The Unexpected Costs of Cooperating With the Mueller Investigation

(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- Dimitri Simes’s name appears 134 times in the redacted version of special counsel Robert Mueller’s report on Russian interference in the 2016 election. Born and educated in Moscow, Simes has been a fixture in Washington since the 1970s, brokering advice and authority for contacts in both capitals. Those relationships proved helpful to the nascent presidential campaign of Donald Trump, later drawing the scrutiny of Mueller’s team.

Mueller’s investigation resulted in a total of 34 indictments covering everyone from Russian hackers to Trump campaign officials, but not Simes or anyone else at his Washington think tank, the Center for the National Interest. And yet, as the probe unfolded, Simes and his staff incurred punishing legal bills during the hours they sat for interviews with the special counsel’s team. The think tank’s largest donor drastically cut his financial support earlier this year, according to four people familiar with the organization’s finances, and Simes himself dealt with unwanted public exposure. With no finding of wrongdoing to show for their travails, Simes and the center are nevertheless an object lesson in the unexpected costs of influence-peddling.

Simes has spent his career mostly behind the scenes, moving to the U.S. in 1973 and serving as an informal foreign policy adviser to President Richard Nixon. Nixon personally installed him at the helm of the Center for the National Interest when he founded it in 1994 as the Nixon Center for Peace and Freedom. Simes “is very much a product of a Russian intellectual educational background,” a student of Marx, Lenin, and the Hegelian dialectic, says Wayne Merry, a former State Department and Pentagon official who spent six years at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. Simes has long helped American elites understand Russian ones, and vice versa, and has been described as both an American and a Russian nationalist. Mostly, Merry says, Simes thinks the enmity between the two countries is a tragic missed opportunity.

The Center for the National Interest organized the event where Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner first met Henry Kissinger, and it also hosted Trump’s first foreign policy speech at Washington’s Mayflower Hotel. Furthermore, as the Mueller report says, Simes met Jared Kushner in August 2016 to offer dirt on the Clinton family’s relationship with Russia. According to the report, Kushner was apparently unimpressed by the information Simes proffered (which was redacted from the published version for reasons of “personal privacy”), later telling investigators that he thought it unlikely that there was much yet to be revealed about the Clintons. Nevertheless, it wouldn’t be the last time Kushner turned to Simes for insight. When Trump won the election, Kushner asked him who Russia’s ambassador was after Trump spokeswoman Hope Hicks received a congratulatory email claiming to be on behalf of Vladimir Putin. (“Don’t want to get duped but don’t want to blow off Putin!” Hicks wrote Kushner.) Simes also helped Kushner’s staff identify which Russian emissaries had political clout in Moscow.

Other communications published in the report show that Simes was more forthcoming in private than he’s known to be publicly. In a June 2016 email to a Trump campaign official, he suggested some key foreign policy issues, including a “new beginning with Russia.” In another email to Kushner, he recommended “downplaying Russia” as a foreign policy priority, noting that “some tend to exaggerate Putin’s flaws.” After Trump won, Richard Burt, a board member at the Center for the National Interest who’d offered input on Trump’s Mayflower Hotel speech, was trying to make a connection with the Trump team for Petr Aven, a Russian oligarch, through Simes, with the hope of setting up a back-channel line of communication. Simes rebuffed the idea because of media attention around Russia’s role in the U.S. election, the report says.

The last two years have been a drain on Simes’s think tank, which is down to about $1.2 million in assets, a person familiar with its finances says, from $5.3 million at the end of 2016, according to a tax filing. The Center for the National Interest ran up huge legal bills with its longtime attorneys David Rivkin and Lee Casey of BakerHostetler, say three people familiar with the costs; one of them says some monthly bills ran in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. “The Special Counsel’s Office expressed appreciation for the Center’s fulsome cooperation,” Rivkin said in an email. “The Center understands the Special Counsel’s Office was satisfied with the responses provided.”

Simes’s think tank has found itself in a precarious financial position in part because its largest donor, a foundation overseen by Maurice “Hank” Greenberg, the former American International Group chief executive officer and former Center for the National Interest board chairman, has pulled much of its support. Last August the Daily Beast published a story connecting Greenberg to Maria Butina, once the darling of the pro-gun right, who has since pleaded guilty to federal charges of acting as an agent of the Russian government, in matters unrelated to the Mueller probe. The link was Simes: According to the Daily Beast, he exchanged messages with Butina in 2015 about arranging a meeting between Greenberg and an official of the Central Bank of Russia to advance Greenberg’s business interests there. “There’s no evidence that Greenberg requested the outreach or was even aware of it,” the website reported.

The eventual cutback in donations had nothing to do with the Butina episode, three people familiar with Greenberg say. A spokesman said in an emailed statement that Greenberg has been talking with the think tank since 2014 about scaling back his commitments to focus on his company and philanthropy. “While he no longer serves as chairman,” the spokesman said, “he remains on the center’s board and plans to continue in this role.” Nevertheless, after giving more than $1 million in previous years, the foundation’s tax filings show, it issued a check to the center for less than $50,000 this year, according to two people familiar with the matter.

Charles Boyd, the think tank’s current chairman and a retired four-star general in the U.S. Air Force, expects that new interest from donors and increased revenue from its magazine, the National Interest, will help the organization bounce back. Jacob Heilbrunn, the magazine’s editor, says an investment in “the six figures” into the National Interest’s website and magazine has boosted traffic and advertising; monthly revenue is in excess of $250,000, while monthly page views hit 16.6 million in March, Heilbrunn says. “We’re growing and we’re healthy, and the prospects for the future are very bright,” Boyd says.

Simes himself—bald, bearded, with a near-permanent grimace—now splits time between Washington and Moscow, where he serves as the co-host of a politics show, The Great Game, on Russia’s state-owned Channel One. “It was an opportunity to have a voice that reached a large number of Russian people on the U.S. perspective on the tensions between the two countries,” says Boyd of Simes’s participation in the show. The think tank’s staff are sometimes beamed in as guest experts. “It is an extraordinary opportunity and a very positive one,” Boyd says. It also puts Simes on the payroll of a Russian government-owned company.

Merry, the former diplomat, says he can’t imagine a similar program—with a Russia-based host clarifying the Kremlin’s views—existing in the U.S. The show is more sober and erudite than other public affairs programming on Channel One, he adds, and “some of the other stuff would make anyone at Fox News blush.” Still, “nobody should think Dimitri tones anything down because he’s a native Russian.” —With Katherine Chiglinsky 

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jillian Goodman at jgoodman74@bloomberg.net, Winnie O'KelleyJeffrey Grocott

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