It’s time to devote a post to Carter Page, one of the five foreign policy advisers on Donald Trump’s election campaign team. He recently had a lengthy encounter with the House Intelligence Committee, which was interested not only in his relations with Russian government officials but also in his trip to Budapest over the Labor Day weekend in 2016. Carter Page is the founder and managing partner of Global Energy Capital, a New York investment fund and consulting firm specializing in the Russian and Central Asian oil and gas business. Although from the transcript of his testimony he comes across as someone who can’t even cobble together a complete sentence, his academic credentials, including a Ph.D. from SOAS University of London, would suggest that he cannot be as dumb as he pretends to be.
The transcript that the House Intelligence Committee released, with very few redactions, is 208 pages long. Even the relatively minor topic of his trip to Budapest occupies 13 pages. Most journalistic analyses of Page’s testimony stress the confusion the so-called foreign policy expert managed to sow. Surely, the argument goes, Page had plenty of time to craft his muddled testimony carefully, because he had known, at least since June or July of this year, that the FBI was on his trail.
Why did Carter Page visit Budapest in September 2016? At the moment we cannot give a credible answer to this question, but it was not merely a pleasure trip. This is what we know about the events leading up to the trip. Hungarian Ambassador Réka Szemerkényi met Carter Page at the Republican National Convention, which was held in Cleveland, Ohio between July 18 and 20. They must have become friendly with one another because throughout Page’s grilling he called her by her first name. At the same event, Page also met another “foreign policy type,” perhaps from the Hungarian Embassy. Subsequently, e-mails were exchanged between them. Szemerkényi invited Page to go to Budapest in August or early September, when she was spending her vacation in Hungary.
Although Page maintained, at least at the beginning of the hearings, that he went to Hungary only to meet people who are interested in the use of geothermal energy, he had to admit by the end that he discussed foreign policy with Szemerkényi and the other unnamed official in Cleveland. Although Page’s testimony was most likely purposely vague and here and there incoherent, we learned that Page was not the only Trump adviser Szemerkényi kept in touch with. Page, who pretends not to remember names at all, didn’t recall the name of this person either, but I would venture to suggest it might have been J. D. Gordon, director of national security for the Trump campaign, who managed the National Security Advisory Committee under its chairman Senator Jeff Sessions. Gordon has had a long-standing relationship with Hungarian government figures and has been a frequent visitor to Budapest. In a recent interview he told Mandiner that over the years he had visited Hungary six times. One of the first occasions might have been in December 2013 when he delivered a lecture at a conference organized by the Antall József Knowledge Center (AJKC), a think tank with close ties to the Orbán government. He was such a hit at AJKC that he was invited two more times. The last occasion was in December 2016, after Donald Trump had been elected president of the United States.
Szemerkényi introduced Page to important people in the Hungarian government during that Labor Day weekend. Although Page testified that he met a lot of people in Budapest, he didn’t know who these people were. Hungarian names, he said, are long and complicated. I can understand his difficulties with Hungarian names, but he acted as if he had no idea what kinds of positions they occupied either. Obviously, he considered some to be more important than others. After his return to the United States, he kept in touch with the ambassador and one of the people he met in Budapest, “a scholar and an expert on foreign policy” who worked for the Hungarian government.
As to the question of whether Page met any Russians during his stay in Budapest, he gave the following answers: “Not that I can recall. There may—again, similar to—we went to a—you know, there was a hotel, and we had a coffee at a hotel, and there were a few people passing through there. But I have no recollection because it was totally immaterial and nothing serious was discussed. So—but I vaguely recall that, you know there may have been someone that we, you know…” I will let the readers decide whether Page met a Russian official in Budapest.
Now let’s turn to the Hungarian side of the story. Szabolcs Panyi of Index, who happens to be in the United States at the moment, made some inquiries and found at least one person who met with Page, as it turns out for about half an hour. Jenő Megyesy, a U.S.-Hungarian citizen, formerly a lawyer in Denver, now Viktor Orbán’s principal adviser, is the person who normally meets more important American visitors. Megyesy now claims that he was surprised by Page’s general ignorance of the fine points of the foreign policy issues of the region. Others who met him were also “disappointed” that such a man was one of Trump’s foreign policy advisers. Officials of the ministry of foreign affairs claim that nobody from the ministry had anything to do with Page. Therefore, I assume that Szemerkényi asked members of the prime minister’s office to meet Trump’s foreign policy adviser. That would make sense since Szemerkényi worked for Viktor Orbán and she was his choice for the Washington post. In fact, there was quite a bit of friction between Péter Szijjártó, the minister of foreign affairs, and Réka Szemerkényi.
Szabolcs Panyi believes that if Page pushed his pro-Russian line with Szemerkényi and Megyesy, he wouldn’t have been a hit with either of them because they are both “committed Atlantists.” I see it differently. If these people are committed at all, they are committed to Viktor Orbán. When Szemerkényi was appointed Hungarian ambassador to Washington, people familiar with their relationship said that Szemerkényi was totally devoted to Orbán and that Szemerkényi’s moving to Washington was almost as if Viktor Orbán himself were the occupant of the post. Of course, it is possible that since Viktor Orbán sacked her, her admiration for the man is a great deal less ardent.
The question remains whether Page met someone else in Budapest. For example, a Russian national residing in the Hungarian capital, perhaps a member of the Russian Embassy. The FBI, working together with secret service agents, might already have been following Page’s moves during that trip. If that is the case, we might eventually find out more about it. I disagree with one of Panyi’s informants who proposed that Page went to Budapest for a lark. There was a purpose to that trip, we just don’t know what it was and whether it was in any way nefarious.