Dimitri Simes’s name appears 134 times in the redacted version of special counsel Robert Mueller’s report on Russian interference in the 2016 election. Born and educated in Moscow, Simes has been a fixture in Washington since the 1970s, brokering advice and authority for contacts in both capitals. Those relationships proved helpful to the nascent presidential campaign of Donald Trump, later drawing the scrutiny of Mueller’s team.
Mueller’s investigation resulted in a total of 34 indictments covering everyone from Russian hackers to Trump campaign officials, but not Simes or anyone else at his Washington think tank, the Center for the National Interest. And yet, as the probe unfolded, Simes and his staff incurred punishing legal bills during the hours they sat for interviews with the special counsel’s team. The think tank’s largest donor drastically cut his financial support earlier this year, according to four people familiar with the organization’s finances, and Simes himself dealt with unwanted public exposure. With no finding of wrongdoing to show for their travails, Simes and the center are nevertheless an object lesson in the unexpected costs of influence-peddling.
Simes has spent his career mostly behind the scenes, moving to the U.S. in 1973 and serving as an informal foreign policy adviser to President Richard Nixon. Nixon personally installed him at the helm of the Center for the National Interest when he founded it in 1994 as the Nixon Center for Peace and Freedom.
The Center for the National Interest organized the event where Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner first met Henry Kissinger, and it also hosted Trump’s first foreign policy speech at Washington’s Mayflower Hotel. Furthermore, as the Mueller report says, Simes met Jared Kushner in August 2016 to offer dirt on the Clinton family’s relationship with Russia.
The last two years have been a drain on Simes’s think tank, which is down to about $1.2 million in assets, a person familiar with its finances says, from $5.3 million at the end of 2016, according to a tax filing. The Center for the National Interest ran up huge legal bills with its longtime attorneys David Rivkin and Lee Casey of BakerHostetler, say three people familiar with the costs; one of them says some monthly bills ran in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Simes’s think tank has found itself in a precarious financial position in part because its largest donor, a foundation overseen by Maurice “Hank” Greenberg, the former American International Group chief executive officer and former Center for the National Interest board chairman, has pulled much of its support. Last August the Daily Beast published a story connecting Greenberg to Maria Butina, once the darling of the pro-gun right, who has since pleaded guilty to federal charges of acting as an agent of the Russian government, in matters unrelated to the Mueller probe.
Charles Boyd, the think tank’s current chairman and a retired four-star general in the U.S. Air Force, expects that new interest from donors and increased revenue from its magazine, the National Interest, will help the organization bounce back. Jacob Heilbrunn, the magazine’s editor, says an investment in “the six figures” into the National Interest’s website and magazine has boosted traffic and advertising; monthly revenue is in excess of $250,000, while monthly page views hit 16.6 million in March, Heilbrunn says.
Here is a previous Think Tank Watch piece about CNI hosting Donald Trump for a foreign policy speech. After that event, CNI fired one of its employees for questioning the think tank's ties to Trump.
Here is a link to an interview that Simes just had with Christiane Amanpour on the Russia probe and the think tank's ties to Russia.
Update: Here is a new Politico piece on Simes and his ties to Jared Kushner. And here is a piece by Washington Post's Josh Rogin entitled "Dimitri Simes Flew Too Close to Trump, and His Think Tank Got Burned."