Former Top McCain Aide Says He Lied to Discredit a Times Article

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The senior strategist for Senator John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign said on Sunday night that he had lied to discredit a New York Times article that reported on Mr. McCain’s close relationship with a female lobbyist, a claim that the candidate and the campaign attacked at considerable length at the time.

The statement from Steve Schmidt, which he published in a late-night Substack post, was a remarkable turnabout for a former senior aide who once praised Mr. McCain as “the greatest man I’ve ever known.”

More than 14 years after The Times’s article appeared and four years after the Republican senator’s death, Mr. Schmidt let loose a furious personal assault on the credibility of Mr. McCain and his family.

“Immediately following the story’s publication, John and Cindy McCain both lied to the American people,” Mr. Schmidt wrote, adding, “Ultimately, John McCain’s lie became mine.”

Defending his long silence on the matter, Mr. Schmidt said in his post that he “didn’t want to do anything to compromise John McCain’s honor.” His post then questioned Mr. McCain’s judgment in choosing the relatively unknown governor of Alaska, Sarah Palin, as his running mate and accused Mr. McCain of cowering before her — “terrified of the creature that he created,” he wrote.

In an interview on Monday, Mr. Schmidt said he was motivated to speak up now in part because he felt he had been unfairly associated for nearly 15 years with Mr. McCain’s choice of Ms. Palin, which he called “a burden.”

Mr. Schmidt also accused Mr. McCain — a self-styled maverick who fought leaders of his own party as he pushed for stricter campaign finance restrictions and ethics rules around political activities like lobbying — of lying about one aspect of the article that particularly angered the senator.

The article, published on Feb. 21, 2008, reported that several people involved with Mr. McCain’s first presidential campaign, in 2000, became concerned that he and the lobbyist, Vicki Iseman, had a romantic relationship. It was an explosive and potentially damaging claim for a presidential candidate who positioned himself as a corruption-fighter committed to exposing Washington’s self-dealing ways.

The day after the article was published, Mr. McCain appeared with his wife, Cindy, at a news conference and stated that the article was wrong. “I’m very disappointed in The New York Times piece. It’s not true,” he said.

Mr. McCain continued to deny until his death that he had a romantic relationship with Ms. Iseman. Mr. Schmidt, however, said Mr. McCain had privately acknowledged an affair to him after The Times published its article. “John McCain told me the truth backstage at an event in Ohio,” he wrote.

Ms. Iseman sued The Times and demanded that it print a retraction of the article on its front page. Less than three months after she filed the lawsuit, she dropped it. The Times appended a note to readers at the bottom of the article that said it “did not state, and The Times did not intend to conclude, that Ms. Iseman had engaged in a romantic affair with Senator McCain or an unethical relationship on behalf of her clients in breach of the public trust.”

Mr. Schmidt did not name Ms. Iseman in his Substack post, though he made several references to private phone calls he had with a “lobbyist” he describes in disparaging terms.

Ms. Iseman did not respond to a request for comment on Monday.

A spokeswoman for The Times, Danielle Rhoades Ha, said the paper stood by the article. “We were confident in the accuracy of our reporting in 2008, and we remain so.”

Mr. McCain’s daughter Meghan, a conservative author and former co-host of “The View,” said her family had no comment on Monday.