Trump adviser's Russia credentials come under scrutiny
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Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump arrives for a campaign rally in Tampa, Florida, U.S., August 24, 2016. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri
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By Alexander Winning and Olga Popova
MOSCOW (Reuters) - When Donald Trump named a little-known U.S. energy consultant as part of his foreign policy team, the adviser's ex-boss was puzzled; how could the relatively junior banker he knew in Moscow a decade ago be qualified to brief a presidential candidate?
Carter Page, who worked in Russia at U.S. investment bank Merrill Lynch, paints an impressive picture of his three-year stint from 2004, saying on his company's website that he advised on "key" transactions involving some of the country's biggest energy groups.
But Sergey Aleksashenko, who became head of the bank's Moscow operation toward the end of Page's assignment, expressed doubts about whether he has the experience to act as an adviser on Washington's fraught ties with the Kremlin.
"For me it was a strange choice," said Aleksashenko, who served as a deputy finance minister and deputy central bank governor in the 1990s before running Merrill Russia in 2006-2008. "Carter was never a person who would discuss foreign policy or U.S.-Russian relations."
The achievements of Page - whom Trump named as an adviser in March - are summarized on the website of New York-based Global Energy Capital LLC, a firm that he founded after leaving Merrill. He did not respond to Reuters questions about his time in Russia and Merrill Lynch declined comment.
When contacted by Reuters, Trump's spokeswoman Hope Hicks played down Page's role in the campaign. "Mr. Page is an informal adviser named as part of a much larger group several months ago. He does not speak for or represent the campaign in any official capacity," she said.
Trump, who is now the Republican nominee, named Page as being among five foreign policy advisers in an interview with The Washington Post on March 21. Hicks did not answer Reuters questions seeking to clarify what Page had done since then for the campaign and why Trump had picked him.
Aleksashenko, a Kremlin critic, was Page's boss in 2006-07 and is now a nonresident senior fellow at the left-leaning Brookings Institution in Washington.
Three other former Merrill employees in Moscow also told Reuters that Page could not have played a leading role in the bank's deals due to his rank, and at the time showed no real interest or expertise in foreign policy.
Shortly after Trump named his foreign affairs team, campaign member Sam Clovis said the aim was to recruit people with "real-world" and military experience rather than the retreads that other candidates relied on.
"These are people who work for a living," the New York Times quoted Clovis as saying. "If you're looking for show ponies, you're coming to the wrong stable."
Clovis was not immediately available for further comment.
Russia has been a central issue in the U.S. election campaign, with Trump calling President Vladimir Putin a "strong leader". Flattering coverage of Trump in Russian state media has left little doubt that he would be the Kremlin's preferred candidate over Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.
Like Trump, Page holds views that contradict the Obama administration's stance on Russia and in recent years he has expressed them, reflecting the Kremlin's views on occasions.
In a February 2015 article in the journal Global Policy, he said U.S. policy toward Russia had been "misguided and provocative" and blamed the State Department for precipitating the Ukraine conflict.
In a speech given in Moscow last month, Page also criticized Western countries for what he said was their "hypocritical focus on democratization" in the post-Soviet world. At the event, he did not respond to questions about his time in Russia.
Andrey Kortunov, director general of the Russian International Affairs Council, said Trump wanted to show the incompetence and weakness of the foreign policy pursued by the Democrats. Page was useful as his views fit with that aim, added Kortunov, who does not know the Trump adviser personally.
"There are people in the U.S. who are bored with Ukraine, who think it is not an American problem that Washington should be involved in," said Kortunov, whose think tank is close to the Russian Foreign Ministry but who has also expressed independent views.
Despite Hicks's comments, Trump's former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski told Reuters that when he left the campaign in late June, Page had "definitely" been an adviser to Trump.
Another member of the five-strong foreign policy team, Walid Phares, told Reuters on Aug. 19 that Page continued to advise Trump.
A MID-TIER BANKER
The Global Energy Capital LLC website says Page was responsible for opening Merrill's Moscow office and that he was "an advisor on key transactions" for Russian firms including Gazprom, the world's top gas producer, and RAO UES, a power company that no longer exists.
Reuters spoke to four former Merrill employees in Moscow, three of whom overlapped with Page, as well as three Moscow-based bankers who competed with the U.S. bank for business.
With the exception of Aleksashenko, none agreed to speak on the record about their recollections which differ from Page's.
"Page was a vice president at Merrill, a mid-tier banker who was not originating deals," said Aleksashenko. "Gazprom was a VIP client and in no transaction with such a client could a vice president play a decisive role."
In an interview with Bloomberg in March, Page said he advised Gazprom on the purchase of a stake in the Sakhalin energy project in Russia's Far East from Shell.
Aleksashenko said Merrill's contribution to that deal was merely to provide a straightforward document saying the transaction was at fair value to Gazprom shareholders, alongside other banks.
Gazprom declined comment.
Another ex-Merrill banker said: "Page was a general dogsbody who would have sat in on most meetings and prepared documents."
A third ex-Merrill banker, whose comments were corroborated by Aleksashenko, said Merrill's business with Gazprom when Page worked there involved investor relations work.
Page also said he worked on deals in central Asia. Two sources who were involved in the initial public offering of shares in Kazakh firm KazMunaiGas EP in 2006 said although Merrill was one of the IPO's managers, they did not remember Page participating in the deal.
CLOSER TO THE COMPANY
Bankers at rivals when Page worked in Moscow said Merrill was not the main bank Gazprom turned to when it needed to raise capital, although the U.S. bank handled its investor relations.
Merrill did act as a manager on two Gazprom Eurobonds when Page worked in Moscow but Tom Adshead at Moscow-based consultancy Macro-Advisory, which helps foreign investors in Russia, said it was not a major player with the energy group.
"There are other bankers who were viewed in the market as being closer to the company," said Adshead, who worked in Moscow as an analyst and was a fund manager at the time that Page was at Merrill.
Merrill Lynch declined to respond to Reuters questions on Page's work with the bank in Moscow.
(Additional reporting by Mark Hosenball in WASHINGTON, Oksana Kobzeva and Olesya Astakhova in MOSCOW, Olzhas Auyezov and Mariya Gordeyeva in ALMATY; Editing by Andrew Osborn and David Stamp)
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