Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz, this morning denied any and all allegations of impropriety laid out in a New York Times story questioning whether the presumptive GOP presidential nominee had an inappropriate relationship with a female lobbyist 31 years his junior.
Taking questions from the press until they ran out of them, McCain answered a clear definitive "no" when asked about details from the Times story. Did staffers meet with him to express concern about his relationship with lobbyist Vicki Iseman?
"No," McCain said.
No meeting ever occurred? "No."
Were staffers worried about their relationship?
"If they were they didn't communicate that with me," McCain said.
Did he have an inappropriate relationship with her? "No," he said, describing her as "a friend."
Standing with his wife, Cindy, McCain said he would not allow aftershocks of the Times story to distract him from his efforts to secure the Republican presidential nomination.
"I will focus my attention in this campaign on the big issues and on the challenges that face this country," McCain said.
Added Cindy, of her husband, "he's a man of great character and I'm very very disappointed in the New York Times."
Said McCain, "this whole story is based on anonymous sources."
NYT: 'The Story Speaks for Itself'
The New York Times defended it's reporting in a statement:"On the substance, we think the story speaks for itself."
The newspaper's executive editor Bill Keller continued, defending the timing of the story by saying "our policy is, we publish stories when they are ready. "Ready" means the facts have been nailed down to our satisfaction, the subjects have all been given a full and fair chance to respond, and the reporting has been written up with all the proper context and caveats."
Keller said, "This story was no exception. It was a long time in the works. It reached my desk late Tuesday afternoon. After a final edit and a routine check by our lawyers, we published it.
'Straight Talk Express' Hits Bumpy Road
At the very least, however, the controversy threatens to tarnish McCain's image not only as a maverick who stands up to special interests, but as a "straight talker." In post titled "Lucky Girl" McCain's daughter Megan who has been chronicling life on the campaign trail, last night wrote, "Having grown up in politics, I know it's an industry that, for all intents and purposes, is known for being dirty and cruel."
She writes, "Politics is rough, but I absolutely adore my Dad and this campaign and have never, ever stopped believing in him. It's just that simple."
ABC News learned that McCain in 2002 was asked during a deposition about whether he remembered ever flying on a corporate jet with Alcade & Fay lobbyist Vicki Iseman, the woman in question, and he said he did not recall.
In retrospect that seems at least a curious claim. Indubitably other past comments by McCain about Iseman and her clients will receive greater scrutiny in the coming days.
McCain Adviser Accuses NYT of 'Smear Campaign'
McCain aides pushed back strongly against the story today.
"It was a friendship and a professional relationship, and nothing more than that," senior campaign aide Charlie Black told "Good Morning America's" Robin Roberts today.
"Unfortunately, the New York Times, the largest liberal newspaper in America, is running a false smear campaign against the integrity of the new conservative Republican nominee for president, John McCain, printing false news with no sources. This doesn't meet the journalistic standards of a third-rate tabloid."
The Times reported today that according to two unnamed former McCain aides, some of McCain's top advisers in 1999 were concerned that McCain's relationship with Iseman had become "romantic" and "intervened to protect the candidate from himself — instructing staff members to block the woman's access, privately warning her away and repeatedly confronting him."
Both McCain and Iseman deny that they had any inappropriate relationship or that he did any favors for her telecommunications clients as chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee.
Of note is a trip McCain took with an aide and Iseman on a corporate jet owned by Paxson Communications, an Iseman client on whose behalf McCain wrote two letters to the Federal Communications Commission.
McCain has asserted he never took any legislative action as a favor to any corporate or special interest and against his principles.
Past McCain Statements Now Under Harsh Scrutiny
The story threatens to harm McCain's image of a man of integrity, one summed up by his Dec. 31, 2007 campaign pledge to voters in New Hampshire: "I will never ever let you down."
Past statements by McCain are now subject to harsher scrutiny. In a Sept. 25, 2002, deposition in the Supreme Court case McConnell vs FEC, for instance, which challenged the constitutionality of the campaign finance reform law McCain had championed, McCain was asked about his flights on the Paxson communications corporate jet and whether Iseman was present.
Q: How many times did you fly in Mr. Paxson's jet in the time period surrounding the writing of these letters?
McCain: I don't know. I can provide the answer for the record.
Q: Do you recall if Mr. Paxson was ever on his company jet at any of the occasions when you were flying on it?
McCain: I don't recall. You can easily get the manifest, but I don't recall. I flew all over the country in those days, almost daily.
Q: Do you recall if Mr. Paxson's lobbyist accompanied you on any of the corporate jet trips that you took?
McCain: I do not recall. Again, I know it's a matter of public record.
The McCain campaign said this was evidence that Iseman and the trip were not of great importance to McCain.
Weaver: No Facts to Insinuate McCain-Iseman Relationship
Only one McCain aide is quoted by name in the Times story — former political adviser John Weaver who left the campaign amid much controversy during the summer. Weaver told the Times that after "a discussion among the campaign leadership" about Iseman, he set up a meeting with her at Washington's Union Station.
"Our political messaging during that time period centered around taking on the special interests and placing the nation's interests before either personal or special interest," Weaver told the Times. "Ms. Iseman's involvement in the campaign, it was felt by us, could undermine that effort." They spoke about "her conduct and what she allegedly had told people, which made its way back to us."
Reached this morning, Weaver said his meeting with Iseman had nothing to do with any rumors that McCain's relationship with her was anything other than platonic.
Iseman had been telling people, Weaver said, "that she had strong ties to the Commerce Committee and his staff were wrong and harmful and I so informed her and asked her to stop with these comments and to not be involved in the campaign. Nothing more and nothing less."
McCain at the time was running for president against the "iron triangle" of "special interests, campaign finance and lobbying" and according to Weaver he told her to stop bragging abuot her influence. The meeting, at a Union Station coffee shop, lasted around five minutes and Iseman left it clearly upset.
Today, Weaver reiterated his support of McCain's presidential candidacy and said he "responded to the Times on the record about a meeting they already knew about. The campaign received a copy of my response to the Times the same day, which was in late December."
Top McCain Aide Says 'No Knowledge' of Weaver Conversation
Mark Salter, McCain's top aide, longtime adviser and the co-author of his several books, vehemently denies the Times story, insists there was nothing inappropriate about his boss' relationship with Iseman and insists he does not know what Weaver is talking about.
Speaking for himself and McCain, Salter said, "We had no knowledge of any conversation Weaver had with her."
Salter asserted that despite the Times reporting he is the only staffer with the standing to confront McCain on such an issue — as the two unnamed sources claim they did, telling the Times they "[warned] him that he was risking his campaign and career."
Salter says he never had such a confrontation. "I never did nor would I have a need to," he said.
Iseman Challenges Weaver Version of Meeting
Iseman told the Times that she met with Weaver, but challenged his version of events.
"I never discussed with him alleged things I had 'told people,' that had made their way 'back to' him," she told the paper.
The Washington Post reported this morning that the message to Iseman at that Union Station meeting was "she should get lost."
The article is exactly the last kind of story a presidential candidate, let alone a candidate who prides himself on being man of ethics who stands up to special interests, wants on the front page of major newspapers.
The McCain campaign is trying to make the Times the issue, alleging partisan motives. Salter called the story "a smear campaign" and suggested the story did not meet journalistic standards.
On Fox News Channel Wednesday evening, McCain attorney Bob Bennett compared the story to the vicious rumors spread about McCain by officials and allies of then-Gov. George W. Bush's 2000 presidential campaign.
Times reporters have "allowed themselves to be a vehicle for a repeat of what happened in South Carolina," said the registered Democrat who represented President Clinton during impeachment. "And I suspect it's only because John McCain is winning so much, that we are even reading this story."
Bennett was hired by McCain after the Times first began asking questions about favors McCain may have done for Iseman's telecommunications clients at the Virginia firm.
"After representing him the last few months, answering all the questions of The New York Times looking into the allegations they wanted us to respond to, I cannot find, nor can they, a single instance where John McCain did something contrary to his beliefs."