Russia Scandal Befalls Two Brothers: John and Tony Podesta
One was a victim of Russian interference in the 2016 election. The other is under investigation by Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel.
WASHINGTON — One is a rail-thin liberal idealist who spent his career in government, on campaigns and at think tanks. The other is an overweight pragmatist who made a fortune lobbying for all manner of liberal boogeymen.
And now, in a twist with Shakespearean undertones, the two influential Washington brothers have found themselves on opposite sides of the scandals over Russian interference in the 2016 election.
John D. Podesta, perhaps more than anyone except Hillary Clinton, was a victim of the Russian cyberassault on allies of her presidential campaign, of which he was the chairman. Emails stolen from his personal Gmail account were dribbled out by WikiLeaks last fall, revealing the embarrassing rifts roiling the campaign and Washington’s Democratic establishment. He has pushed hard for an aggressive investigation of Russia’s role in the election.
Mr. Podesta’s older brother, Tony Podesta, has been ensnared in the investigation by Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel, into Russia’s meddling in the race and whether it involved any associates of President Trump. The efforts by his firm, the Podesta Group, to win support for the agenda of Viktor F. Yanukovych, the Russia-aligned former president of Ukraine, were cited in an indictment handed down last month against two former campaign aides to Mr. Trump, Paul Manafort and Rick Gates, who arranged the Ukrainian lobbying work.
Neither Tony Podesta nor anyone at the Podesta Group has been publicly charged in the case. But Mr. Mueller has subpoenaed the firm and its employees for documents and testimony related to their work and interviewed roughly half a dozen people about Tony Podesta’s involvement. And the Podesta Group has withered under the scrutiny, its employees informed in a tearful meeting on Thursday that they may stop receiving paychecks after next week, according to people in attendance.
For some Democrats, there is little question over who deserves the most sympathy.
“Sure, the Clinton campaign made some mistakes, but that’s not like representing a dictatorship,” said James Carville, who has known John Podesta for years through Democratic political circles. Mr. Carville said he was less acquainted with Tony Podesta, but added that “by reputation, you can’t put them in the same book. John is one of the straightest guys I know. Everybody says, ‘Can you believe that those guys are brothers?’”
Mr. Trump, for his part, went after both brothers last month, lumping them together as emblematic of “the swamp” of Washington special interests against which he campaigned.
In fact, the Podesta brothers, who were raised in a modest two-flat on Chicago’s northwest side by a Greek-American mother and an Italian-American father, represent very different strains of a Washington establishment now under attack from left and right.
John Podesta, 68, served as a top White House aide to the last two Democratic presidents, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, and was believed in line to be White House chief of staff if Mrs. Clinton had won the presidency. In between campaign and White House stints, John Podesta helped to create and run some of the leading institutions on the American left, including the Center for American Progress think tank, and provided policy and political advice to generations of Democratic politicians and operatives.
Tony Podesta, 74, built one of the highest-grossing lobbying firms in Washington, signing clients that spanned industries and ideologies — from defense contractors like Lockheed Martin to banks like Wells Fargo to drug makers like Mylan to foreign regimes like the government of former Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak. Tony Podesta is known for his fund-raising — in 2016, he donated or raised nearly $900,000 for Mrs. Clinton’s campaign and the Democratic Party — as well as for a lavish lifestyle.
Had Mrs. Clinton prevailed, as official Washington expected, it likely would have cemented the legacies of both brothers — John Podesta as a key confidant to presidents and one of the most important Democratic strategists of the past century, and Tony Podesta as the go-to lobbyist for Democratic administrations. Instead, the Podestas have been drawn into the vortex of investigations and conspiracy theories that have enveloped Washington in the Trump era.
Tony Podesta stepped down from his firm hours after it was obliquely referenced in the indictments of Mr. Manafort and Mr. Gates, though he had been in talks about leaving for months. It’s unclear what will happen to his investment in the Podesta Group, which has been hemorrhaging clients and staff, both because of the mounting scrutiny and because businesses are looking for lobbyists with connections to the Trump administration, according to interviews and lobbying filings. Some firm partners are launching a new firm next month called Cogent Strategies, in which Tony Podesta will have no stake.
Last week’s indictment did not name the Podesta Group or another firm with which it worked on the Ukraine account, Mercury Public Affairs. Instead, the indictment referred to them as “two Washington, D.C., firms” that were recruited by Mr. Manafort and Mr. Gates.
While both firms disclosed the work to Congress under less-rigorous domestic lobbying rules, they did not initially register under the Foreign Agents Registration Act. The indictment alleges that was done intentionally — by routing the money through a Brussels-based nonprofit — “to minimize public disclosure of their lobbying campaign” that “was under the ultimate direction” of Mr. Yanukovych, his party and his government.
Tony Podesta and his lawyers are working to navigate the issues raised by the Mueller investigation and accompanying attacks from the right. They have already demanded a retraction from conservative media on claims that both Podestas worked with Mr. Manafort to advance Russian interests.
John Podesta, for his part, has dedicated his time since the election to trying to expose the connections between Mr. Trump, his associates and Russia.
After the postelection publication of a dossier by a former British spy into those connections — which included some salacious claims — John Podesta met with Glenn Simpson, the co-founder of the firm that commissioned the opposition research, to compare notes on Russia’s involvement, according to an associate of Mr. Podesta.
During the general election season, the firm’s research was funded by the Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee, though John Podesta has told congressional investigators that he had no knowledge of those payments. The associate said the meeting came as Mr. Simpson was considering whether, and how, his firm could continue its Russia-related Trump research. A spokeswoman for Mr. Simpson’s firm, Fusion GPS, declined to comment.
John Podesta has helped raise millions of dollars from major donors with whom he has personal and financial relationships — including the San Francisco mortgage billionaire Herbert Sandler — for nonprofits fighting the Trump administration. With funding from Mr. Sandler, he helped launch a group called Democracy Forward that is suing the Trump team on a number of fronts, including at least one lawsuit intended partly to reveal whether Mr. Trump’s aides tried to influence the Russia investigation.
John Podesta “could have gone into a bunker and vanished, but instead he dedicated himself to fighting this,” said Faiz Shakir, who worked for him at the Center for American Progress and serves with him on the board of Democracy Forward. “He is very driven by exacting some measure of justice for the unscrupulous form of politics that was utilized against him and his side,” said Mr. Shakir, who considers Mr. Podesta a mentor.
Both brothers declined interview requests through their respective representatives. But John Podesta provided a written response to a question about whether he saw it as tragic — or at least ironic — that the Russia investigation for which he has been advocating has ensnared his brother.
“The only tragedy is that Donald Trump is president and got there with the Russians’ help,” he said. “That’s a tragedy for the American people.”
For both John and Tony Podesta, the connections with Democratic politics began at an early age. In 1970, they worked together on the Rev. Joseph D. Duffey’s antiwar Senate campaign in Connecticut, for which Tony Podesta served as a top official, and his younger brother — as well as Bill and Hillary Clinton — were volunteers.
Over the next 23 years, the brothers’ paths intertwined. They wove in and out of campaigns and car-pooled together to Georgetown University’s law school, from which they both earned degrees in 1976. Tony Podesta joined the United States attorney’s office in Washington, while John Podesta went to work at the Justice Department.
After a few years, the brothers left those jobs — John Podesta joining the Democratic staff of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Tony Podesta becoming the founding president of the liberal advocacy group People for the American Way.
In 1987, the brothers teamed up to create a lobbying and public relations firm called Podesta Associates, which was seen as having a liberal bearing, representing a mix of public interest groups and media companies and associations. But after Mr. Clinton won the presidency in 1992 — a campaign for which both Podestas worked — the brothers’ paths diverged once and for all. John Podesta took a job in the White House and divested his stake in the firm, which Tony Podesta pointed in a less ideological direction.
By President Obama’s second year in office, domestic lobbying revenues for the Podesta Group had risen to more than $29 million, buoyed in part by the perception of access to the new administration.
The brothers remained close, even as their lifestyles took different paths.
Tony Podesta moved into a 7,000-square-foot house in Washington’s exclusive Kalorama neighborhood, which he had purchased for $3.9 million in addition to his homes in Australia and Venice. After three years of renovations, he turned it into a fund-raising hot spot with a modern art collection and a wine cellar with thousands of bottles. His divorce from his second wife, 26 years his junior, was widely chronicled in Washington.
John Podesta, who remains married to the mother of his three children, lives in a relatively modest house near American University in Northwest Washington, where his clan makes a habit of getting together for home cooked pasta.
In the end, said Lanny Davis, who has known both Podestas since the Duffey campaign, the brothers have much in common.
“Tony Podesta may have clients that are way to the right of him in politics,” he said, “but neither John nor Tony Podesta, no matter who their clients are, have withdrawn one inch from being liberal Democrats with progressive values.”