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‘North by Northwest,’ the Carter Page remake

‘North by Northwest,’ the Carter Page remake
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Carter Page at times must feel like Roger O. Thornhill in Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece spy movie, “North by Northwest.”

In the movie, Cary Grant’s character is mistaken to be an agent after calling a waiter to his table at the same time that a fictitious agent, George Caplan, is being paged at the restaurant. The foreign agents who are looking for Caplan target Thornhill. What transpires results in one of the best movies ever made, as we follow Grant across the country to foil the plans of the foreign agents to smuggle microfilm containing U.S. secrets out of the country.

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Like the Roger Thornhill character, Carter Page was seemingly in the wrong place at the wrong time after being identified as an “energy policy advisor” to the Trump campaign. Page’s brief time with the Trump campaign happened to intersect with the development of the infamous Trump dossier by former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele.

 

The opposition research document, paid for by the Clinton campaign and Democratic National Committee, created a narrative that accused the Trump campaign of colluding with the Russian government to influence the 2016 election. The dossier set off a firestorm of accusations and proffered a series of charges that needed someone with ties to Russia to connect them into a damning narrative. Enter Carter Page.

Page could be called an accidental advisor. The Trump team was becoming more confident that he would win the Republican nomination, but they felt the campaign needed to “broaden its policy infrastructure,” according to The Daily Caller.  

In March 2016, during an interview with the Washington Post editorial board, Trump brashly released a short list of advisors. “The list was a head-scratcher, a random assortment of obscure and questionable pundits,” Politico reported in 2016. “One of the names, offered without elaboration, was Carter Page, Ph.D.”  

The reporting paints Page as a somewhat nobody from nowhere: “[Page] claims an expertise in Russia and energy, yet who, I quickly discovered, was [not] known by Russia experts, nor energy experts, nor Russian energy experts.”

Page’s business life changed dramatically when he was recognized by Trump. Said Politico’s Julia Ioffe: “Page might not be helping Trump, [but] Trump has been a significant help to Page. Since being named by Trump as an adviser, Page, who has spent his career trying to put together energy deals in Russia and the former Soviet Union, has finally begun to be noticed in the region. He is being treated in Russia as a person with potentially important ties in America.”

Page now had cachet. Doors were opening to him, and people were returning his telephone calls.  Meetings occurred in Russia where his business was focused. But this new celebrity would lead to his transformation from Roger Thornhill to George Caplan.

An honors graduate of the Naval Academy, with a master’s degree, MBA and doctorate, he had worked his way up to an executive position with Merrill Lynch, serving stints in London, Moscow and New York. His focus was energy. After his two minutes of fame with the Trump team, Page must have thought he was positioned to make his own company successful — but forces beyond his control had other plans for him.

With the Trump dossier being used to drive a narrative about Trump’s Russia ties, Michael Isikoff wrote a story for Yahoo News in September 2016. By then, Page’s transition from someone trying to find his footing for his energy venture in Russia to a “global player” was complete. But, like the Thornhill character, he was becoming a cog is a much bigger wheel, turning to elect a president.

Suddenly, Page found himself at the center of a maelstrom. Isikoff quoted former Senate Leader Harry ReidHarry Mason ReidFive takeaways from testy Heller-Rosen debate in Nevada Major overhauls needed to ensure a violent revolution remains fictional Senate heads home to campaign after deal on Trump nominees MORE expressing concerns to former FBI director Jim Comey. Isikoff cited Reid’s apprehension “about meetings between a Trump advisor” (a reference to Page) and “high-ranking sanctioned individuals” in Moscow over the summer as evidence of “significant and disturbing ties” between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin that needed to be investigated.”

Whatever Page now did was viewed through the prism of the Russia-Trump connection. His criticisms of Obama’s sanctions on Russia that drove down the value of Gazprom, the Russian state-owned gas company where he was an advisor and investor, was linked with a speech he gave at a university where he criticized western approaches toward Russia that he felt impeded its progress (Page’s doctoral dissertation was on the movement from socialism to capitalism). This created a web of suspicion that a struggling businessman was integral to global economics, as well as being anti-American and the facilitator of Trump’s collusion with Russia to influence the election.

In “North by Northwest,” the real CIA officer (Leo G. Carroll) is not sympathetic to the predicament in which Grant’s character finds himself as a result of the mix-up at the restaurant.  He sees Roger Thornhill as a means to an end to accomplish his goal of breaking the spy ring.

We don’t yet know the ending to this story with Carter Page, but it seems, at least at this point, that fictitious dots were intentionally added to mix, so that they could be connected in a way that would hurt the Trump campaign. Page’s brief moment in the sun, as an affiliate of the Trump campaign, was seemingly integral to driving the Russia narrative.

In this process, Carter Page may have become George Caplan — a fictitious agent skillfully created in someone’s imagination to set a trap to catch a spy. Sometimes real life is stranger than fiction, and I am eager to learn whether Carter Page indeed is living a real life “North by Northwest.”

Dennis M. Powell is founder and president of Massey Powell, a public affairs consultancy headquartered in Plymouth Meeting, Pa.