Trump campaign adviser Carter Page targeted for recruitment by Russian spies

PHOTO: In an interview with ABC News, one-time Trump foreign policy advisor Carter Page, said that he never met with key Russian officials on Trump’s behalf.PlayABC News
WATCH Former associate denies being Trump-Russia middleman

Two years before joining the Trump campaign as a foreign policy adviser, New York business consultant Carter Page was targeted for recruitment as an intelligence source by Russian spies promising favors for business opportunities in Russia, according to a sealed FBI complaint.

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Page confirmed to ABC News that he is the individual identified as "Male-1" in a 2015 court document submitted in a case involving the Russian spies.

Page told ABC News he cooperated in the case and felt the feds "unmasked" him by describing him in January 2015 in a manner that would be known to energy insiders.

WHAT TO KNOW

"I didn't want to be a spy," he said in an interview early Monday afternoon. "I'm not a spy."

According to the document, the FBI interviewed Page as part of an investigation stemming from the indictment of three Russian men identified as agents of the Russian foreign intelligence agency, the SVR. One of them, Evgeny Buryakov, was operating undercover as an executive in the New York office of a Russian development bank. The Buryakov case resurfaced in headlines last week when President Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, revealed he had met with the head of that bank. Buryakov was sentenced to 30 months in prison as part of a plea agreement, but he was released from prison over the weekend and is awaiting deportation to Russia.

In the FBI court filings, spy recruiters were overheard speaking with Buryakov about "the attempted use of Male-1 as an intelligence source for Russia," the court record says. The recruiter says he "promised Male-1 a lot" and told him he would use his "connections in Russia" to "push contracts" his way. "For now, his enthusiasm works for me," the recruiter says of Page.

Page was never accused during the Buryakov case of having been successfully recruited or of spying. FBI agents say in the court record that they interviewed "Male-1" in June 2013. During the interview, Page described how he and the man identified as a Russian recruiter, Victor Podobnyy, met periodically and exchanged emails about the energy industry, but nothing in the court document suggests that Page shared any sensitive information with Podobnyy. Rather, it appears they spoke in much the way business executives seeking opportunities do — with Page touting his work ties to the Russian energy firm Gazprom. The Russians were heard laughing, saying Page had no idea they were government agents.

The FBI said "Male-1" provided the Russians his "outlook on the current and future of the energy industry" and "also provided documents … about the energy business."

Early in his campaign for president, Trump identified Page as one of his top foreign policy advisers during a Washington Post editorial board meeting. At the time, Page had almost no public profile in Washington foreign policy circles. In September he emerged as a key figure in the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election when questions began to circulate about a speech he gave at a prominent Moscow university over the summer. He was also named in the now infamous dossier prepared by former British spy Christopher Steele, who was hired to conduct opposition research on Trump. The dossier alleged that Page used the speech as cover to meet with senior Kremlin officials on Trump's behalf, a claim that Page has denied.

In an interview with ABC News in February, Page said that he has always advocated for warmer relations between the U.S. and Russia — both in his published work and during his July speech in Moscow — but he never met with key Russian officials on Trump's behalf.

"It would have been an honor to meet [Russian oil executive and Putin ally] Igor Ivanovich [Sechin], but I never had that opportunity," Page said.

Page, whose name appears repeatedly in Steele's dossier under the heading "Secret Kremlin meetings attended by Trump advisor," called its assertion "absolutely ridiculous."

"Never happened," he said emphatically.

The federal case resurfaced in news reports last week when Kushner confirmed that in late December he met with the director of the Russian-owned Vnesheconombank (VEB) at the suggestion of the Russian ambassador to the U.S. VEB is under Ukraine-related sanctions by the U.S. Bank officials told ABC News in a statement that the meeting with Kushner was business related.

Federal prosecutors argued that Buryakov had use his job as a high-ranking official in the Manhattan office of VEB as cover for espionage. He was arrested on Jan. 26, 2015, and accused of serving as an agent for SVR. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, Buryakov operated under nonofficial cover, posing as a private citizen while he passed information to two SVR agents tasked with gathering economic intelligence about the United States.

"More than two decades after the end of the Cold War, Russian spies still seek to operate in our midst under the cover of secrecy," said former U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, whose office handled the case, in 2016. "But in New York, thanks to the work of the FBI and the prosecutors in my office, attempts to conduct unlawful espionage will not be overlooked. They will be investigated and prosecuted."

Undercover FBI agents lured Buryakov and his SVR associates, Igor Sporyshev and Podobnyy, into a trap by masquerading as well-placed business sources ripe for recruitment while using physical and electronic surveillance to gather enough information to build their case.

After his arrest, Buryakov agreed to plead guilty to "conspiracy to act in the United States as an agent of a foreign government" in exchange for serving just 30 months in prison (rather than the five-year maximum sentence) and paying a fine of $100,000. Sporyshev and Podobnyy fled the country and returned to Russia.

On Friday, Buryakov was granted early release from federal prison. The terms of his sentence included a requirement that he be deported upon his release. A source familiar with his case told ABC News, "Mr. Buryakov has been released and is awaiting return to Russia."

ABC News received this statement from Page regarding the 2015 case:

"Consistent with the politically motivated unmasking standards seen in the Obama administration which have recently been exposed, my personal identity and earlier assistance of federal authorities in the 2015 case of USA v. Buryakov, Sporyshev and Podobnyy was framed in an easily identifiable way that amplified the reputational damage against me.

"As I explained to federal authorities prior to the January 2015 filing of this case, I shared basic immaterial information and publicly available research documents with Podobnyy, who then served as a junior attaché at the Permanent Mission of the Russian Federation to the United Nations. In doing so, I provided him nothing more than a few samples from the far more detailed lectures I was preparing at the time for the students in my spring 2013 semester Energy and the World: Politics, Markets and Technology course, which I taught on Saturdays at New York University.

"Throughout 2014, I subsequently wrote multiple academic articles on the foreign policy failures of the Obama administration as exhibited most vividly in the botched reset with Russia. When this case was announced in January 2015 by Attorney General [Eric] Holder during the final months of his term, the political vendetta tactics seen here also represented a clear retribution for my public positions of dissent.

"By comparison to the offenses of the defendants in this 2015 case, where I provided assistance to the U.S. federal investigation, the defamatory and fabricated claims made in 2016 were infinitely more serious, arrogant and deeply harmful to the legitimacy of democratic processes in the U.S. Over the period to come, I very much look forward to providing further evidence regarding last year's historic crimes committed against me and all Americans."

This article has been updated. It was originally posted on April 3, 2017 at 7:56 p.m.