The FBI was monitoring Carter Page when the former Trump campaign adviser says he spoke with Trump adviser Steve Bannon about Russia in January 2017, raising the strong possibility that the FBI intercepted a conversation between the two men.
Page told Congress in November about the call. But it has been cast into a new light by last week’s release of a Republican memo revealing that the FBI was monitoring Page’s communications at the time.
“If Page was using one of his standard phones, it was probably picked up,” said Elizabeth Goitein, a former Justice Department trial attorney and congressional counsel who co-directs the Brennan Center for Justice’s Liberty and National Security Program.
The significance of a possible FBI recording depends on the exact content of the conversation between Bannon and Page, about which Page has been vague. But it means the FBI’s surveillance of Page — which has been the subject of intense partisan anger in Washington — may have touched one of the highest-ranking figures in Trump’s incoming administration just days before inauguration.
Bannon hasn’t been accused of any impropriety. Neither he nor his lawyer would comment on Page’s account of the purported conversation.
Experts in national security law said the FBI would have retained the conversation as evidence if it seemed pertinent to their investigation into allegations that Trump associates coordinated with the Kremlin — an inquiry that has since widened to focus on whether any officials, including Trump himself, tried to obstruct the probe.
Bannon, once among Trump’s most trusted campaign and White House advisers, is expected to meet soon with special counsel Robert Mueller.
In November testimony to the House Intelligence Committee, Page told lawmakers that Bannon called him sometime shortly before Trump’s Jan. 21, 2017 inauguration, asking him to cancel a planned television appearance on that day. By then the former investment banker and energy consultant had long been exiled from the Trump orbit following reports that he was under investigation for ties to Moscow.
Page said that he then brought up an explosive private intelligence dossier, published online a few days earlier, which alleged the Kremlin had compromising information on Trump and worked with his campaign to influence the election.
Page has at times proven an unreliable narrator — his account of the details of the call appeared to shift as he discussed it with lawmakers — and the existence of the call cannot be independently confirmed.
Page says the Bannon call, which he described as “brief,” occurred as Trump’s transition team was reeling from the dossier’s Jan. 11 publication by BuzzFeed.
The dossier portrayed Page as an intermediary between Trump and the Russian government. Trump officials say the dossier is the defamatory product of Democratic-funded opposition research. Page insists he has never been a Russian agent.
Page told the intelligence committee as part of wider testimony about his role in the Trump campaign that Bannon had called him to ask that he cancel a scheduled interview on MSNBC, a request that Page obliged. Page speculated that Bannon might have learned about his appearance from a booker on the network.
Page added that he and Bannon spoke not just about the television appearance but about the dossier itself, though he did not offer details. Anything Bannon might know about the dossier’s contents could be of particular interest to investigators who are trying to determine its credibility.
In an email to POLITICO, Page stood by his account. He also said it was possible that he had other contacts with Trump aides while he was under FBI surveillance, though he said it was unlikely.
“Bear in mind that my relationship with the team was essentially discontinued, for all intents and purposes” in September 2016, he said. The FBI’s surveillance began late the following month, according to the GOP memo.
Asked whether the FBI might have picked up other communications with Trump associates, Page said, “probably not much.”
Trump personally identified Page, then an unknown in foreign policy circles, as a member of his advisory team in the spring of 2016. After a September 2016 Yahoo News report that Page was under investigation, a Trump spokesman said that Page was no longer a campaign adviser and had “made no contribution” to the campaign. Subsequently leaked emails show that Page had numerous interactions with Trump campaign officials, who green-lighted a July 2016 trip he took to Moscow on the condition he didn’t represent himself as a campaign emissary.
The House Republican intelligence memo, which Trump declassified last week, revealed for the first time that the FBI had obtained the first of four consecutive 90-day warrants to spy on Page beginning on Oct. 21 2016. That would mean the FBI was still monitoring Page when he says Bannon called him.
The FBI obtained a warrant to spy on Page through the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, known as FISA. The program enables the FBI, with the approval of a federal judge, to spy on U.S. citizens suspected of acting on behalf of a foreign power.
Under standard FISA procedures, the FBI is required to “minimize” any information it collects that holds no value for its investigation. That could entail destroying such records, although the FBI’s minimization procedures are classified. But some experts believe the rules likely allow the FBI to warehouse all collected material, so long as it doesn’t share it
Under questioning in November from the committee’s top Democrat, Rep. Adam Schiff of California, Page described Bannon’s call as “brief” and said it was accompanied by text messages, which he did not describe.
Page did remember discussing the dossier. He said he spoke to Bannon about “the need to fix this disaster of a story… this false narrative which had been put out with the world premiere of the dodgy dossier.”
Page told lawmakers he couldn’t “recall the specifics” of why Bannon wanted him to skip the MSNBC appearance. But he suggested that Bannon’s motive was political.
Noting that the Trump-Russia dossier had been published a few days previously, Page said, “I can understand, given reality, why it might not be a good idea when [Bannon] heard, probably from the producer,” that Page would be on the program.
“This is the first time I ever talked to him in my life,” Page added.
Page also said Vice President Mike Pence wound up appearing on the program for which he had been booked, on MSNBC’s “Meet the Press Daily.” Pence was a guest on the show on Jan. 17.
Page added that he had received letters around that time from Trump lawyers urging him not to represent himself as a campaign official or part of the administration.
“Unfortunately,” he told the committee, “I am the biggest embarrassment surrounding the campaign.”
The GOP memo doesn’t specify what modes of communication the FBI’s warrant covered, but FISA experts say the FBI very likely monitored Page’s primary phone and email accounts. Page indicated in his testimony that Bannon called him on a regularly used phone.
“The campaign had my number,” he told lawmakers. “He probably got it from the campaign.”
The Republican memo denounces the FBI surveillance of Page as politically motivated, saying that it improperly relied on the Trump-Russia dossier, which was produced by a research firm retained by a top Democratic lawyer to find dirt on Trump.
The dossier, compiled by former British spy Christopher Steele, alleged that Page used the cover of a July 2016 speaking engagement in Moscow to scheme with senior Russian officials about lifting U.S. economic sanctions imposed after Russia’s incursions into Ukraine. It also charges that Page was offered a financial windfall related to the partial sale of Russia’s government controlled energy company, Rosneft. Page has vehemently denied these allegations.
The FBI first investigated Page in 2013, when he was a target for recruitment by two Russian spies in New York City who were expelled from the U.S. for espionage. Page met repeatedly with the men though he denies knowing they were Kremlin operatives.
A Republican member of the House Intelligence Committee acknowledged said it would be no surprise if the FISA warrant on Page captured other Trump associates, creating potentially sticky choices for FBI officials who are supposed to eavesdrop on conversations between U.S. citizens very sparingly.
“If you’re authorizing surveillance on someone associated with a political candidate for national office … you’re going to sweep up conversations with other members of that team,” said the GOP lawmaker. “It just emphasizes for me the very heavy burden they have of getting it right.”
Mueller and Congressional investigators have recently shown an interest in Bannon’s knowledge of contacts between Trump associates and Russians, as well as allegations Trump attempted to obstruct the FBI’s probe. Trump tapped Bannon, a former CEO of Breitbart News, to help lead his campaign in August 2016, but pushed him out last summer amid acrimony over Bannon’s cooperation with a tell-all bestseller by author Michael Wolff.
The House Intelligence Committee subpoenaed Bannon to make a return appearance after he refused to answer its questions last month. A slated appearance by Bannon before the committee on Tuesday was shelved — the second in two weeks. His lawyer, William Burck, has said the White House is negotiating the parameters of any House testimony he might give.
It is not known whether Mueller’s team might ask Bannon about the phone call when he visits the special counsel.
“Is it likely the FBI knows what was said in that conversation? Yeah. If it wasn’t useful then it’s not of any value and then they don’t ever reference the conversation again,” said Mieke Eoyang, vice president of the National Security Program at Third Way. “Until you know the content, you don’t know if it’s valuable or not.”
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