For Dimitri Simes, the Mueller report is a vindication of himself and the Center for the National Interest, the small think tank that played an outsized role in influencing the Trump campaign’s foreign policy. But even though Simes, president and chief executive of the center, was cleared of wrongdoing, damage was done. Some inside his organization say Simes shares the blame — for overplaying the Washington influence-peddling game and cozying up to Team Trump.
As the Mueller report and various news reports have spelled out, Simes was engaging in activities that are both legal and widespread in Washington: back-channel communications with foreign officials, wielding influence on behalf of corporate interests and privately helping political campaigns while running a “nonpartisan” organization. However, those activities became a focus of federal and congressional investigations and tons of media scrutiny. Simes said he does not think he should be held responsible for any of it.
“I did not see anything in the Mueller report that in any way that would indicate any questionable activity on my part or on the center’s part,” Simes told me in a long interview. “If you look at what other organizations were doing helping Hillary [Clinton], our position was not unusual, was not inappropriate, and taking into the nature of the vicious attacks on [President] Trump, trying to portray him as a foreign agent, in that context it was perfectly legitimate.”
The Mueller report documents extensive interactions among Simes, the center and top Trump campaign officials that continued after Trump was elected. Many of them were publicly known, such as when the center hosted candidate Trump’s first foreign policy speech in April 2016. It was there that Sergey Kislyak, Russia’s ambassador to the United States, was reported to have met with then-Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), an interaction Mueller deemed incidental.
Some of Mueller’s revelations were new. Simes rebuffed attempts by one of the center’s board members, former U.S. ambassador to Germany Richard Burt, to set up a back channel between Trump and Moscow. Also, Simes peddled allegedly compromising information to Jared Kushner on Bill and Hillary Clintons’ ties to Russia. The nature of the dirt was redacted in Mueller’s report but sources confirmed to me that Simes was spreading the rumor that the Russian government had tapes of Bill Clinton having phone sex with Monica Lewinsky.
“There was absolutely nothing inappropriate or controversial mentioning that, when Trump was under this attack for allegedly being a Russian asset, to say, ‘Look, guys, actually the Clintons themselves may be vulnerable on this issue,’ ” Simes told me, adding that it was a short conversation because Kushner was not interested.
It’s difficult to separate the center from Simes, who is simply the Washington expert most well connected in Moscow and whose organization provides a unique link between the two cities’ elite. That has led some to speculate Simes is working more in Russia’s interests than for those of the United States. But that misunderstands who Simes really is.
Simes emigrated from the Soviet Union in 1973 at age 24 in search of intellectual and political freedom, he said, after being twice expelled from college for protesting Russia’s involvement in the Vietnam War. He soon became an informal adviser to President Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger and a U.S. citizen. In 1994, when Nixon founded what was then called the Nixon Center for Peace and Freedom, he chose Simes to run it.
“He was not a great lover of think tanks,” Simes said of Nixon. “He knew I would not go with the flow.”
Since then, the center has been an island of realist foreign policy in a sea of mostly neoconservative or neoliberal organizations. It counts among its board members Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.); former Pentagon official Dov Zakheim; former Joint Chiefs chairman Adm. Mike Mullen; Grover Norquist; and retired Gen. Charles Boyd (its chairman).
Inside the organization, several staffers and board members told me they thought that although Mueller cleared Simes of any illegal behavior, his judgment and decisions had negative impacts on the center.
“Simes’s peddling of dirt on Bill Clinton to Jared Kushner during the campaign undermines the credibility of the organization’s claim to nonpartisanship,” one organization employee told me. “This hurts our ability to reach a broader audience, which is particularly regrettable at a time when progressives are increasingly receptive to a more restraint-oriented foreign policy approach.”
The center spent more than $1 million on legal bills to deal with the Mueller investigation, Simes said. It is still dealing with a separate Senate Finance Committee investigation into Simes’s contacts with Alexander Torshin, a top Russian Central Bank official, and his associate Marina Butina, who was sentenced last month to 18 months in prison for actions she took on behalf of Torshin and for “the benefit of the Russian Federation,” in the words of federal prosecutors.
David Rivkin, the longtime lawyer for the center and Simes, provided me with the center’s response to the committee, which argues that the center’s efforts to arrange meetings for Torshin with U.S. Treasury Department and Federal Reserve officials were meant to “facilitate dialogue and mutual understanding” between U.S. and Russian officials, which is part of the organization’s mission.
Simes also acknowledged that he asked Torshin to look into a problem the center’s longtime former board chairman Hank Greenberg was having with a large investment he made in a Russian bank. Butina was just Torshin’s aide, as far as he knew, Simes said. (Butina’s attorney declined to comment.)
“In my view I was acting honorably and appropriately, helping an American company which was under attack in Russia from corrupt forces and I was trying to get the Central Bank to do the right thing,” said Simes. “At the end, it did not work.”
Greenberg, the center’s largest donor for years, cut his foundation’s annual support from more than $1 million per year to just $25,000 this past year, Simes confirmed. A spokesman for the Starr Foundation told me Greenberg had informed the center in 2014 that he planned to scale back his involvement to focus on building Starr Insurance Cos. “While he no longer serves as chairman, he remains on the center’s board and plans to continue in this role,” the spokesman said. That may be true, but it’s also hard to ignore that Greenberg invested $10 million in supporting Jeb Bush’s primary campaign against Trump.
The center’s reserve fund, which had been almost $4 million in December 2017, was depleted to just $1.2 million by March of this year, according to internal documents I obtained. Simes told me that when the center split from the Richard Nixon Foundation in 2011, it received money that served as a rainy-day fund — and that this qualified as a rainy day.
Simes said the center’s magazine, the National Interest, is profitable and the think tank has a new high-six-figure donor, so it can survive and even thrive in its mission to promote a realist U.S. foreign policy approach.
Many organization employees were shocked when, in mid-2018, just as the center seemed to be out of the woods, Simes decided to take a job co-hosting a prime-time news and analysis show on Channel 1, a major Russian television network that is majority-owned by the Russian government. The new job suddenly focused a spotlight on Simes’s ties to Moscow.
The show, called “Bolshaya Igra” (“The Great Game”), features Simes, co-host Vyacheslav Nikonov (the grandson of Stalin’s foreign minister Vyacheslav Molotov), and other co-hosts and guests discussing foreign policy. Simes has invited mainstream American foreign policy experts to appear on the show, including Obama administration White House official Charles Kupchan and the Atlantic Council’s John Herbst.
Kupchan and Herbst both told me they valued the chance to speak openly on Russian TV about their views and were not censored, but both said the show is clearly tipped editorially in Moscow’s favor. Channel 1 did not respond to a request for comment.
“I’m there to provide an alternate point of view, but the odds are stacked against me,” said Herbst, who noted that he does not agree with Simes or the center on U.S.-Russian relations. “But I’ve continued to do it, because millions of Russian listeners who usually get nothing but Kremlin stuff will get to hear my views unvarnished.”
Simes said he views the show as a project for the center, not just himself. But he admits he gets paid a mid-six-figure salary to host the show, in addition to the salary he draws at the center, which was $586,000 in 2017, according to publicly disclosed tax documents. He said he voluntarily took a salary cut last year.
In the post-Mueller environment, there’s a lot of collateral damage. To be sure, Simes and the center were caught up in a frenzy that blew their private but legal activities out of proportion. Several organization employees told me Simes deserves some of the blame for putting the center in this position. But they don’t believe he did all these things for Russia or Trump or even for the center. Many suspect Simes acted in the interest of promoting himself: his financial benefit, his proximity to power, his influence, as he had done successfully for more than four decades.
The center will likely survive and its programs will continue. But it’s doubtful it will play the influential role it once did. Simes is determined not to let what he sees as anti-Russia hysteria push him off his mission to inject realism and cooperation into the relationship. If Simes has proved anything about himself, it’s that he is a survivor.
“We view this situation as a great challenge, there’s no doubt about that. None of us wanted to be under that kind of pressure and that kind of scrutiny,” he said. “But as Ronald Reagan would say, ‘You ain’t seen nothing yet.’ "