|SERGEI KARPUKIN / REUTERS|
In the clearest evidence yet of contacts between Donald Trump's campaign and Russia, the FBI last summer obtained and then renewed a secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court warrant allowing it to monitor Carter Page, a foreign policy adviser for the future president whom it believed was in touch with agents for Moscow.
The Washington Post, which reported the explosive allegation on Tuesday night, said contacts such as those made by Page are now the focus of the bureau's investigation into the now widely acknowledged effort backed by Russian President Vladimir Putin to meddle in the 2016 election by sabotaging the campaign of Hillary Clinton and swinging the election in Trump's favor.
A FISA judge granted the warrant after being convinced that there was probable cause to believe Page was acting as an agent of a foreign power, in this case Russia, law enforcement and other officials told The Post.
The White House's serial downplaying of Page's involvement in the campaign and denial of the spying allegations, which Trump has repeatedly called "fake news," show how concerned it is not so much about Page himself -- who arguably was a small fish who may not have had much influence on Trump -- than all the big fish, and how the Russia scandal has increasingly consumed Trump's troubled presidency.
The president denied any of his associates had contacts with Russians, only to see a string of disclosures that his national security adviser, attorney general and son-in-law had done just that.
Trump had introduced Page, who had worked as an investment banker in Moscow, as one of his original campaign foreign policy advisers in March 2016. But Page was pushed out about the time the FBI began monitoring him after he gave a speech in Moscow on July 7 at the New Economic School, a university, in which he spoke in harshly critical terms of Barack Obama's Russia policy and sanctions over Moscow's military intervention in Ukraine.
"Washington and other Western capitals have impeded potential progress through their often hypocritical focus on ideas such as democratization, inequality, corruption and regime change," Page declared.
While in Moscow for the speech, Page allegedly met with Igor Sechin, a Putin confidant and chief executive of Rosneft, a major energy company, according to an explosive dossier compiled by Christopher Steele, a former British intelligence officer, detailing Putin's alleged hold on Trump.
The dossier states that Sechin offered to sell a 19 percent share of Rosneft to Page in exchange for Trump lifting Obama administration sanctions on Russia if he won the election. Oleg Erovinkin, who is believed to have been instrumental in helping Steele compile the dossier, was found dead in the back seat of his Lexus in Moscow in December 2016 in what almost certainly one of the murders linked to the scandal, although authorities claimed it had been a heart attack.
By this spring, Page had been demoted to a minor player in White House press secretary Sean Spicer's descriptions and Trump at one point claimed he didn't even know him. And he didn't even use a private email server!
Page, who has not been accused of any crimes, has acknowledged meeting with a Russian spy in New York City in 2013, but in response to The Post story vehemently denied any wrongdoing and compared the surveillance of him to government eavesdropping against civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.
To obtain the warrant, the government had to show probable cause that Page was acting as an agent of Russia. Approval had to be given by one of three senior Justice Department officials before prosecutors took the request to a FISA Court judge.
The judges who rule on warrant requests under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act oversee the nation's most sensitive national security cases. The warrants they may produce are closely guarded secrets.
The Post said the application for the surveillance targeting Page included a lengthy declaration that laid out the investigators' basis for believing Page was an agent of the Russian government and knowingly engaged in clandestine intelligence activities on behalf of Moscow, according to sources in Justice and the FBI. The application cited contacts Page had with the spy in New York City in 2013 and other contacts with Russian operatives that have not been publicly disclosed.
The surveillance of Page did not begin until after he had left the campaign, The New York Times reported. This is because the Justice Department considered direct surveillance of anyone tied to a political campaign "as a line it did not want to cross," according to one official.
The FBI has routinely obtained FISA warrants to monitor the communications of foreign diplomats in the U.S.
These include Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak, who is widely considered to be a spy in diplomat's clothing. Among the conversations monitored by the FBI are those between Kislyak and Michael Flynn, who was fired only days after being named Trump's national security adviser -- significantly not because he met with the ambassador, but had lied to Vice President Pence about doing so.
Trump's sudden and extraordinary about face on Russia and Putin is seen as a cynical way of distracting attention from the Russia scandal.
The president has long had a non-confrontational view of Russia, calling for a détente with the U.S.'s longtime foe. He defended its invasion of Ukraine and praised Putin, but is now engaged in a diplomatic clash with Moscow over accusations it was trying to cover up an April 4 Syrian chemical weapons attack on civilians that Trump answered two days later with a cruise missile attack on a Syrian air base.
Complicating matters is that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who is in Moscow delivering an ultimatum that Russia withdraw its support for Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad, has been a personal friend of Putin and made tens of billions of dollars for ExxonMobil from Russian oil when he was CEO of the multinational energy company.
Since the 90-day FISA warrant for monitoring Page was introduced, it has been renewed more than once, officials told The Post.
INSPECTOR CLOUSEAU LOSES ANOTHER CASE
Meanwhile, the Obama administration intelligence reports breathlessly revealed by David Nunes, recused chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, after a cloak-and-dagger caper on the White House grounds, were neither unusual nor illegal, according to Republican and Democratic lawmakers who have been examining them.
CNN reports that the lawmakers' assessment contradicts President Trump's allegation that former Obama national security adviser Susan Rice broke the law by requesting the "unmasking" of U.S. individuals' identities. They said that the action was "normal and appropriate" for officials who serve in that role to the president.
Trump has pivoted off the Rice allegation to continue to claim that President Obama personally ordered that his phones at Trump Tower be tapped, an allegation that has been widely disputed.