No Books. No Money. Just the Truth.
This is a story about lying. Public lying. It is a story about Senator John McCain’s lying, and the damage it has done to many people, including me. It is also a story about my lying because, ultimately, John McCain’s lie became mine.
Over time, that lie has become heavier as I have been abused by the family of the man I worked for as a volunteer. The burden of carrying this lie – while being attacked for 14 consecutive years by the bully Megan McCain – has finally reached its end for me.
This lie is Senator John McCain’s lie. It is his family’s burden to carry, not mine.
Let us start at the beginning: Senator John McCain turned a blind eye to the dealings of his top adviser, Rick Davis, who was making millions of dollars with his partner, Paul Manafort. Manafort was advancing the interests of the Russian Federation in Ukraine and across Eastern Europe. They worked for the Putin puppet Victor Yanukovych and Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska. They advanced Russian interests from the Maidan to Montenegro. John McCain spent his 70th birthday with Oleg Deripaska and Rick Davis on a Russian yacht at anchor in Montenegro.
Why would Senator McCain tolerate such behavior?
The answer can be found in this New York Times article from February 21, 2008, written by Jim Rutenberg, Marilyn W. Thompson, David D. Kirkpatrick and Stephen Labaton. I had the opportunity to privately apologize to Jim Rutenberg several years ago. Before continuing, I would like to apologize to the journalists whose bylines appear on the story. Their credibility, integrity and professionalism were unfairly attacked by the McCain campaign of which I was a part of. I got it wrong. These journalists, like many others, were also victims of this lie. Today, I would like to publicly apologize to all of the journalists: Jim Rutenberg, Marilyn W. Thompson, David D. Kirkpatrick and Stephen Labaton. I am sorry.
Immediately following the story’s publication, John and Cindy McCain both lied to the American people at a news conference that I prepared them for on that same day.
Both denied the story to me personally, as did the lobbyist at the center of the story. They also lied to the American people.
You see, when I was 36 years old, I did not understand the difference between integrity and loyalty. Before I met John McCain, I would have answered that they were indistinguishable from one another. John McCain taught me a hard lesson about the differences between the two.
When Senator John McCain called and asked for my help as his front-running presidential campaign was on a path to failure, I agreed and architected the strategy that resurrected his aspirations for success as a presidential contender. I left my young family behind for months at a time, in service to the cause of John McCain. I did this because of my immense respect for his courage, honor and integrity.
For 14 years I have remained silent because I didn’t want to do anything to compromise John McCain’s honor. He would be unable to say the same about mine.
Senator McCain denied his long relationship with the lobbyist – to whom he was credibly accused of providing special favors – dozens of times to my face. After the New York Times story – which accurately detailed that relationship – was attacked and successfully discredited by the campaign under my direction, John McCain told me the truth backstage at an event in Ohio. Understandably, he was very concerned about this potentially campaign-ending issue. He kept saying, “The campaign is over.” I reassured him that it was behind us.
However, John McCain was convinced it would soon be over. Similar accusations and relationships had ended campaigns in the recent past. In fact, John McCain looked at me and said he did not understand how he could go on with his presidential run by saying, “Boy, I had a long relationship with her.” I was livid, and flew home to California. After he obsessively called for days afterwards, I (foolishly) returned to the campaign trail.
For the next several months, there was not a single night that passed that I did not spend hours on the phone with a broken, distraught and profoundly unstable lobbyist. She screamed at me incoherently for hours every night. I became the shock absorber for her rage, anger and humiliation. I did this to protect John McCain and the campaign.
During my final call with the lobbyist, as she heard my young kids crying in the background, she told me that she wished that they could die so that I could share the depths of pain she felt when John McCain called her a “good friend” during his news conference denying the relationship. Twenty minutes later, John McCain called me panicked – he insisted that I apologize to her, or else his campaign would be over. I told John to “fuck himself,” and yet again, against my better judgment, I returned to the campaign trail.
By early July 2008, the campaign was in deep trouble. At that time, I was put in charge of everything except the VP search and vetting process, as well as the looming convention. Rick Davis retained authority of those areas.
That same month, in a condo in Aspen, Colorado, I spoke to Cindy McCain privately about the abhorrent and abusive behavior of her daughter, Meghan. She grew teary-eyed, and said, “I raised two good sons.” Both John and Cindy McCain were mortified by her behavior.
After Senator McCain was unable to choose Joe Lieberman under a one-term pledge that I had proposed – due to Lindsey Graham’s lack of restraint and discipline to maintain confidentiality – the campaign was left with two choices: Mitt Romney and Tim Pawlenty. Unfortunately, neither would change the fundamental dynamics of an election that we were losing. That was the context under which I made the call to Rick Davis, suggesting that we consider Sarah Palin. I said that I didn’t know much about her, except that she was the most popular Governor in America – but that we must fully and completely vet her.
Proximate to that time, the lobbyist had called John McCain’s Senate Chief of Staff to say that she’d called him from the front seat of her parked and running automobile in her closed garage. She wanted to pass along the message that she wanted to say goodbye to John McCain, and that she loved him. The Chief of Staff asked me if he had done the right thing by calling 911. I assured him that he had.
For 14 years, I have been accused of being disloyal for speaking out against Sarah Palin by the people who both failed to vet her and who know what had transpired with the lobbyist. I was consumed with trying to figure out what to say and do when the consequences of John McCain’s lying inevitably exploded into public view. Despite these, and so many other attacks on me personally, I remained silent.
While I was dealing with preparing for what we viewed as the certainty of public exposure of this matter, and the unraveling of Senator McCain’s refusal to confront and speak the truth, Rick Davis was vetting and interviewing Sarah Palin.
As has been previously reported, John McCain met with Sarah Palin alone for two hours before Cindy, Mark Salter and I joined him by a stream on their Sedona, AZ, property. Cindy pointed out that picking Sarah Palin would be a big gamble. Mark Salter told Senator McCain that there were “worse things than losing an election; you could lose your reputation.” I told him that it was a big risk, but that in my view, unless we took a risk with her, we would certainly lose the election. John McCain looked at Cindy, said that he wished she hadn’t described it that way, closed his fist and pretended to shake imaginary dice, before saying, “Fuck it. Let’s do it.”
Earlier that day, Senator McCain had asked me to accompany him to the private meeting with Sarah Palin where he would interview her to be the Vice Presidential nominee. I said that would be inappropriate. I told him that this was his first presidential decision. I told him that he alone had to make an assessment as to whether she was ready to take the Oath of Office on Day 1, and whether she was prepared to be President. He, and he alone, had to make that decision.
This was the biggest mistake I have ever made. The first opportunity I had to discuss a substantive policy issue with her did not take place until we were leaving the Minneapolis convention. It took less than three minutes for me to absorb the magnitude of the disaster. Should this have happened earlier, the selection of her would never have happened. This was a lapse in John’s judgment, not mine. My mistake was leaving John McCain alone in a room with her.
When the campaign ended, Sarah Palin lashed out at Nicolle Wallace and me. She and her staff smeared us as disloyal leakers, who had sabotaged her political genius. As the stories of Sarah Palin’s grift and egregious behavior exploded into public view, I asked John McCain to call her and tell her to stop attacking us and blaming us for her failures. He wouldn’t. Why? Because he said that if he did, she would attack him.
The bravest man that I had ever met turned out to be terrified of the creature that he had created. His refusal to be honest about his mistake of picking her – and his unwillingness to confront the furies she unleashed – allowed an ember to grow into a conflagration that is foundational to our current catastrophic denial of reality and profound dishonesty of the far right.
I spoke out against Sarah Palin and called her selection a mistake because it was. I spoke out against the Tea Party movement because I knew where it could lead. John McCain asked me to stop, and I refused because I promised myself after the campaign that I would never tell a public lie again. Senator McCain tried to ride the Tea Party tiger in the 2010 election. He promised to build the wall. He said so many other things that he didn’t truly believe because they were politically expedient.
John McCain was deeply upset about my participation in a “60 Minutes” interview previewing publication of the book Game Change. I did everything that I could to make sure the details of John McCain’s personal life were kept out of the book. I did this to protect the reputation of both John McCain and his family. I did the interview because I was being viciously and dishonestly attacked by Sarah Palin, and I was left undefended by John McCain.
I talked to Senator John McCain before he passed. There was no unfinished business between us. The public and premeditated announcement that I was being excluded from his funeral was a malicious and cruel act that said much more about the people who orchestrated it than me.
It was an act that fundamentally repudiated a central pillar of Senator McCain’s life, which was his extraordinary capacity for reconciliation. Whether it was with the Vietnamese, anti-war protestors, or with political enemies, John McCain always found his way to forgiveness.
John McCain exists in the world between myth and man. I knew the man, and I loved him despite his staggering flaws. I have always believed that a great nation needs its myths and heroes. That is why I have been reluctant to respond to the relentless, mean-spirited and unfounded attacks made over the past 14 years by Meghan McCain.
Today, I view loyalty through a prism of duty to my family, country and the truth.
The truth requires that – at long last – I speak out. It is not a story that I relish telling, but I must because my continued silence stipulates the validity of untrue allegations and petty slanders. I owe that to my children. I cannot allow for them to see me be abused and bullied by lies. The truth is the only remedy that I know to make Meghan’s abuse stop.
John McCain was a complicated man. He was an idealist, who could be transactional and deeply cynical. He was a mirror, who exposed the vanities of so many ‘hangers on’ in the media who sought his favor and companionship, as opposed to delivering the scrutiny a powerful politician deserved.
He was a hero of the Vietnam War who suffered unimaginable privations and brutality and did not breach his honor. He made an affirmative decision to die in captivity rather than come home in disgrace.
He was a man who believed in reconciliation. He helped re-establish relations between the United States and Vietnam.
He served in the United States Senate for 31 years. His story is complete now. What I have shared does not diminish the great things he did in the same way those great achievements do not, and did not, shield him from the truth.
In the end, John McCain’s top political aide made a choice. He made the same choice as Paul Manafort. He wanted to make millions of dollars advancing the strategic interests of Vladimir Putin, Oleg Deripaska and their puppet Victor Yanukovych, while at the same time acting as the top advisor to a US major party nominee, and ultimately a President of the United States. Nothing like this should ever happen again in the United States.
The story of American corruption in Ukraine is a disgrace, and in part has led to the human disaster in Ukraine. The corruption did not start in the Trump era, but years before. It started in the K Street sewer firms where Roger Stone, Rick Gates, Paul Manafort and Rick Davis thrived.
Why did Senator John McCain choose to ignore this? Because Rick Davis organized the constant chaos of John McCain’s life into something that could resemble a soft coherence to people looking in the window to a constantly destabilized environment.
That was not in the national security interests of the Government of the United States, nor the American people.
John McCain was human, and like all of us, including me, he was flawed. He was a legend, but not a myth. Too much of our political conversation mythologizes fantasies that never existed in the first place. Often commentators will say something to the effect of, “if only John McCain was here.” He isn’t, and he won’t be.
I would be remiss if I did not directly address some commentary about what I owe the McCain family. I owe the McCain family nothing. I have never taken anything of value from a McCain. I helped Senator John McCain because I believed. I lost my faith in him a long time ago. I have never lost my faith in America and neither did he. We shared that in common.
The John McCain campaign took almost 15 years of my life. Its impact on my life is indescribable. It is over now. I have made it through.
It is time to look up and out. It is time to look for new leaders. It is time to move on.
A brave and brilliant essay. Thank you Mr. Schmidt!
Thanks for the warnings. All of a sudden what the @GOP stands for (nothing), makes sense. We must fight for our democracy and personal rights to the bitter end. We must fight Putin's backdoor adverse influence in every democracy, here and around the world.