John McCain labeled his 2008 presidential campaign the “Straight Talk Express.” But that was just a slogan. In reality, McCain’s campaign was a desperately disingenuous project that saw the candidate and a cabal of corrupt aides lie to reporters and the American people, foster false impressions of their rivals, give Sarah Palin a national platform, and set the stage for the degeneration of the Republican Party into the antidemocratic confederacy it has since become.
The GOP’s debasement has had a lot to do with Donald Trump, but it did not begin with the 45th president. It had deep roots that were entangled not only with unprincipled strategists on the domestic front but also with oligarchs who were aligned with Russian President Vladimir Putin. And it continues to haunt the party, and the United States, at a moment when Putin’s military is waging a genocidal war against Ukraine.
That is the most important takeaway from the headline-grabbing pronouncements of McCain campaign aide turned “Never Trump” Republican Steve Schmidt, who is currently embattled in a Twitter war with the late senator’s self-dealing daughter, Meghan McCain.
Schmidt is one of the most ubiquitous public figures on the American political scene, and his many sharp comments over the years on various social media platforms and during MSNBC interviews have inspired criticism that he is driven by rancor over unsettled scores. But when I referenced that criticism in the previous version of this article and suggested that it is easy to get lost in the political minutiae, Schmidt pushed back, noting that, “I did not respond to any of this for 14 years, I carried the burden of John McCain’s recklessness.” He rejected my suggestion that some of his recent messaging could be characterized as gossip or personal infighting, and I think he’s right to make this point. But, nonetheless, the people who have not agreed with Schmidt, personally or politically, should pay attention to what he’s saying now.
Schmidt has gotten to the point that needs making when he recalled in a tweet on Saturday that during one of the many collapses of John McCain’s failed 2008 presidential bid, “[the] campaign imploded over the vicious infighting between Rick Davis and John Weaver. Weaver gave an ultimatum. No Manafort. No Davis. McCain chose Davis The fight was over Ukraine and Deripaska.”
Weaver was a senior adviser to McCain for a number of years, and an ally of Schmidt. Davis was the manager of McCain’s 2008 campaign, and a business partner of Paul Manafort. Yes, that Paul Manafort.
This salient detail provides insight into how the Grand Old Party became such a dangerous player, domestically and internationally. Manafort did not magically appear in 2016 as Donald Trump’s campaign chair at a point when the Republican platform was rewritten to remove language that called for providing weapons to Ukraine to fight Russia. Manafort joined the Trump team as a veteran Republican strategist who used his connections to expand the influence of Putin’s allies over a party that had historically been antagonistic to the Soviet Union and Russia. His manipulations would frame the narrative for the most compelling sections of special counsel Robert Mueller’s report on Russian influence on Trump’s campaign and presidency. But they began years earlier.
Manafort and Davis had worked as a team for years, leading twinned careers that took them to the top of the GOP’s political hierarchy. They engineered the takeover of the 1996 campaign of former Senate majority leader Bob Dole, for which Manafort served as convention manager and Davis served as deputy campaign manager. Famously inept when it came to the practical work of politics, Manafort and Davis managed the Dole campaign to a finish with just 40 percent of the national vote. The nominee, a World War II hero who seemed a natural for conservative Southern and border regions, lost Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Missouri, Tennessee, and West Virginia—states that have consistently voted Republican in every election since. But failure is rarely if ever punished in the upper echelons of American politics, and Manafort and Davis quickly got their hooks into another presidential contender: John McCain.
When McCain partnered with Davis, who would manage the Arizonan’s failed 2000 and 2008 presidential bids, he linked himself to a pair of operatives who for a number of years maintained a lucrative relationship with Russian billionaire named Oleg Deripaska. In an October 2008 piece for The Nation, Mark Ames and Ari Berman described Deripaska as “a Putin-blessed aluminum tycoon with an estimated $40 billion fortune” who “adhered to an unwritten understanding between Putin and the oligarchs: as long as they support the Kremlin, they can operate with impunity.”
As recently as March of this year, Deripaska was described by The Guardian as “Putin’s favorite” oligarch.
Davis and Manafort had no apparent qualms about putting McCain in the same room with Deripaska for what the oligarch described as an “intimate” 2006 dinner outside the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. In January of 2008, when McCain was again bidding for the presidency, The Washington Post would report that “Rick Davis, who is now McCain’s campaign manager, helped set up the encounter between McCain and Russian aluminum magnate Oleg Deripaska in Switzerland during an international economic conference. At the time, Davis was working for a lobbying firm and seeking to do business with the billionaire.”
The Post noted that the work of Davis’s firm—known then as Davis Manafort—“put him on the opposite side of Eastern European politics from McCain, who has spoken out vigorously against what he sees as Putin’s attempts to subvert elections in former Soviet republics such as Ukraine.” It added that “Davis’ firm provided political advice to a pro-Russian party in Ukraine during the parliamentary elections of 2006. McCain, on the other hand, backed President Viktor Yushchenko, a Western-oriented reformer who led 2004’s Orange Revolution, which overturned what he and his allies considered an election stolen by the party helped by Davis’s firm.”
This is what Schmidt was referring to in his recent Twitter message to Meghan McCain, which featured a link to The Nation article and Schmidt’s comment, “Your Father tolerated his campaign chairman being in business and working for Putin through his association with Yanukovych.”
Schmidt added, “Yanukovych, as you probably have no idea, was Putin’s puppet in Ukraine. The story of American corruption in Ukraine starts here. It starts in John McCain’s operation, not Trump’s.”
That is a fact. And it matters a lot more than the sordid details of the lies the 2008 McCain campaign told about the senator’s affair with a telecommunications lobbyist—although that corruption ought not be forgotten. What needs to be understood is that, while Davis and Manafort eventually went their separate ways, the seeds of Putin’s influence within the Republican Party were planted long before Trump took over. Trump nurtured the seeds to fruition, with an assist from Manafort that led a 2020 report from the Republican-controlled US Senate Intelligence Committee to conclude that Manafort’s “high-level access and willingness to share information with individuals closely affiliated with the Russian intelligence services” created a circumstance during the Trump campaign and presidency that “represented a grave counterintelligence threat.”
Permanent fixtures in American politics, who leap from campaign to campaign, and who pick up extra cash by doing the bidding of foreign strongmen and oligarchs, are rarely held to account in the United States. This lack of accountability obscures the ways in which not just the electoral but the governing process too is corrupted.
While it is true that Manafort’s over-the-top machinations got him briefly jailed in 2019, he was pardoned by Trump in 2020. As for Davis, he parted company with Manafort after the 2008 campaign and joined a private equity firm. But he remains politically connected, as a trustee of the McCain Institute for International Leadership, a group that says its mission is “advancing character-driven leadership in our own communities and around the world.” Davis’s biography on the institute’s website notes, “In 2000 and 2008, Davis served as Senator John McCain’s national campaign manager, leading all aspects of the campaign activity.”
That explains why Steve Schmidt now says, “The McCain Institute should immediately remove Rick Davis from the Board of Trustees which includes General David Petraeus. The presence of a man who advanced Putin’s agenda and made millions with Manafort, Deripaska and Victor Yanukovych has no business being involved in an Institute that exists to promote Democratic values while Ukrainians are being killed by the Russians Davis worked for. Moral obscenity doesn’t begin to describe it.”
Say what you will about Schmidt—as many of his former compatriots now attack him, and as some in the media mock him—but he has provided a true picture of the degeneracy of a Republican Party that began the process of surrendering its honor long before Donald Trump joined its ranks.
This story was updated to reflect responses by Steve Schmidt that add clarity regarding his recent comments.