- By Molly O’TooleMolly O’Toole is a senior reporter at Foreign Policy, covering immigration, refugees, and national security. She was FP’s sole 2016 presidential campaign reporter, on the trail from New Hampshire to Nevada. Previously, she covered the politics of national security for Atlantic Media’s Defense One, where she reported from Congress, the White House, the Pentagon, and the State Department. Before that, she was a news editor at the Huffington Post. Molly has also reported on national and international politics for Reuters, the Nation, The Associated Press, and Newsweek International, among others, from Washington, New York, Mexico City, and London. She received her dual master’s degree in journalism and international relations from New York University and her bachelor’s from Cornell University and in 2016 was a grant recipient of the International Women’s Media Foundation. She will always be a Californian., Elias GrollElias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy, covering cyberspace and its conflicts and controversies. He has written for the magazine since 2012 and is a graduate of Harvard University.
Intelligence officials in the United States are investigating whether Carter Page, a businessman described by Donald Trump as a foreign policy advisor, has been making backroom promises to Moscow to lift some sanctions against top Kremlin officials if Trump is elected.
In recent briefings with senior members of Congress about apparent attempts by Moscow to influence the presidential contest between Trump and Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, intelligence officials have raised concerns about Page’s travels to Moscow, according to a Yahoo News report on Friday afternoon. Intelligence officials believe Page has had meetings with Russian officials currently sanctioned by the Treasury Department for involvement in Russia’s “illegitimate and unlawful actions in the Ukraine.” Many top Kremlin officials and business associates of President Vladimir Putin are in U.S. sanctions crosshairs.
The report is only the latest in a series to suggest that the Trump campaign, and especially his aides, have some bottom-line interest in boosting chummy ties with Moscow. But now, with an ongoing federal investigation, the Page revelations provide the strongest hint yet at negotiations with Russian officials, and drop a bombshell into the 2016 campaign just days ahead of the first presidential debate on Monday.
Trump’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment Friday and Page’s current role remains unclear.
On Thursday, the ranking members on the House and Senate intelligence committees, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), sharply criticized Moscow for attempting to boost Trump’s fortunes.
“We have concluded that the Russian intelligence agencies are making a serious and concerted effort to influence the U.S. election,” they wrote. “We believe that orders for the Russian intelligence agencies to conduct such actions could come only from very senior levels of the Russian government.”
Their Republican counterparts in Congress have been far more quiet on Trump’s friendly stance toward Russia, even as evidence has piled up that hackers working on behalf of Moscow are infiltrating American political groups and posting stolen material online.
A spokesperson for Sen. Richard Burr, (R-N.C.), the chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, suggested in July that the intelligence community should be allowed to complete its investigations into these incidents before any conclusions be drawn.
Burr, who has endorsed Trump, is currently battling for reelection in one of the most competitive races in the country as the Republicans fight to keep their majority in the Senate. Burr’s office did not respond to multiple requests for comment Friday.
House Intelligence Committee Chair Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), did not deny the Russian interference, but downplayed its significance.
“Well I think Russia’s very good at influencing elections and they do it all over the world,” he told CBS’s Face the Nation. “It wouldn’t surprise me that they’d try to do it here, it wouldn’t surprise me that they tried to break into the DNC and RNC — and think we just shouldn’t panic that the Russians would try to do this because they always try to do it.”
Russia has carried information operations aimed at influencing elections in its more immediate sphere of influence, but recent breaches in the United States have expanded such operations to American shores.
While the motive of the U.S. breaches remains unclear, American intelligence officials are reportedly investigating the scope of Russian information operations against the United States, and whether Moscow is seeking to influence the outcome of November’s election. Hackers linked to Russian intelligence have broken into the servers of the Democratic National Committee, and emails from its servers later appeared on WikiLeaks.
Those emails revealed that party officials had attempted to undermine the candidacy of Sen. Bernie Sanders, (D-Vt.), and led to the resignation of DNC chief Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.).
Stolen material from other American political groups, nonprofit organizations, and officials have also appeared online. The targets have included the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, former NATO commander Gen. Philip Breedlove, and the philanthropic organization of George Soros.
Throughout the campaign, Trump has raised alarm both among U.S. officials and American allies in Eastern Europe. He suggested he may pull the U.S. military out of NATO, or refuse to defend penny-pinching NATO allies against Russian invasion.
Trump aides intervened in the drafting of the GOP’s policy platform this summer to minimize military assistance for Ukraine, pleasing Russia. And in the wake of the DNC leak in July, Trump asked Moscow to hack Clinton’s emails, a remark he later suggested was a joke.
Last month, Trump campaign chief Paul Manafort resigned after ledgers surfaced detailing that he had been paid millions in cash by pro-Russian Ukrainian politicos.
But Trump hasn’t backed off, repeating time and again his admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin and his leadership style, and suggesting the United States work more closely with Moscow.
Yet his coziness toward the Kremlin has split the party, already conflicted over his candidacy and concerned it could damage the chances of keeping control of the Senate.
Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Sen. Bob Corker, (R-Tenn.), and Armed Services Committee Chairman Sen. John McCain, (R-Ariz.), along with Sen. Lindsey Graham, (R-S.C.), who dropped out of the 2016 Republican primary, all recently expressed their concerns to Foreign Policy.
“I think one needs to be careful about responding to flattery,” Corker said of Trump’s compliments for Putin. “I mean, let’s just be honest.”
Photo credit: Mark Wilson / Staff
Correction, Sept. 26, 2016: Rep. Devin Nunes chairs the House Intelligence Committee. A previous version of this article mistakenly called him David Nunes.