Carter Page, a former foreign policy adviser to President-elect Donald Trump, said on Monday in Moscow that members of the incoming Trump administration have a “great enthusiasm” for strengthening U.S.-Russian relations, starting with Trump’s reported pick for secretary of State, Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson.
“I’m really personally excited about Rex Tillerson,” Page said during his presentation at the Russian government-owned Rossiya Segodnya International Information Agency. “Being awarded the [Russian] Order of Friendship, his [oil drilling] ventures in the Kara Sea and Black Sea, I mean the list goes on and on.”
The speech by Page, a global energy consultant who works closely with Russian state-owned companies, was carried live online by RT, a news outlet with ties to the Kremlin, and posted on YouTube. As a candid assessment of the incoming administration’s politics from someone with direct knowledge of them, his statements were remarkable for their divergence with Republican Party doctrine.
As Page skipped through slides (some below) unfavorably comparing former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to Tillerson ― and showing how much closer the Exxon CEO is to Moscow ― lawmakers from his own party were not only expressing concern over Tillerson’s potential nomination but also over allegations that Russia deliberately interfered in the presidential election to benefit Trump. The president-elect has dismissed those reports by arguing that the CIA’s credibility was shot during the run-up to the Iraq war.
Page, too, dismissed the intelligence community’s findings. “They really need to show more evidence, because there’s nothing hard that pointed in the direction of Russia,” he said of the hacking. “I think it very well could have been a setup [by the Obama administration], and I’ve talked to IT experts who think this is a very serious possibility.”
After Trump dismissed evidence of Russian involvement in the hacking Monday, cybersecurity experts defended the CIA reports. James Lewis at the Center for Strategic and International Studies said that the evidence clearly pointed to the Russians. “No one expects Putin to burst into tears on national TV and confess. Ambiguity is normal in espionage, but there shouldn’t be any doubt.”
Page, a relatively unknown figure in foreign policy circles, was one of the Trump campaign’s earliest advisers. He proved controversial after it was reported in July that he had met with high-level Russian officials in Moscow, fueling rumors that he was serving as a conduit between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin. On that same trip, Page gave a speech condemning the United States and its NATO allies for what he called a “hypocritical focus on ideas such as democratization, inequality, corruption and regime change” in Russia.
By September, Page had been kicked off the campaign’s advisory team. And while he denied Monday that he was “directly involved in the transition in any way,” he suggested that he retained a unique and thorough understanding of Trump’s worldview.
“I made a commitment not to talk about the internal work that I did at the campaign, but I’ve certainly been in a number of meetings with Trump, and I’ve learned a tremendous amount from him,” Page said in response to a question.
What Page did talk about was his vision for the United States and Russia to work hand-in-gIove, and for Putin and Trump to maximize their relationship.
“Talking with a number of colleagues and thought leaders in recent days, I think there’s a huge potential and a lot of specific ways we’ve been talking about, to help support both administrations,” Page said of Putin’s and Trump’s presidencies. He outlined “five strategic priorities that offer tremendous potential” for the U.S. and Russia.
Trump has yet to formally announce his pick for secretary of State. Though an announcement is expected Tuesday morning, reports Monday night said that Tillerson is his choice. If so, a rocky confirmation battle may be ahead. Already, the Tillerson possibility had faced pushback in the Senate, where Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) have expressed concern over a nominee with such close ties to Putin.
Under Tillerson’s leadership, Exxon Mobil Corp. acquired millions of acres of drilling rights in Russia. The company also partnered with Russia’s state oil company, Rosneft, to develop drilling operations in Siberia. With so many holdings in Russia, the 2014 U.S. sanctions imposed on Russian companies (including Rosneft) and officials involved in the annexation of Crimea cut deeply into Exxon’s potential profits.
Trump has said that lifting U.S. sanctions on Russia is something he’ll be “looking into.” Page said he met with executives from Rosneft during his trip this week.
“There are some forces in the septic tank in Washington who’ve been looking to hold us back,” he said of the Obama administration. But with Trump, “there’s a lot to be optimistic about, and it’s a reflection of the great enthusiasm you have from these individuals.”