It started with the first question asked by a journalist from the television network Zvezda, which is operated by the Russian Ministry of Defense: “Some people in the United States think you’re a bad guy, because you’re a friend of Russia. Are you?” With a tense smile, Carter Page responded: “No comment.”*
On July 7 at the New Economic School of Moscow during a conference titled “The Evolution of the World Economy,” Page, Donald Trump’s foreign policy adviser, held his ground, not saying anything that could lend more weight to the questions surrounding the troubling connections between the Republican presidential candidate and Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
“No comment,” Page repeated when asked during his visit about possible high-level contacts, while his speech was broadcast live by Katehon, a think tank piloted by the ultra-orthodox Russian oligarch Konstantin Malofeev, Vladimir Putin’s economic adviser Sergey Glazyev, and the nationalist ideologue and proponent of Eurasianism, Aleksandr Dugin, who tweeted his support of the American guest speaker. Page, an adviser to Trump since March, is definitely no stranger to Russia.
When the American investment bank Merrill Lynch sent Page to Moscow in 2004 (four years after hiring him) to open an office there, the man built solid business relationships. Notably, he advised the oil giant Gazprom on one of its most important financial operations: the purchase of Sakhalin 2, a hydrocarbon field in the Sea of Okhotsk, from Shell for $7.4 billion in 2007. At that time, Putin had begun to re-establish state control of the group, which had been partially privatized in the 1990s.
Shortly after joining the Trump campaign, the Republican candidate’s adviser revealed to Bloomberg Media that he had received a number of “positive” messages from his Russian contacts. “So many people who I know and have worked with have been so adversely affected by the sanctions policy,” he declared. No doubt he himself has been affected, too. Page, who returned to New York in 2007 to found Global Energy Capital, is also a minority shareholder of Gazprom, which is one of the Russian companies under American sanction following the annexation of Crimea and the beginning of the armed conflict in Eastern Ukraine.
The banker isn’t the only link connecting Trump to Mr. Putin’s Russia. Paul Manafort, who was recruited at the same time as Page to put the campaign in order, also has solid connections with the Russian world that the head of the Kremlin holds dear. A confirmed lobbyist, he notably advised Viktor Yanukovych — although he didn’t go as far as to fix the image of the former Ukrainian president, now a refugee in Russia. According to Slate, Richard Burt, a former member of the Reagan administration who has also started to advise Trump, is part of the board of directors of Alfa-Bank, an important Russian commercial bank, and also has a hand in Gazprom thanks to an investment fund. In a long article about Trump entitled “Putin’s Puppet,” Slate highlights Burt’s criticisms of NATO and his interest in more “realistic” cooperation with Russia.
Another man, Felix Sater, also appears in the background of Trump’s networks. A Jewish-Russian emigrant with a scandalous reputation, he is now at odds with the American justice system because of his alleged ties to the Mafia. On May 17, The Washington Post described, based on his depositions, Sater’s arrival in the magnate candidate’s “orbit” through the intermediary of his company Bayrock Group, which has offices in Trump Tower. According to the Post, “documents show that Trump in 2005 extended Bayrock a one-year deal to develop a project in the Russian capital. Sater said he had located a group of interested Russian investors,” notably “for a luxury high-rise.” The billionaire candidate once asked him to accompany his son during a trip to Moscow. Trump has maintained that he wouldn’t recognize Sater if he saw him.
These connections have fueled other, more serious suspicion, after the hacking of the Democratic National Committee (the governing body of rival candidate Hillary Clinton’s party) and the Clinton Foundation. The cybersecurity firm CrowdStrike, which revealed the hacking in which data collected on Trump was stolen, attributed it to two hacker groups linked to the Russian government. A hacker with the pseudonym “Guccifer 2.0” would later claim responsibility for the operation. For its part, the Kremlin has denied any involvement.
The American presidential candidate himself has made several trips to the former Soviet Union, starting in 1987, and then to Russia — including to Moscow to organize the city’s first Miss Universe pageant in November 2013. “Do you think Putin will be going … ? If so, will he become my new best friend?” he asked himself on Twitter before the event. Dazzled as he is by the prospect of juicy contracts for deluxe hotel construction, he will never get them in the end. But he has made himself some friends in the country. Communicating vicariously through the media, Trump and Putin have been quite friendly with each other, although the two men seem never to have met. Trump has called Putin “a strong leader,” to which the Russian president replied that Trump is “bright and talented,” while making it clear that the Kremlin will “work with any future president.”
*Editor’s note: The original quotation, accurately translated, could not be verified.