Former Trump Campaign Aide: My Russia Ties Are Not Nefarious!

Michael Caputo’s favorite novel is Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, the story of the Devil’s visit to Moscow in the 1930s and all the oddball characters who surround him. When the future Trump campaign official was living in Moscow in the 1990s, he moved to Patriarchs Pond, the novel’s setting, and scratched his apartment’s paint down to the color it was when Bulgakov wrote the novel in Stalin’s Soviet Union, and then repainted each room in the color it would have been then.

Today, Caputo thinks the book’s magical realism and interplay of greed, guilt, and politics captures the absurdity of our modern moment perfectly, and he has taken his own first-edition copy of the book into his closed-door testimonies before the House Intelligence Committee, the Senate Intelligence Committee, and, earlier this month, to meet with Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigators. “I figure that’ll raise its resale value,” he says. “I’ll put it on eBay someday.”

Among the odd stories surrounding the colorful cast of characters orbiting the Trump campaign and the Mueller investigation, political consultant Michael Caputo—a one-time protégé of PR dirty trickster Roger Stone and former aide to Paul Manafort—likely doesn’t even crack the top dozen. In fact, his most memorable claim to fame on the Trump campaign may be that he’s the only person to have left the campaign under totally normal circumstances, resigning after an ill-advised tweet that celebrated the firing of Corey Lewandowski. (“Ding dong the witch is dead,” he wrote, accompanying the post with a photo of a pair of legs crushed by a house.)

Caputo has attracted the attention of Congressional and Justice Department investigators, but he says he’s also wrapped up in a burgeoning Russia-gate of his own, a brewing scandal driven by left-wing bloggers in possession of leaked documents he handed over to Senate investigators, an attempt to smear his latest Russian-linked business venture, a video website he describes as filling the gap “between Netflix and YouTube.”

He spoke to WIRED in an attempt to get ahead of looming rumors about the venture, Bond.PM, which declares itself “the future of entertainment powered by Blockchain.” Given his prominence in the Trump orbit and conservative circles, he says, “I expect to get a couple kicks in the nuts.” But he’s here to tell you that claims that there’s anything untoward about his new business are baseless—and his critics are simply trying to discredit him because of general anti-Russia bias. “I’m about to be roasted,” he says. “The reason the Senate is leaking is because I’m in business with Russians.”

Caputo’s business interests in Russia stretch back to the 1990s, when he lived there working on behalf of the US Agency for International Development and later advised then-President Boris Yeltsin. He also helped run “Rock the Vote Russia.” (“When the Clinton administration asked me to go meddle in the Russian election, I jumped at the chance,” he jokes.) Though he left Russia as Vladimir Putin took office, he has remained active in the region’s politics and business, including consulting for Gazprom. But more than business, he says he’s an aficionado of Russian art and culture, a child of the Cold War who fought Soviet Communism with the Contras and with his old boss, Jack Kemp.

Bond.PM—for which Caputo is listed as chief marketing officer—isn’t some sort of Russian plot, he says. It’s a startup that just happens to involve a lot of Russians.

The startup, which hasn’t launched yet, says its streaming platform aims to “take the middlemen out of the game” and connect video creators directly with an audience, allowing for crowd-investing and decentralized ownership enabled by smart contracts and its own cryptocurrency powered by the Ethereum blockchain. “This whole blockchain thing is so compelling to me—I don’t know where it’s going, but it’s such an interesting ride,” Caputo says.

His role is hardly hidden in the new venture—the flashy website is topped by a video featuring him. (“With the internet and blockchain, everything is changed,” he says on the video. “It’s the future of content.”) Other leaders of the startup include a Russian TV executive and a one-time Moscow entertainment lawyer; the effort is backed by a Hong Kong investment banker and professor of the Russian Economic University.

While the public PowerPoint deck for the company is innocuous—and posted on Bond.PM’s website—Caputo says that the Senate Intelligence Committee leaked to liberal bloggers two non-public slides from the version he gave them that refer to the “Roseanne Effect,” the runaway popularity with Trump voters of the rebooted Roseanne sitcom this year. “Roseanne may have a domino effect on Hollywood,” the slides say, reaching the “Pro-Trump Middle America ignored by elites.”

He says he uses the slides when pitching the venture to conservative investors, who are eager for an alternative to the liberal Los Angeles elite. Caputo raised $12 million for various pro-Trump SuperPACs in 2016 and says he’s going after the same investors for his new project. “I’m taking this deck to Republican billionaires who support the president,” he says, “people who don’t like the Oscars ceremony and can’t stand the finger-wagging from Hollywood.”

Bond.PM, he says, offers a real alternative: “It completely disrupts the Hollywood business model. It’s the next step in disintermediating Hollywood.”

But, he insists, Bond.PM is not cozying up to the Kremlin. In fact, two of the filmmakers involved are decidedly not Putin fans: One of the company’s founders, Den Tolmar, was nominated for an Academy Award for his 2016 documentary Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom, about that country’s revolution in 2014—a revolution that deposed Manafort and Putin’s preferred leader. Another Bond advisor, Cyril Tuschi, made a documentary sympathetic to Putin’s most famous critic, the tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky.

The startup is aimed at letting fans support their favorite actors and directors without middlemen—and potentially even own a chunk of movies or TV shows themselves. As Caputo and his partners see it, the current economic model leaves a vast chasm between the low-end and the high-end. “If you don’t sell to Netflix or Amazon, you’re screwed. YouTube doesn’t make you any money anymore. There’s a great big chasm between Netflix and YouTube. That whole middle ground is untouched,” he says. “With blockchain and smart contracts, it’s a no-brainer. It’s an opportunity not just to make money, but also to transform the industry.”

The platform is meant to help empower both new content, like Tolmar’s documentaries, most recently Cries from Syria—which paints a sympathetic portrait of the victims of the Syrian civil war—as well as those out of step with the Hollywood elite. He points to Kevin Spacey’s banishment from House of Cards following sexual assault allegations last year. If the actor wanted to reprise his role as the power-hungry Frank Underwood, he could turn directly to stalwart fans online. “A franchise like that would find a home on Bond.PM. The gods of Hollywood have decided that the Kevin Spacey is never to be seen again—but his fans didn’t get a say in that,” Caputo says. “I understand he’s accused of dire things—and Kevin Spacey needs to make that right again. I believe in forgiveness. America loves a forgiveness story. America is the land of second chances. The gods of Hollywood will never give him a chance, but his fans would have the chance with Bond.PM.”

And don’t forget about Mel Gibson, who was ostricized for various outbursts deemed racist and anti-Semetic. He “was in Siberia for over a decade; he’s an incredible creator,” Caputo says. “We missed so much that he could have done. But if the gods of Hollywood were no longer in charge, if the fans were the deciders, it’d be very, very different. On Bond.PM, they don’t get to make that choice.”

The site, he says, is nearly ready for launch, which will include an initial coin offering. “Our ICO is imminent—it’ll be at the end of the month—and we expect to have the platform up and creators uploading their videos and films in June,” he says.

Bond.PM is not the only Russian-linked effort underway in Caputo’s life: He’s also helping launch an avant-garde ballet with star Russian ballerina Diana Vishneva, Sleeping Beauty Dreams, which will premiere in December in Miami before heading to New York and, then in 2019, a national tour. The ballet retells the classic fairy tale and includes what the production claims is “the first ever fusion of live contemporary dance of the ballet stars with 3D digital avatars projected on stage in real time.”

Both efforts share a common origin, Caputo says. “All of my Russian friends are from the creative arena,” he says. “There’s a huge brain drain of the creative class out of Russia. They’re gone—they now all live in Miami, New York, Los Angeles, London.”

The idea for the dance production grew out of a dinner party in Miami Beach, where he recalls he was sitting around with a group that included, in his words, the “Russian Andy Warhol, the Russian Bill Graham, and the Russian Ian Schrager.” The four of them, all dads with daughters, were drinking vodka and eating pickles. “We were all complaining about how we’re spending so much money on Frozen stuff and princesses,” Caputo says.

The conversation then turned to how to make money on princesses, rather than spend it, and to Sleeping Beauty, which has been continually reinvented by the Grimm Brothers, Tchaikovsky, and, most recently, Disney. Was there anything left to do with her? Then Rem Khass, the Russian Andy Warhol, asked a simple question: What was she dreaming for the hundred years that she was asleep? “We all reacted the same way—‘Oh my gosh,’” Caputo recalls. “We started getting really interested. The vast majority of the story took place in her head—and no one ever told us that.”

Caputo, 56, is one of the colorful, ancillary characters who have floated in and out of the year-long Mueller investigation. Three decades ago, he worked as Roger Stone’s driver and says he has known Paul Manafort almost as long. Along the way, he worked with Oliver North, supporting the Contras in Central America, first met Trump in 1988, and once entertained Vladimir Putin at a reception at his house in Russia. He got his start in public relations in the Army, and he says that the first Russian he ever saw was through binoculars at the Korean Demilitarized Zone. “I think I’m the only American who has worked for both the White House and the Kremlin,” he says. “I plead guilty to living an interesting life—lock me up. But at the end of the day, I’ve told the truth and I’ve done nothing wrong.”

He is, to put it mildly, unapologetic. “If those Twitter sleuths Louise Mensch and John Schindler are upset I’m working with the premier Russian ballerina, they’re going to have to deal with it,” he says, referring to two of the amateur online gumshoes who have turned their Russia commentaries into mass followings. “If they’re upset that I’m working with an Academy-Award nominated Del Tolmar to change the industry, they’re going to have to deal with it.”

A longtime PR consultant, Caputo was hired by Trump in 2014 to help launch an astroturf effort to aid Trump’s ultimately unsuccessful purchase of the Buffalo Bills. He went to work for the Trump campaign in December 2015 to help in the New York primary then joined the national team in April 2016 as part of the group brought in by chairman Paul Manafort. He spent only a few weeks on the job before departing following his impolitic tweet.

Despite his short tenure, his contacts with the campaign—and his manifold Russian connections—have kept him on the radar screens of the various Trump investigators for 18 months, especially since the March 20, 2017, congressional hearing where then-FBI Director James Comey testified about Russia’s interference in the election. Rep. Jackie Speier then called Caputo “Putin’s image consultant,” a charge he vehemently objects to. “I no more worked for Vladimir Putin than I did Rocky Balboa,” he says.

The investigators all grilled him on his ties to various campaign officials and Russian oligarchs. He says that while he was an “object of curiosity” to congressional investigators, Mueller’s team went at him hard. They “didn’t ask me a single question they didn’t know the answer to,” he says. “It was a colonoscopy. It felt like a proctology exam. These guys are not gentle.” (He prepared for this interview by relaxing in a Russian-style bathhouse in his hometown of Buffalo.)

None of his current work, he says, has raised the eyebrows of Mueller’s team. When he spoke to Mueller’s investigators, he says he tried to give them a copy of the Bond.PM PowerPoint too, but an investigator brushed it away, telling him, “Mr. Caputo, we don’t care about your Russian dancing.” (“It was such a drippy statement—like ‘we’re in this for serious things,’” he says.)

Throughout the investigations, he has remained a regular guest on cable news, defending Trump and condemning the investigations regularly dismissed by the president as a “witch hunt.”

Caputo says his own legal bills have topped $125,000, and that he had to cash in his childrens’ college fund to pay them. However, a GoFundMe effort this spring to defray his legal bills ended up raising $330,000 from about 6,500 donors, and earlier this week, Caputo announced he was opening up his legal defense fund to others who face mounting lawyers’ fees for their own involvement in the probe.

In a closing statement this month to the Senate Intelligence Committee that boiled over with his frustration, he called for an “investigation of the investigators,” saying he wanted to know who was leading the push against Trump: “I want to know [who] because God damn you to hell!”

He sees his two new efforts, the ballet and the video website, as a chance to restart and reorient his life. “I never want to be in politics again. This has been a terrible experience. Working for President Trump has been a terrible experience,” he says. “I never want to do another [campaign] again. It’s an opportunity to change my life and my family’s life.”

The whole inquisition, he says, has made him rethink his dismissal on TV last year of George Papadopoulos as a “coffee boy.” He apologized to Papadopoulos on Twitter this morning, lifting a sense of shame that Caputo says had led him to question whether he’s worthy of marching in this weekend’s Memorial Day parade in his hometown of East Aurora, New York. With the apology made, Caputo says, he has a clean conscience: “Now I can have a hot dog and march.”


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Garrett M. Graff (@vermontgmg) is a contributing editor for WIRED and the author of The Threat Matrix: Inside Robert Mueller’s FBI. He can be reached at [email protected]