American political strategist Steve Schmidt’s long career in U.S. politics includes having famously managed Senator John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign, an experience that is the basis for the movie Game Change. Mr. Schmidt was also part of the campaign leadership for President George W Bush and California Governor California Arnold Schwarzenegger before going on to found the Lincoln Project in 2019 to stop Republicans from supporting Donald Trump.
Currently, Mr. Schmidt is a U.S. political analyst on the television news channel MSNBC and has a Twitter following of over 1.5 million.
Over the weekend, Mr. Schmidt garnered the attention of The New York Times, Yahoo! News, Salon, Business Insider, New York Magazine, The Daily Beast, and others due to his comments on Ukraine, Russia, McCain, and other topics which he had kept secret since the Senator’s 2008 defeat to President Barack Obama.
Mr. Schmidt, who remained cool and calm during our more than hour-long conversation, agreed to discuss his press-earning remarks and his first-hand experience of working with McCain in an exclusive interview with the Kyiv Post.
– Where does the malignant influence of Russia in the U.S. come from? How is Russia influencing U.S. policy?
Let’s look at some past presidential campaigns: In ’96 Senator Bob Dole was an insider; in 2000 Governor George W. Bush was an outsider; in 2004 we had Bush’s re-election and in 2008 Senator John McCain was an insider. If you take a look at those campaigns, you can see that one firm, in particular, had an inside track. It was a Washington DC firm that had represented Russia’s interests across Eastern Europe.
Take Rick Davis, who you might remember as being the business partner of [political consultant, lobbyist, attorney and convicted fraudster] Paul Manafort. He supported Russian interests for years, such as in Montenegro where he was an adviser. It’s problematic for me that the guy who could have become Chief of Staff of the President had McCain won, had developed such a close relationship with pro-Russian candidates and proxies across Europe.
– Why do these allegations of Russian influence not gain press traction in U.S.?
It seems that our society has lost the capacity for basic reading and rational thinking. And it’s a national security risk.
We are doomed, and I mean f***ing doomed. And I mean really f***ing doomed if we cannot move beyond the attention span of a gerbil There is no follow-up and people do not think properly. It literally could be our downfall.
But let’s go back to the earlier question: It’s astounding that some people who have worked to destabilize a young democracy like Ukraine, such as Rick Davis, face no punishment for this kind of behavior.
Look – the guy is now on the Board of the McCain Institute now. It’s a disaster. It’s absolutely grotesque.
But the corruption of DC is not limited to Russia. Look at the amount of money for Saudi Arabia and the Emirati – it is the height of corruption in DC.
– Are you implying that McCain had pro-Russian sympathies? What’s the connection point with Russia?
No, John McCain absolutely hated Putin. He was passionate about that. But Rick Davis, who is now on the Board of Directors of the McCain Institute, is the connection point. McCain turned a blind eye, but Davis was the intermediary to the chaos.
I read up on these allegations before our chat today and saw that there are articles, going back years, that McCain had met several times with [close Putin ally and sanctioned Russian oligarch] Oleg Deripaska at the behest of Davis. Would it be fair to say that your opinion of Davis’ management of campaigns is also not so positive?
Yes, McCain met with Deripaska a number of times, internationally, in meetings organized by [political consultant] Rick Gates.
If you want to understand Davis, just read Lord of the Flies and understand it is a perfect metaphor for the Trump campaign, too. Completely disorganized.
– Do you think McCain knew that some of his people were tied to Russia?
Yes, McCain understood this. This was the issue during the McCain 2008 leadership campaign between Rick Davis and [campaign strategist] John Weaver. It was on this issue that there were sparks flying. Literally, like almost fist fights.
In the Spring of 2007, I was in DC and the campaign was functionally bankrupt by December. You might ask why that was.
– Why was that?
Well, Rick Davis and his colleague Paul Manafort set up a company through which everything for the McCain presidential campaign had to be procured. It was impossible to do anything unless it went through their net. They demanded to add their percent to every single purpose as they cared more about making money than about winning. It didn’t matter if it was pens, coffee or banners: They wanted their cut.
I mean, in normal campaigns you go down to the local hotel and take the free sugar and coffees in the lobby – but no, they wanted to make money first and foremost. [Laughter]
We once had a meeting in Aspen, Colorado. At the end of the meeting, I said “Guys, how come you don’t have a Vice Presidential candidate yet?” They had no answers – just inexplicably bad management. And that is how [former Alaska Governor] Sarah Palin came to be the Vice Presidential candidate.
Either way, the U.S. needs to wake up to the malevolent influence of Russia in our politics.
Specifically, the relationship with the lobbyists who represent Putin’s interests and then rub elbows with our political and governmental leaders.
I think it is beyond reasonable to note that Trump was not the first U.S. Presidential candidate to have been targeted by Moscow. Just look at the guys in DC today who worked with [former Ukrainian President] Viktor Yanukovych.
And we cannot say “Well, he was just a candidate.” No, he was Putin’s candidate and there were deadly consequences for him having taken power. Anyone with ethics would have been on the other side of the line in that campaign.
So, again, how does Rick Davis, who worked with Yanukovych, with all that is happening today in Ukraine, still have a seat at the McCain Institute? It’s disgusting and shameful.
– Why is Ukraine always showing up in U.S. political scandals?
It’s because Ukraine is strategically positioned. It’s the border between Europe and Russia. It’s the frontier of democracy against Putin. For these reasons, those who work to undermine Ukrainian democracy are inherently despicable.
Ukraine is a young democracy, which is partly why there is corruption in the country. If you want to see serious corruption, it’s impossible to be more corrupt than 19th-century American democracy. So I’m not being attacking here – I’m just saying that it’s a known factor.
The key is that a country needs to cement the rule-of-law. Without this and without a country where the politicians think first of their citizens, things do not improve. That, and Russia always pushing to get its way everywhere.
– Why do you think McCain knew that some of his people had worked for Russian proxy candidates in Europe?
Terry Nelson, John Weaver and Mark Salter all told him. He knew that some of his team had worked for the bad guys.
How do those guys justify strengthening Putin’s hand? How do people who come from the U.S., who know our traditions and our way of life – who should know better –decide that they want to work to help the Russians? It is sick and pathetic.
– How did McCain justify keeping these people around?
There are three basic human response mechanisms: i) to know; ii) to feel; or iii) to think. I believe it comes down to the third category.
I’m no psychologist, but it’s certainly not a rare trait in humans to compartmentalize things. We find ways to justify what we want to do.
McCain absolutely hated the Russians. He was not like Obama and Bush who had no strong feelings either way. He passionately loathed the Russians, which is why keeping people around him who worked for the Russians seems so paradoxical.
However, if you look at it from a self-interest perspective McCain thought he needed these guys to win. He thought that having them involved would propel him to the White House. Perhaps McCain didn’t think of them beyond the context of his own campaign.
What I came to understand during the McCain race was that there was no way to get rid of this pro-Russian lobbyist, Rick Davis, he was “in.” He wasn’t leaving or going anywhere.
– So, do the problems essentially originate from the nexus of lobbyists in DC politics, such as Manafort?
I was 36 when I was in the McCain race. I had already made the highest possible federal salary in 2005 and I was paid well by Arnold Schwarzenegger’s campaign. I also ran his re-election. However, I refused to lobby.
It was clear to me that running a guy’s campaign, then showing up after he wins and presenting to him some private interests, for money, would be a conflict of interests. It would not be right. I could have done that with Arnold, but I didn’t because it would not have been right.
However, today I’m 51 years old and I still cannot fathom the darkness and next-level-shadiness that exists among lobbyists.
– Steve, you’re attracting a lot of attention at the moment. Why have you decided to open up about the past now?
Only someone who is certifiably crazy would ever say something as ridiculous as that I’m in any way pro-Russian. Anyone who knows me knows that I have done everything I can to root out Russia’s influence in American politics.
I have never worked against the national security interests of the U.S. Internationally, I have only worked in Albania and I did a campaign in Lithuania for the Mayor of Vilnius. And I have some Canadian clients.
Aside from that, in 2007 I traveled to Ukraine for a week to help with anti-Yanukovych stuff that would help Viktor Yushchenko, who was poisoned by Russian President Vladimir Putin for being too pro-American.
– Did you push McCain to choose Palin?
McCain asked me what I thought about choosing her. I responded by asking him, “Do you think she’s at the Presidential level? That’s up to you.”
– Did you already know her well at that point?
No, the first time I had a conversation with her was after the decision had been made. I think we were on the campaign bus. I was beyond shocked as her level of ignorance was atrocious.
I went “bananaramas”. I was almost angry enough to strangle Rick Davis for having promoted her. He had told me that there was a 175-page questionnaire that she had filled out. I’d like to see how she answered but I never saw it. I doubt it ever existed.
– Then how did Sarah Palin get chosen as the Vice-Presidential candidate?
This person, who would have been next in line to the Presidency, did not know what a school child should know. She didn’t know where Argentina was; she couldn’t tell you things that you would assume anyone who knows how to read would know.
I asked the guys on the campaign, like Rick Davis, “How did she get chosen? What were you thinking?” I told them that she needed to be thoroughly and carefully vetted.
They said: “Well, she is branded as an anti-corruption fighter. And she has the highest approval rating of any U.S. Governor.”
But it was horrific. I mean, she was so bad that I thought she would bring down the entire campaign.
– McCain had quite a temper. Did he hate Palin after all of her public gaffs and the attacks that he received?
No, John was a fighter, not a hater. I mean, he really liked to do battle. He loved it. But he did not hate people. He had made the decision to choose her and he knew it.
– Then why did McCain not want Palin at his funeral?
That was Meghan McCain [TV host and daughter of John McCain]. She’s crazy. She says horrible things about me all the time. Well, she leaked that neither Palin nor myself were invited to the funeral.
Can you imagine: Two hours after McCain died, she was leaking who was invited and who was not invited to the funeral? Did you see that she used her father’s gravestone for a photo shoot to promote her book?
But that does not surprise me. That’s who Meghan is. I remember during the campaign I had a three-year-old son back then. I remember clearly the day I was standing there with my wife and I said: “Dear, no matter what. We absolutely cannot let our kids turn out to be like her.” Her histrionic and childish behavior is beyond crazy.
Think of the nuttiest Hollywood socialite who has completely insane public hissy-fits and meltdowns. Well, I raise you one: Meghan McCain.
– Why did you collide with the Senator’s daughter?
I gave a talk when I took over the running John McCain’s campaign. I said: “Guys, this place is a total dump. Fix it. The walls must be painted by Monday. See you at 7am Monday and we will be starting precisely on time.” That kind of disciplined organization is the opposite of what a spoiled child wants to hear.
I set two fundamental rules in the campaign:
- You shall not disrespect a Secret Service agent who is ready to jump in front of a bullet to save John McCain. They deserve our respect;
- The campaign must run on time.
Meghan would show up late and I left her behind as we went to the next location. I made it clear: “There are thousands of people waiting to see the Senator – we cannot be late because you are late. We respect our voters.”
John McCain agreed with me. I mean, I was trying to get her father elected President and she was rolling on the ground crying whenever interviews didn’t go well. It was embarrassing.
– So, how do we fix the U.S. to keep Russia out of our political campaigns?
We fix it by rooting out those tied to Russia. We fix it by reforming the lobbying culture. There cannot be a turnstile between personal interests and power.
– How will the war in Ukraine conclude?
Ukraine will win. I really think that Ukraine will win.
You can also highlight the text and press Ctrl + Enter