Recent statements to The Federalist from former Donald Trump campaign advisor Carter Page suggest the Obama administration, and later career Department of Justice and Federal Bureau of Investigation employees, used the Page surveillance orders to spy, not just on the Trump campaign, but also on the Trump transition team and the Trump administration.
Over the weekend, Page told The Federalist that after he left the Trump campaign in late September 2016, he continued to communicate with individuals officially connected to the campaign. “Yes, I stayed in touch with them – including during the transition months and after the start of the new administration,” Page said. While Page refused to identify all of the individuals with whom he maintained a relationship in order to protect their privacy, he confirmed that he remained in contact with Steve Bannon.
Bannon, the former head of Breitbart News, served as the chief executive for the Trump campaign beginning in August 2016. Following Trump’s 2016 victory, the president-elect appointed Bannon to serve as his chief strategist and senior counselor. Bannon continued in that role following Trump’s inauguration, until the president fired him in August 2017.
From October 2016 and then throughout Bannon’s remaining tenure as chief strategist and senior counselor, the FBI had authority to conduct electronic surveillance on Page. The first Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act order went into effect in late October 2016. The FISA court renewed the surveillance order three times, with the fourth and final order authorizing the FBI to intercept Page’s communiques until late September 2017.
Although the publicly released Page FISA orders redact the surveillance methods authorized and the modes of communication the FBI could target, it is safe to assume that any communication device Page used would be tapped, including cell phones, text, and email. Thus, the FBI would have access to any text and emails Page exchanged with Bannon or other members of the campaign, transition team, or administration, as well as the ability to eavesdrop on any telephone calls.
The media has long downplayed the significance of the FISA surveillance orders by stressing that Page was no longer connected to the Trump campaign when the FISA court issued its first order in October 2016. Earlier this month, the Washington Post reupped this narrative in an article entitled, “What’s the evidence for ‘spying on Trump’s campaign? Here’s your guide.”
“There are two main threads to the accusations of spying,” the Post’s self-branded “Fact Checker,” Glenn Kessler, wrote. First, there were the contacts “by FBI-linked operatives with George Papadopoulos,” Kessler noted, and second, there was the “federal court surveillance of Carter Page after he was ousted by the campaign” (emphasis added). Kessler’s article stressed the timing of the FISA surveillance order a second time, noting that “other than the contact with Halper, which Page described as inconsequential, the FBI’s surveillance of Page came after he left the campaign in late September” (emphasis added).
However, as former Assistant U.S. Attorney Andrew McCarthy explained, once the government obtains a FISA order on a target’s “phone or his communication devices, [such as], emails, text accounts and the like, you not only get the forward-going communications, you get whatever stored communications are on his system.” That means the FISA order allowed the FBI to obtain past communications between Page and Trump campaign officials, including the head of Trump’s campaign, Bannon.
But Page went further, telling The Federalist “that whole ‘he already left the campaign’ facade (the New York Times, Washington Post, CNN, and many other usual suspects use it all the time), is entirely incorrect anyway.” He stayed in touch with members of the campaign team through the election, transition, and later during the Trump administration, Page explained. “I can also tell you on the record,” Page said, “that one of the things that the FBI investigators were interested in were my early 2017 text messages with Steve Bannon (irrelevant as they may be).”
Page refused to expand on the content of his early 2017 text messages with Bannon, but suggested that the subject matter of those texts was unimportant—it was the FBI’s interest in, and probing about, his exchanges with Bannon that proved infinitely more significant. That probing came when the FBI interviewed Page multiple times in March 2017, at a time when James Comey, Andrew McCabe, and Peter Strzok remained in charge of the Russia collusion investigation.
The special counsel report reveals that Robert Mueller’s team asked President Trump whether he spoke with Bannon or other individuals with the transition team regarding “establishing an unofficial line of communications with Russia.” Whether that was the FBI’s interest in Page’s exchanges with Bannon is unknown, but the time frame would match.
But Page’s revelation that he remained in touch with Bannon and others during the transition period and following Trump’s inauguration, raises a much larger question: Did the FBI use the FISA surveillance orders to spy on Trump after his election?
Margot Cleveland is a senior contributor to The Federalist. Cleveland served nearly 25 years as a permanent law clerk to a federal appellate judge and is a former full-time faculty member and current adjunct instructor at the college of business at the University of Notre Dame.
The views expressed here are those of Cleveland in her private capacity.