The Corner

National Security & Defense

The Carter Page Problem

Yesterday afternoon I was feeling this nagging sense of emptiness, like I was missing something important in my life. Then, while driving home, it hit me — it had been days since an anonymous leak had sent Twitter into a tizzy over Trump, Russia, and the deep state. But the Washington Post aims to please, and so at 7:11 p.m. it filled the void with this little scoop:

The FBI obtained a secret court order last summer to monitor the communications of an adviser to presidential candidate Donald Trump, part of an investigation into possible links between Russia and the campaign, law enforcement and other U.S. officials said.

The FBI and the Justice Department obtained the warrant targeting Carter Page’s communications after convincing a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court judge that there was probable cause to believe Page was acting as an agent of a foreign power, in this case Russia, according to the officials.

This is the clearest evidence so far that the FBI had reason to believe during the 2016 presidential campaign that a Trump campaign adviser was in touch with Russian agents. Such contacts are now at the center of an investigation into whether the campaign coordinated with the Russian government to swing the election in Trump’s favor.

The Post notes that Page has “not been accused of any crimes,” Page himself compared the FBI’s surveillance to its surveillance of Martin Luther King, Jr. (yep, he made that comparison), and the White House declined to comment.

This is yet another Trump/Russia story that at first glance seems important but on closer inspection tells us nothing that’s truly all that new. We already knew (thanks to FBI Director Comey) that the Bureau was investigating contacts between Trump’s team and Russian officials, and we already knew that anonymous American officials are habitually leaking information to reporters at the Post and elsewhere, but we’re still no closer to answering the core question of the controversy — did any Trump officials collude or cooperate with Russian efforts to disrupt the 2016 election? 

That doesn’t mean, however, that the story isn’t interesting or useful. It certainly highlights how zealots on both sides have a Carter Page problem. Those who think it’s simply preposterous to believe that anyone in Trump’s orbit had improper contact with Russian officials — that the entire affair is concocted out of whole cloth in a worse-than-Watergate scandal that features the “deep state” attempting a “soft coup” – seem to be simply assuming that Page (and men like Paul Manafort) did everything right. How can they be so confident? Do they truly believe that it’s beyond the realm of possibility that Page had improper contacts with Russian intelligence agents? 

At the same time, those who believe that Trump is a virtual Russian stooge — a Manchurian Candidate who seized the presidency in a worse-than-Watergate scandal that includes collusion with a foreign power – will be sorely disappointed if the collusion story turns out to be about Page and Page only. By most credible accounts, he was never more than a bit player in the Trump campaign and was jettisoned before the election. A Page scandal is not the same thing as a Trump scandal. Indeed, barring extraordinarily surprising revelations, a Page scandal would be nothing more than a footnote to the much larger and much more important story of Russia’s more direct efforts to influence American public opinion. 

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