Michael Caputo was a communications adviser for Donald Trump's 2016 campaign
The colorful public relations specialist is testifying in Congress Friday
He told CNN in an exclusive interview that he wanted his denial of wrongdoing public
Michael Caputo, a former top Trump campaign adviser with strong ties to Russia, told CNN in an exclusive interview that he “never once” discussed nor heard anyone else mention Russian involvement in the race to defeat Hillary Clinton.
“No one ever breathed the word ‘Russia’ to me,” Caputo said in the interview, conducted days before he testified to the House intelligence committee Friday.
Caputo, who advised the campaign on communications, is one of several former Trump campaign aides who are being questioned as part of a multi-pronged investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election. In fact, of all of President Donald Trump’s campaign workers, Caputo might be the one with the deepest links to Russia: He lived in Moscow for several years in the 1990s, claims to have worked for the Kremlin and continues to try to do business there.
A colorful public relations specialist and fill-in radio talk-show host in Buffalo, New York, Caputo agreed to testify behind closed doors, at the insistence of the Republican and Democratic committee leaders. But he said he wanted his story – his denial of wrongdoing – to be made public.
“I heard nothing of the kind,” Caputo said, when asked if he ever heard anyone inside the campaign discuss Russian assistance. US intelligence agencies have determined that Russia interfered with the election in order to help Trump win. “In fact, we were so busy just trying to keep up with the sun rising and setting on that campaign that I can’t imagine anyone had the time, nor the wherewithal to go out there and even do something like this.
“Anybody who covered the Trump effort knew this was a pell-mell operation from the moment he woke up in the morning until the moment he went to bed,” he said. “The idea that somebody at that campaign would have had the forethought and the treachery … or the resources to go out and do this is laughable.”
Still loyal to Trump
Caputo talked to CNN on Monday, the day before Donald Trump Jr. released emails that raised further questions about potential collusion between his father’s campaign and the Russian government. According to the emails, Trump’s eldest son agreed to meet with a woman described as a “Russian government lawyer” because he was told she had damaging information on Clinton. Jared Kushner, the President’s son-in-law and now a senior White House adviser, and then-campaign chairman Paul Manafort also attended the meeting on June 9, 2016.
Less than two weeks later, on June 20, Caputo resigned from the campaign after celebrating the dismissal of campaign manager Corey Lewandowski with a tweet that said, “Ding Dong the witch is dead.” Manafort, who brought Caputo into the national campaign in April 2016 after his success with the New York primary, replaced Lewandowski as chairman.
Still loyal to the President, Caputo defended Trump Jr.
“You try to find ways to trip up your opponent. And if somebody comes to you and says, ‘I’ve got, you know, the smoking gun on the … Clinton campaign,’ you have that meeting. You definitely have that meeting. … If that lawyer had contacted me, I would have recommended she meet with somebody else, but I would have passed it up the chain of command.”
Caputo’s relationship to Russia
Caputo’s history in Russia dates to 1994, when he says the US government sent him there to help the country’s young government design election laws.
“I was sent there by the Clinton administration to meddle in their elections,” he said, flippantly using language that alludes to the current controversy.
Caputo was forced to resign in 1995 when he bucked the State Department by defending the Russian Election Commission’s decision to disqualify a progressive party from an election, according to a Washington Post story at the time.
After losing his job, Caputo opened a public relations firm in Moscow to help Western companies do business there. He also married a Russian woman (whom he later divorced), helped create a program similar to America’s “Rock the Vote” and advised then-President Boris Yeltsin on his re-election campaign. He moved back to the US in 2000 after the Russian economy collapsed and Vladimir Putin was elected president.
“And ever since then, I’ve been involved in the former Soviet Union, and I’m not going to stop now,” Caputo told CNN.
Russian links criticized
Caputo is a protégé of Roger Stone, a Trump adviser who has also agreed to be interviewed by the House intelligence committee.
Caputo’s name arose as part of the investigation in March, when Rep. Jackie Speier, a committee member and Democrat from California, said he was part of a “tarantula web” of links to Russia. Speier referred to Caputo as “Putin’s image consultant,” an apparent reference to work he did for Gazprom Media, a subsidiary of the Russian state-owned energy company that took over an independent TV station in 2001. When pro-democracy groups blasted Putin and his government for violating press freedoms, Caputo was brought in to help smooth things over.
“I’m not proud of the work today,” Caputo told The Buffalo News in March 2016. “But at the time, Putin wasn’t such a bad guy.”
In the CNN interview, Caputo denied that he worked to improve Putin’s image.
“No. That’s absolutely false,” he said, criticizing Speier’s office for faulty research. “I didn’t work on Putin’s image. I was trying to help Gazprom Media explain why they took over NTV, a television network. If that somehow down the line helped the Kremlin, that wasn’t what I was hired for.”
Caputo said he came across Putin twice in the late 1990s, when the future Russian leader was deputy mayor of St. Petersburg, but that the two never had a conversation. He said he didn’t realize Putin had been at a reception in Caputo’s Moscow home until he saw photos afterward.
Over the years, Caputo has continued to do business with Russians, starting with “business leaders and oligarchs who were trying to come to the United States.” In 2004, however, he wrote a column in The Washington Post in which he referred to the oligarchs as “brutal billionaires.” Facing death threats, he bought a tugboat and a gun and lived at sea – with a white parrot – for most of five years.
Caputo took a break from the boat in 2007 to consult on a parliamentary campaign in Ukraine, where he met his second wife. He has been particularly critical of Putin for Russia’s invasion of Crimea in 2014.
Working with ‘both the White House and the Kremlin’
In 2015, he re-established an old partnership with Sergey “George” Petrushin, founder of the Zeppelin nightclub in Moscow. Their PR agency has offices in New York, Miami and Moscow.
The firm’s website claims that Caputo is “the only executive in history who has worked for both the White House and the Kremlin,” a statement that Caputo acknowledged Thursday is not entirely true. In response to a CNN question, Caputo said he worked for then-President George H.W. Bush’s losing re-election campaign in 1992, but never for the White House. “I worked on the campaign, not in the building,” he said in a text message. “Spent a lot of time in the White House and on the road with the President (Bush) but not WH staff.”
Caputo, who first met Trump in 1988, said he never thought the New York businessman could become president. He said he still supports Trump, and downplayed the ongoing investigations by Senate and House committees and a special counsel – what he calls the “Russia collusion delusion” – as a “Democratic strategy” to block the President’s agenda.
“I’ve had a couple of very significantly in-depth discussions with Donald Trump about America and about patriotism and about the gifts this country has given him,” Caputo said. “And he is not the kind of person who would ever do anything like this.”
After testifying for three and a half hours before the House intelligence committee Friday – an hour and a half longer than expected – Caputo told reporters that in the hearing he denied having knowledge of any alleged contacts between the campaign and Russia.
“I spent my time in front of the committee detailing the fact that I had no contact with Russians, that I never heard of anyone with the Trump campaign talking with Russians, that I was never asked questions about my time in Russia, that I never even spoke to anyone about Russia, that I never heard the word ‘Russia,’ and we did not use Russian dressing,” Caputo told reporters in a press conference after the closed-door testimony. “There was absolutely no discussion of Russia on the Trump campaign ‘til the day I left.”
Florida Republican Tom Rooney, California Democrat Adam Schiff, California Democrat Eric Swalwell and Washington Democrat Denny Heck attended, Caputo’s lawyer, Dennis Vacco, said.
Heck told CNN’s Jim Acosta shortly after the hearing that it was “probably the most fascinating three hours of time I’ve spent in my nearly five years in the United States House of Representatives.”
CORRECTION: This story was updated to correct the date Caputo joined Trump’s national campaign.
CNN’s Drew Griffin and Pete Grieve contributed to this report.