WATCH| The same foreign lobbyists and Russians tied to the Trump probe were once associated to Senator John McCain when he ran for president.
Sen. John McCain, always the political maverick, recently bucked his own Republican Party by refusing to defend President Donald Trump in the Russia investigation and even suggesting the matter was reaching epic proportions.
“I think it is reaching the point it is a Watergate size and scale,” he declared last month during an event at his policy nonprofit, the International Republican Institute.
Davis and Manafort, who were already doing pro-Putin work against American national interests, were using potential meetings with McCain.
The remarks reverberated around the world given McCain’s status as a war hero and former GOP presidential nominee who has long railed against Vladimir Putin.
There was just one fact missing from his narrative: Exactly one decade earlier it was McCain’s own presidential campaign that was being roiled by concerns of possible Russian influence in his own inner circle.
Before there was Trump, there were concerns about some of the same people being around McCain about 10 years ago...
In fact, McCain’s drama involved the same foreign lobbyist Paul Manafort; one of the same Russian oligarchs, Oleg Deripaska; the same Russian diplomat, Sergey Kislyak, and the same wily Russian leader, Vladimir Putin, that now dominate the current Trump controversy.
The only difference?
The FBI has said that there is no evidence to date that Trump ever met with a Russian figure banned from the United States.
McCain actually met twice with Deripaska, a Russian businessman and Putin ally whose visa was blocked by the United States amidst intelligence community concerns about his ties to Moscow. The meetings were arranged by Manafort and his lobbying firm partner Rick Davis, who later would become McCain's campaign manager, according to interviews and documents. Deripaska, a metals magnet, is president of United Company RUSAL, and is considered to be one of the richest men in the world worth an estimated at $5.1 billion, according to Forbes.“My sense is that Davis and Manafort, who were already doing pro-Putin work against American national interests, were using potential meetings with McCain --- who didn't know this and neither did we until after the fact -- as bait to secure more rubles from the oligarchs,” John Weaver, one of McCain’s top advisers at the time, told Circa in an interview this month.
Davis was McCain's campaign manager in both 2000 and 2008. Manafort, who was Trump's campaign manager for a brief time, resigned in August 2016, over questions of prior work with Ukrainian political parties.
During the 2008 campaign, the Davis Manafort firm disclosed through its U.S. partner Daniel J. Edelman Inc., that it was working for the political party in Ukraine supporting Ukrainian Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, who was backed by Putin.
"Davis Manafort International LLC is directed by a foreign political party, the Ukraine Parties of Regions, to consult on the political campaign in Ukraine," the January 2008 Foreign Agent Registration Act filing showed.
The work included developing "a communications campaign to increase Prime Minister Yanukovych's visibility in the U.S. and Europe," the report added, indicating that Davis and Manafort were being paid a $35,000 a month retainer for the work that began in spring 2007.
At the time, the Bush administration opposed Yanukovych, fearing he was anti-democratic and aligned with Putin after Yanukovych's party ousted the pro-democratic and Western friendly prime minister Viktor Yuschenko. McCain also backed Yuschenko even as his campaign manager's firm supported the pro-Russian opposition.
U.S intelligence raised concerns to McCain's staff about the Davis Manafort work, Weaver told Circa.
McCain’s office also was warned by U.S. intelligence about possible Russian military connections to one of his policy advisers at the IRI, causing aides to scramble to separate the Russian-born expert from the U.S. senator, U.S. officials and McCain aides said.
McCain’s office did not return emails or phone calls seeking comment. Davis did not return a call to his office seeking comment.
The anecdote -- which John Solomon first reported back in 2008 with his then-colleague Jeffrey Birnbaum at The Washington Post -- has significant parallels for the current Russia-Trump investigation.
For instance, Manafort was first questioned by the FBI about his Russian and Ukrainian ties in 2014, two years before he became Trump’s campaign manager, and agents probed him on how he first came to work for Deripaska through McCain’s top political adviser, a source confirmed to Circa.
The McCain story also is a poignant reminder the Putin’s allies have long sought U.S political influence, and that U.S. counterintelligence often focuses on keeping Americans from becoming compromised by foreigners.
“Before there was Trump, there were concerns about some of the same people being around McCain about 10 years ago, and we alerted his team to those concerns and they appeared to take some defensive action,” according to a U.S. official, who was involved a decade ago and remains in the counterintelligence world. The official spoke only on condition of anonymity.
The McCain story begins in the mid-2000s when Davis connected with Deripaska, one of the world’s wealthiest men and a Russian with significant business interests in Ukraine. At the time, the Davis-Manafort firm was advising with pro-Russian political figures in Ukraine and also doing work in Montenegro, another former Soviet satellite that Putin was trying to influence.
While Davis was building the political connections with the oligarch, he was handing off the commercial side of the relationship to his longtime
lobbying partner, Manafort, a former Ronald Reagan adviser with a well established foreign lobbying portfolio, according to a source on Manafort’s legal team.
“Paul came to work on the commercial side for Deripaska through Rick,” the source said,
speaking only on condition of anonymity.
Behind the scenes, McCain’s inner circle already was getting some caution from U.S. intelligence about possible Russian influence near the Arizona Republican senator and assumed 2008 presidential candidate.
In 2005, McCain’s inner circle was encouraged to distance itself from a Russian adviser on the IRI because the U.S. believed he might have ties to the Russian military.
Out of an abundance of caution,
McCain’s IRI team asked the adviser to leave, and ironically the adviser went to the private sector to work with Manafort on some business matters, according to interviews. A National Security Council official working for then President George W. Bush also expressed concern that Davis’ firm was working for pro-Russia forces in Ukraine, essentially at odds with the current U.S. policy.
In 2006, Davis and Manafort arranged two meetings with McCain and Deripaska in group settings while the senator was overseas on official congressional trips.
The first occurred in January 2006 in Davos, Switzerland, where McCain had traveled with fellow Republicans for a global economics conference.
When McCain and his other Senate colleagues, John Sununu and Saxby Chambliss, arrived at an apartment for drinks, Davis was present as a host with Deripaska by his side. A group of about three dozen then went to dinner, McCain and Deripaska included.
Deripaska’s visa to travel to
the United States had been blocked by the State Department because of concerns about his ties to Russian businesses and government.
The U.S. embassy in Moscow monitored Deripaska’s business dealings during the time, reporting back to Washington they believed the oligarch was close to Putin.
“Deripaska enjoys a favorable relationship with President Putin -- he is a more or less permanent fixture on Putin's trips abroad, and he is widely acknowledged by our contacts to be among the 2-3 oligarchs Putin
turns to on a regular basis,” one 2006 cable from the Moscow embassy to Washington declared.
The oligarch’s visa controversy dragged on for years and reached the highest levels of both governments.
A February 2008 State Department cable released by WikiLeaks shows that Putin was so concerned about the matter that he had then-Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Kislyak lobby then U.S. Ambassador to Moscow William Burns to try win Deripaska’s entry to the United States.
“Kislyak parried with a demand for more information on the U.S. refusal to issue Oleg Deripaska a visa. Ambassador said he had already provided our response,” the cable said.
Putin eventually dispatched Kislyak to be his ambassador in Washington, where Kislyak’s more recent interactions with former Trump National Security Adviser Mike Flynn and Trump Attorney General Jeff Sessions have become part of the current controversy.
Back in Washington a decade ago, McCain’s aides initially didn’t know that Davis had pulled off
the interaction between Deripaska and McCain in Davos.
Then a memo intended for Davis accidentally showed up in a McCain’s office. It was a letter from Deripaska thanking Davis and his partner Manafort for arranging the drinks and dinner with the soon-to-be-presidential candidate.
"Thank you so much for setting up everything in Klosters so spectacularly. It was very interesting to meet Senators McCain, Chambliss and Sununu in such an intimate setting," the oligarch wrote. Alarms immediately went off.
A handful of advisers confronted McCain, who at first seemed committed to distancing himself for Davis before switching course and naming his campaign manager, Weaver said.
“Davis repeatedly tried to bring Manafort into the McCain campaign and we were able to stop it and even have Davis removed for his ties to pro-Russian efforts,” Weaver said. “But this was short-lived as Davis actually and literally cried to the Senator every day for weeks until John relented and allowed Davis back.”
The drama was so intense inside the McCain camp that Weaver and others parted ways during a campaign shakeup in 2007 as McCain was bleeding money and support.
“Those of us who had drawn a line in the sand and gone to the mat on this had little choice but to leave when Davis and his other Party of Regions' hacks returned,” Weaver said.
Deripaska would show up by McCain a second time, during an official trip to Montenegro, another place where the Davis-Manafort firm was offering advice.
Deripaska and Davis joined McCain and other officials at a dinner hosted by the country’s government in August 2006, and some of the attendees went on to take a cruise aboard a yacht where drinks and pastry were served in honor of McCain’s 70th birthday.
The yacht’s host was another lobbying client, Raffaello Follieri, a young Italian who gained fame by dating the American actress Anne Hathaway. In 2008, shortly before McCain lost the presidential election, Follieri pleaded guilty to conspiracy, fraud and money laundering.
There is no evidence that McCain ever changed his positions on Russia or took official actions to favor Davis’ clients, or that Deripaska ever asked anything of the Republican senator, Weaver said.
Weaver said he feared the contacts may have been a “a test case that caught the attention of the Kremlin and the GRU” but in the end McCain remained firm in his opposition to Putin.
“The difference between this and the current Trump/Putin situation is McCain's views toward Putin actually hardened over this time period and his already strong commitment to pro-democracy movements in Eastern Europe solidified as well,” he said.
The contacts, while troubling to McCain aides and some in U.S. intelligence, were perfectly legal.
And therein lies one of the lessons the McCain episode can provide to inform the current Trump controversy: U.S. counterintelligence investigations often rely on evidence far less solid than required for criminal probes, in part because the goal is often to prevent problems before they occur rather than make a case for prosecution.
Deripaska eventually had a falling out with Manafort’s firm, well before the lobbyist went to work for Trump’s campaign.
Deripaska has long denied any wrongdoing, recently suing The Associated Press for suggesting he worked with Manafort to help Putin and implying he was somehow involved in the Trump controversy. Deripaska also has said the US blocking of his visa was unwarranted, and reportedly offered to cooperate with the recent congressional probes into Russia interference in the U.S. 2016 election.
You can follow Sara Carter on Twitter @SaraCarterDC