Mark Salter, John McCain’s obstreperous senior aide, just responded to Time’s query about the New York Times’s long-simmering McCain-mixed-up-with-lobbyists story.
Speaking from a parking garage in Toledo, where the campaign is overnighting, Salter vehemently denied any improper relationship between the lobbyist singled out in the piece and the senator. He also attempted to cast doubt on both the story and the newspaper’s reasons for running it. The bulk of the story’s more titillating accusations, he said, stemmed from “two blind quotes….Are these the standards of the New York Times? No. They are the standards of the National Enquirer.”
The story has been brewing since December at the latest, at which time the campaign found itself in the middle of a newsroom debate, with the Times apparently stalled in reporting the story. Salter says McCain called the paper’s editor, Bill Keller,
to deny the both substance of the more lurid allegations — having to do with Vicki Iseman, a lobbyist, and her possible “romantic” relationship with McCain — and to protest his innocence in allegedly “betraying the public trust” with regard to legislation after hearing from former staffers who had been contacted to confirm aspects of the story. He volunteered to meet with Keller and the reporters on the story personally. During the conversation, he also answered questions from Keller; he denied any personal “romantic” involvement with Iseman, and said that he did not “betray the public trust.” When the story did not appear for months, staffers hoped the issue was settled; but this month, reporting from other organizations threatened to open up the same allegations, in the form of a Beltway-centric tale about reporter rivalries. Salter blamed the New York Times’ obsession with this sort of intramural scorekeeping as the paper’s real motivation for going ahead with a story “they’d already spiked.” “They did this because the The New Republic was going to run a story that looked back at the infighting there,” Salter said, “the Judy Miller-type power struggles — they decided that they would rather smear McCain than suffer a story that made the New York Times newsroom look bad.”
As for the story’s claim that McCain’s Senate staff worried, on the eve of the 2000 campaign, about the appearance of improprieties with Iseman, Salter was was dismissive: “There is ONE staffer with the authority and the ability to do this [
speak to the candidate about such delicate matters to ban a visitor from the office]. And that’s me. And I never did.” Salter also said that the Senator would soon release statements from those people interviewed by the Times for the story — “dozens” according to him — who denied many of the facts alleged in the story (including Iseman’s supposedly frequent presence in the Senate office), but who were not quoted in the piece. The Times also states that the lobbyist “accompanied” McCain to fundraisers. Salter was emphatic: “She ATTENDED McCain fundrasiers, she didn’t ACCOMPANY McCain.”
“The whole story,” he said, “isn’t a reflection on John McCain, this is a reflection on the New York Times.”
UPDATE: TNR plays peek-a-boo:
The McCain campaign is apparently blaming TNR for forcing the Times’ hand on this story. We can’t yet confirm that. But we can say this: TNR correspondent Gabe Sherman is working on a piece about the Times’ foot-dragging on the McCain story, and the back-and-forth within the paper about whether to publish it. Gabe’s story will be online tomorrow.
UPDATE: Salter writes with a couple of clarifications; I’ve changed the above to reflect them:
No staffer had the authority to ban a person from the office or instruct staff to keep their distance from someone but one. Me, and I never did nor did I have any reason to.
Regarding to the two blind sources who claim to have confronted McCain about this, let them provide dates, times and places these conversations occured. We can check them against the schedules and establish where McCain was and who he was with. Those conversations never occured.
He contacted Bill Keller after we heard from former staffers that they were being contacted and asked that reporters meet with us and we would answer all their questions, which we did. In the course of that conversation Keller asked him several questions abt the story, which he answered.