Some of McCain’s protégés, however, also included the ranks of lobbyists. McCain had a strange blindness to their presence, which could be most charitably described as fierce loyalty. At the same time as he sincerely railed against influence-peddlers—and presented himself as a successor to Teddy Roosevelt’s progressive-era crusading—his inner circle contained the very forces he decried. One of these loyalists was the man who eventually managed his campaign in the 2008 presidential race, Rick Davis. For nearly a decade, Davis was the named partner in Paul Manafort’s lobbying firm, called Davis, Manafort.
All the intramural squabbling that made McCain’s inner circle so entertaining to cover also makes it hard to clearly decipher. Rival McCainland tribes often posit competing narratives of events. Best I can tell, Paul Manafort viewed McCain’s 2008 campaign as an easy mark. He hoped to leverage his relationship with Rick Davis to enrich himself and to endear his firm to clients. One of his first ploys was to create a business (called 3eDC) that would sell the campaign proprietary software to manage websites and online fundraising—which earned Manafort a lucrative contract with the McCain operation. (After aides complained to McCain about 3eDC, he canceled the contract, although the campaign had already spent $1 million on it.) Evidence from Manafort’s recent troubles with the law have shown his inability to convert a PDF document to Microsoft Word, which makes it hard to believe that he once presented himself as a tech entrepreneur.
The most prized client of Manafort’s and Davis’s lobbying firm in 2006 was the Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska, one of the richest men in the world. At the time, Deripaska had the esteem and ear of Vladimir Putin, who considered him one of his most important proxies. Davis and Manafort helped Deripaska rub shoulders with McCain. They introduced McCain to Deripaska at a party in Davos in 2007; seven months later, they brought McCain to Deripaska’s yacht, which was anchored off Montenegro, where the oligarch hosted a seventieth birthday party for the Arizona senator. (The actress Anne Hathaway also attended those festivities.) This story is fully told in an outstanding investigative piece, published by The Nation.
What The Nation described is a sort of tangled relationship with lobbyists that McCain so eloquently denounced in other contexts; it also showed McCain getting perilously close to an ally of the Kremlin, even as he denounced Vladimir Putin. McCain should have seen these dangers earlier, and he should have reacted more furiously upon discovering them. Davis’s rivals in the campaign had denounced Davis so often and for so long that perhaps it caused McCain to discount their warnings about Manafort.
McCain took these complaints seriously only after Davis’s rivals charged Manafort with owning an apartment in Trump Tower, allegedly purchased by Oleg Deripaska. (There’s no evidence that I have seen to bolster that allegation, although Manafort was, indeed, in the midst of further entangling himself with the Russian oligarch in various other business ventures.) As McCain considered these allegations, he began to articulate the menace represented by Paul Manafort. One McCain aide told me the candidate instructed Davis and Manafort to cease their firm’s ties with its pro-Russian clients—an edict that Manafort apparently ignored.