We're Again Testing How Much Bullsh*t American Politics Can Withstand

Prior to Carter Page’s bravura piece of surreal performance art on Monday before the House Select Committee On Intelligence, there was Casey Stengel in 1958, confounding the Senate Anti-Trust and Monopoly Subcommittee that was looking into removing professional baseball’s exemption from the country’s anti-trust regulations. And then, 15 years later, Tony Ulasewicz, the hangdog ex-NYPD cop-turned-Nixonian bagman, explained to Sam Ervin and the special committee looking into Watergate how he handled the payoffs to the original Watergate burglars—including the piquant detail that, while he was roaming Washington with paper bags full of cash, he wore a subway motorman’s change dispenser on his belt because he was doing so much business in public phone booths.

BY CHARLES P. PIERCE

“Your talk," I said, "is surely the handiwork of wisdom because not one word of it do I understand.”

—Flann O'Brien, The Third Policeman

Prior to Carter Page’s bravura piece of surreal performance art on Monday before the House Select Committee On Intelligence, there was Casey Stengel in 1958, confounding the Senate Anti-Trust and Monopoly Subcommittee that was looking into removing professional baseball’s exemption from the country’s anti-trust regulations. And then, 15 years later, Tony Ulasewicz, the hangdog ex-NYPD cop-turned-Nixonian bagman, explained to Sam Ervin and the special committee looking into Watergate how he handled the payoffs to the original Watergate burglars—including the piquant detail that, while he was roaming Washington with paper bags full of cash, he wore a subway motorman’s change dispenser on his belt because he was doing so much business in public phone booths.

But neither of them came anywhere close to the kung-fu fighting that Page did with the English language on Monday. The committee wisely released a transcript of Page’s testimony, and chunks of it were flying around the Intertoobz all Monday night. I found that the best way to read it was to dim all the lights and play all my Hawkwind albums really loud.

There’s just so much chewy goodness. For example, Page refers to the “so-called Putin regime,” but has no compunction of referring to “the Obama-Clinton regime” without the qualifying modifier. He also seems to believe that the Senate “Gang of Eight” was an actual gang, with Harry Reid as its jefe. His testimony begins with a long letter he’d written in response to the committee. Here, from that letter, he presents as evidence that he and the Russians were guiltless of ratfcking the 2016 election the fact that he is not yet wealthy.

If our government had a better understanding of Russia and the way business is now conducted in Russia, the 2016 Dodgy Dossier which alleged that I should have received a multi-million dollar bribe after President Trump’s victory in November would have been easily dismissed as a work of fiction by these supposed subject-matter experts.

The letter also refers to the “gangster tactics” of “the transnational veritable organized crime network that Reid leveraged during the Clinton/Obama regime,” so you can pretty much figure out that we’ve turned a pretty dark bend in a pretty strange river.

But we didn’t truly get to the heart of the wild kingdom that is Carter Page’s mind until the committee members got a chance to question him. It helps while reading these sections of the transcripts if you can imagine the chattering of monkeys, the call of jungle birds, and the ominous breathing of large predators in the underbrush. First up was Adam Schiff—no, not that Adam Schiff—Democrat of California, who asked Page about the latter’s curious view of his Fifth Amendment rights. Page then led Schiff into a discussion that must have made Schiff wonder why he spent so much money at Harvard Law School.

Schiff: Just so that we’re clear, though, Dr. Page, you are refusing to provide the committee certain documents relevant to our investigaition, such as documents that may pertain to your trip to Russia, on the basis that they may tend to incriminate you?

Page: Nothing would directly incriminate me. The only thing that could put me in some risk is for a very aggressive prosecutor is the lack of overlap with those two. The fact that some of the document – you know, my documents will not be – by definition, they cannot be as comprehensive as the documents which are already collected. The National Security Agency, the CIA, the FBI have infinitely greater data-processing capabilities than I do.

Schiff: Dr. Page, I’m really just trying to understand if you are invoking the privilege or not. Are you refusing to turn over certain documents to the committee that are relevant to its investigation because you are invoking the Fifth Amendment?

Page: Yes. Yes, sir. And each of those elements in it, both judicial and extra-judicial.

At this point, to the surprise of many observers, bats did not fly out of Page’s ears. Republicans fared little better untangling whatever the hell it was that Page had come to tell. Trey Gowdy, the lopheaded Javert of Benghazi, Benghazi!, Benghazi! Days, found himself completely baffled by Page’s account of his encounters with various Russian officials during his trip there.

Gowdy: All right, I’ve written down four different words. I didn’t think I’d ever be going through this with anyone, but we’ve got to, I guess. You seem to draw a distinction between a meeting, a greeting, a conversation, and you hearing a speech. So to the extent you may have said that you have met with senior members of the Russian government or legislators in Russia, were those meetings, greetings, conversations, or were you sitting in the audience listening?

(Mind of Trey Gowdy: Or were you swinging from the chandelier, you fcking lunatic? Why did I ever get into politics?)

Page: The greetings were to Arkady Dvorkovich and perhaps – I believe – there were a couple of legislators, again, in the audience, you know, people whose kids were graduating from this top university, like if you go to Yale’s commencement, or Stanford’s commencement, and there may be some senior government officials – or the University of Pennsylvania’s commencement – who said hello very briefly. But, so meetings and greetings or, sorry, greetings and brief conversations would be each of those. In terms of listening to the speech, which is the primary focus and the primary thing I was driving at with these incredible insights, was really the primary focus of where I got my information.

Gowdy: So what you were trying to communicate is that you had derived great insight from having listened to someone make a speech?

Page: Certainly, yes, as I have from Donald J. Trump during the campaign.

If I were inclined to feel sorry for Trey Gowdy, lord above, I would have felt sorry for Trey Gowdy. Nobody should be forced to bail out a boat with no bottom to it.

Still later, Eric Swalwell, another Democrat from California, tried to get Page to explain why Page went to Russia in December of 2016. Page told Swalwell that he went there to drum up business—what sort of business, he declined to say—and because he felt safer in Russia than he did in the United States.

Page: Part of the reason I went there is because I felt safer there.

Swalwell: Who was protecting you there to make you feel safe?

Page: I haven’t received any death threats in Russia.

Swalwell: Who was protecting you in Russia to make you feel safe?

Page: No one is protecting me. There’s just – I’ve never felt threatened in Russia. I’ve been threatened on multiple occasions in the United States following in the wake of the Dodgy Dossier and the trolls that sort of spun up this false story about me.

Page, as you will see, and as Swalwell noticed, had tripped over one of those floating calendar pages that they used to mark the passage of time in old movies.

Swalwell: So, Dr. Page. Let me back up. The dossier was released in January of 2017, is that right?

Page: Correct.

Swalwell: And you’re telling us that, in December 2016, you went to Moscow because you were afraid of a dossier that would be released a month later, is that right?

Page: That’s incorrect. As I alluded to in my opening statement, the first time the information from the Dodgy Dossier was used was a personal attack against me in September, 2016 in news articles, including one from the U.S. government’s propaganda agency funded by the broadcasting board of governors, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, and some other private media organizations that put my life at risk for domestic terrorist threats.

From the start, Carter Page has played Zelig in the saga of Russian influence and Russian ratfcking in the 2016 election. Just when you’d forgotten about him, he’d pop up again, usually on television, with entirely new tales of adventures abroad and the dunces who were in confederation against him. Now, though, as Robert Mueller’s investigators get closer and closer to the heart of the administration*, Page’s testimony—half-smokescreen, half-rejected Robert Ludlum subplot—acquires a certain gravitas that has leached into it from events elsewhere. On its own, it will stand as a baffling exercise in just how much sheer bullshit the institutions of a self-governing Republic can stand.

“Always ask any questions that are to be asked and never answer any. Turn everything you hear to your own advantage. Always carry a repair outfit. Take left turns as much as possible. Never apply your front brake first. ‘If you follow them’, said the Sergeant, ‘you will save your soul and never get a fall on a slippery road.”

—Flann O'Brien, The Third Policeman

 

Article: Esquire