages you would like to have conveyed to those in attendance at the New Economic School.” Page called it merely a “courtesy.”
Sessions, of course, claimed he was unaware of any such trips, including in sworn testimony to the Senate. But it has since become clear that multiple Trump campaign officials had contacts with Russians, including Papadopoulos, who pleaded guilty last month to lying to the FBI about them. In Page’s case, there was a paper record—not just his email request for comments, but also the memo he sent to J.D. Gordon afterwards.
“Now, this trip that was unrelated to the campaign, you wrote a memo in campaign format to debrief the campaign on your trip that was supposedly not about the campaign,” Schiff said. “Is that what we are to understand?”
Schiff comes across as Page’s most probing and aggressive questioner. In particular, they tangled over Page’s attempt to invoke the Fifth Amendment to avoid complying with some requests for documents but not for others. “Is it your position that you have a Fifth Amendment right to provide nonincriminating emails or documents to the committee but withhold incriminating documents from the committee and selectively comply with the subpoena?”
Page said there was nothing incriminating. Schiff replied, “If nothing you have is incriminating, then on what basis are you invoking the Fifth Amendment right?”
Page’s answer was strange: He said that he was both concerned he might overlook some documents in his attempt to produce them, and that he was concerned that things he said might not “match up” with information obtained by law enforcement during surveillance that he claims is illegal. This is confusing, since any discrepancy would constitute lying under oath.
Page said he could not recall exactly how many times he had spoken to the FBI, much to Gowdy’s surprise. (“It is not difficult for me to remember the number of times that the FBI has interviewed me in 2016 because the answer would be zero.”) A portion of the transcript is redacted, but the context suggests that Page spoke to some other law-enforcement agency, and that the news came as a surprise to the panel.
Schiff also questioned Page extensively about an August 2016 trip to Budapest, where he met with the Hungarian ambassador to the United States, who he had met at the Republican National Convention. Initially Page was vague about the purpose of his trip, calling it a “long weekend.” Then he said it involved a possible business project involving renewable energy—yet he couldn’t recall whether he’d set up meetings on the renewable-energy project before he traveled to Budapest or not, implying a different motive for the trip.
“You plan a trip to Budapest after meeting with the Hungarian ambassador, but you can’t recall any specifics about what you discussed or why you’d be traveling there to meet with her?” Schiff asked.
“I have an interest in foreign policy, and I have an interest in energy markets, right?” Page replied. He denied that the ambassador had invited him to Hungary because of his role on the Trump campaign. Asked whether he had kept in touch with anyone from that trip, Page offered a self-contradictory answer: “I believe it was just [the ambassador], and there was one other person who was also a foreign-policy person who I stayed in touch with. I cannot remember his name.” Page also could not recall what the man’s portfolio or role was. Asked whether he was an intelligence agent, Page said, “People don’t wear badges. ”
That wasn’t the only ambassador Page met at the RNC—he also ran into then-Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. As with Dvorkovich, he characterized that encounter as short and informal. He said he could not recall talking with Kislyak about U.S. sanctions on Russia, but he wouldn’t rule out that it could have come up “in passing.”
Other places in the testimony indicated the interests of the Republican and Democratic members of the committee. Gowdy pursued a line of questions in which Page denied that there had been any collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government. Schiff asked him whether he had ever concealed any contacts with Russians—perhaps an attempt to pin Page down under oath—and Schiff and his colleague Eric Swalwell seemed interested in whether Page had ever received money from the Russian government. Schiff asked whether he had any discussion that “concerned getting Russian government or university funding for a joint effort, a think tank, a project, a thesis, any of the above?” Page, after a series of evasions, offered a bland, “I have no recollection of that, no.”
Swalwell was particularly curious about Page’s December 2016 trip to Russia, which the witness said was business-related. But Page could not say who he was meeting with or what projects he was exploring. “Well, Dr. Page, surely you went over there with a plan, right?” Swalwell asked. “You didn’t just go over there to walk around and to find a ‘now hiring’ sign at the Red Square.”
Swalwell’s incredulity, along with that of Schiff, Gowdy, and other members of the panel, is understandable. Page’s testimony is a farrago of legal claims, bluster, contradictions, and concessions. It’s hard to imagine that Page’s testimony, and his Fifth Amendment blunder, helped him. Nor do they help the Trump administration much, even as Page hastened to heap praise on the president. In places, they aid the public by giving a fuller picture of Page’s dealings, but just as often they leave the picture even more confusing than it was before.