John McCain’s Epiphany About Paul Manafort

Manafort saw managing the 2008 Republican convention as almost a birthright. But McCain denied him the job. He couldn’t abide Manafort’s pro-Russian clients—and told him so.  

John McCain at the 2008 Republican Convention, which he refused to have Paul Manafort manage. (Brian Snyder / Reuters)

A central feature of John McCain’s biography was his capacity for change. After he sullied himself in the Savings and Loan scandal of the late eighties, he self-consciously transformed  into a warrior on behalf of the cause of political reform. And then, in the course of his insurgent challenge to the anointed candidacy of George W. Bush—which McCain referred to as the “Death Star”—he came to understand how the mindless libertarianism of his early political career didn’t fully reflect his true beliefs. McCain began to criticize the regressive tax cuts that he once supported—what began as a tactical maneuver, then seemingly acquired the weight of conviction.  Luke Skywalker didn’t win that fight, but he returned to fight the Bush tax cuts in the Senate.

This is what made McCain so admirable to those who disagree with his politics: a profound sense of humility, openness to learning from his own error, an ability to adjust core beliefs in response to changing evidence, an insatiable hunger for rebellion.

One of John McCain’s mistakes, which he would belatedly rectify, was a relationship with the just-convicted lobbyist Paul Manafort. It was really more of an association. John McCain was the type of man who attracted loyalists, a father figure who scooped up eager wannabe sons. If you hung around his world long enough, you got a taste for how his closest aides would fight each other for his attention, how they would cudgel and knife one another to achieve primacy in his eyes. Many of these aides have proven themselves as worthy protégés, inheriting the mentor’s eagerness for an internecine fight and forming the core of the Never Trumper movement.

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.

According to McCain aides, the crucial moment came in the planning for the 2008 convention. I was told that Manafort lobbied desperately to become manager of the Republican National Convention, to take on the role of orchestrating the show. This was the sort of job that he held several times before. It represented the sort of behind-the-scenes power that he sought his entire career.  Because of his relationship with Davis, and because of his resume, he thought of the job as something close to his birthright. But McCain didn’t want any further association with Manafort, so he denied him the job, a rejection that sent Manafort into a fit of rage and depression. All the evidence for rejecting Paul Manafort as a man of dubious character was amply available in 2008—and McCain acted upon it.

During the approximate time that McCain was mulling these decisions, I remember watching him at a town-hall meeting in northern Virginia. I remember crowding into a sweaty gymnasium and listening to him discourse on the history of political reform and  the legacy of the McCain-Feingold legislation. What he described was a cycle: In a moment of fervor, responding to instances of malfeasance, the country would enact new, stricter limits on acceptable political behavior. But, after a time, complacency would set in. The forces of corruption would discover the loopholes in the new limits and find novel methods for feasting on the system. Eventually, the public would reawaken to the problem and a sense of fervor would descend again, creating the conditions for a new set of reforms to impose even more stringent limits. There was no escaping this cycle, he said, no alternative to imperfect reforms. In a way, he was describing his own history on the subject—how he sometimes failed, but ultimately recovered and then spoiled for a fight.