WASHINGTON (AP) — At Moscow's New Economic School, the annual graduation ceremony often features a prominent political figure. President Barack Obama addressed graduates at the prestigious institution in 2009. The former presidents of Mexico and the Czech Republic have spoken at recent ceremonies.
Last year, the university invited Carter Page, a little-known former investment banker and foreign policy adviser to then-U.S. presidential hopeful Donald Trump. It wouldn't be the last time Page would draw unexpected — and some say outsized — attention for his relationship to Trump, his entanglements in Russia and the murky nexus between the two.
Page, who left the campaign before the election, has emerged as a key figure in the controversy surrounding Trump associates' connections to Russia. The New York Times has reported that Page is among the Trump associates whose potential contacts with Russia are being investigated by the FBI. Congressional committees probing Russia's hacking during the election and Trump campaign ties have asked Page to preserve materials related to their investigations.
For those who contend the scrutiny of Trump is overblown, Page is the sort of figure often associated with an understaffed presidential campaign that struggled to recruit policy advisers and spent little time vetting those who did join the team. But to those who believe Trump's campaign was colluding with Russia as it hacked Democratic groups, Page may be the key link between the candidate and Moscow. Page contends he's the target of a plot hatched by Trump's former rival Hillary Clinton and allies who engaged in "severe election fraud in the form of disinformation, suppression of dissent, hate crimes and other extensive abuses."
Page's appearance at the Russian university immediately raised eyebrows.
For an adviser to an American presidential hopeful speaking overseas, his message was strikingly critical of the U.S. It came as Trump's calls for warmer relations with the Kremlin were a source of criticism from Democrats and alarm from some fellow Republicans.
Washington had a "hypocritical focus on ideas such as democratization, inequality, corruption and regime change" in its dealings with Russia, Page said at the school.
Page and former Trump campaign officials say he made the trip in a personal capacity and not as a representative of the campaign. But university officials have been clear that Page's connections and insight into the Trump campaign were the draw.
"We were interested in what was going on — already then, Trump's candidacy raised eyebrows, and everyone was really curious," said Shlomo Weber, the academic director at the New Economic School, in an interview with Komsomolskaya Pravda radio station.
A newsletter announcing Page's visit read. "You are invited to a lecture by Carter Page, foreign policy adviser for Donald Trump's election campaign."
Page has said he asked for, and received, permission from the Trump campaign to appear in a personal capacity.
Page has offered contradictory answers about his contacts with Russian officials during his visit. On Thursday, he told The Associated Press he did not meet with Russian Deputy Prime Minister Arkady Dvorkovich, who also spoke at the graduation. But in September, he told The Washington Post that he did speak with Dvorkovich briefly.
Back in the U.S. a few days later, Page talked with Russia's ambassador to the U.S. at an event on the sidelines of the Republican National Convention, according to a person with knowledge of the meeting. Attorney General Jeff Sessions spoke with the Russian envoy at the same event, a conversation he failed to reveal when asked about contacts with Russians during his Senate confirmation hearings.
Page, a former Merrill Lynch investment banker who worked out of its Moscow office for three years, now runs Global Energy Capital, a firm focused on energy sectors in emerging markets. According to the company's website, he has advised on transactions for Gazprom and RAO UES, a pair of Russian entities.
In December, Page returned to Moscow, where he noted he had "the opportunity to meet with an executive from Rosneft," the Russian oil giant, according to a video clip of his remarks posted on YouTube. Rosnet's chairman, Igor Sechin, a close associate of Russian President Vladimir Putin, has been targeted by U.S. sanctions, though Page says he was not referring to Sechin in his remarks.
Some of the suspicion surrounding Page stems from the fact that no one who worked for the campaign can quite explain how he ended up on Trump's list of foreign policy advisers. Page has also sidestepped those questions, saying he doesn't want to put others "in the same damaged pot as myself."
One campaign official said Page was recruited by Sam Clovis, an Iowa Republican operative who ran the Trump campaign's policy shop and is now a senior adviser at the Agriculture Department. Clovis did not respond to messages from The Associated Press.
Trump has distanced himself from Page, saying he never met him. Those who served on the campaign's foreign policy advisory committee also said they had limited contact with Page.
"Only met him once very briefly," said George Papadopoulos, the director of the Center for International Energy and Natural Resources Law and Security in London.
But in a letter late Wednesday to the Senate Intelligence Committee, Page cast himself as a regular presence in Trump Tower, where the campaign was headquartered.
"I have frequently dined in Trump Grill, had lunch in Trump Café, had coffee meetings in the Starbucks at Trump Tower, attended events and spent many hours in campaign headquarters on the fifth floor last year," Page wrote. He also noted that his office building in New York "is literally connected to the Trump Tower building by an atrium."
Page stopped advising the campaign sometime around the end of summer, though the exact circumstances of the separation are unclear. After the campaign, Trump's lawyers sent Page at least two cease and desist letters, according to another campaign official, who like others, insisted on anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.
AP writers Jim Heintz in Moscow and Maria Danilova contributed to this report.
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