Michael Caputo was one of millions who watched Thursday when fired FBI director James Comey testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee.
He took in the spectacle from his version of a man cave, a white-walled, second-floor office above a shoe repair shop in East Aurora. Caputo, dressed in a dark suit and crisp white shirt with a candy cane-striped tie, alternated between his desk chair and a green and brown patterned couch. A fat and fancy Russian teapot hummed in the background as he watched coverage by the liberal-leaning MSNBC. “I want to hear what the other side has to say,” he said.
The small TV was tucked onto a shelf lined with books, including: “Great One Liners,” Mark Twain’s autobiography, and “Nixon’s Secrets” by the conservative, Trump-touting political operative Roger Stone.
Caputo knows Stone. Caputo knows a lot of people. “Steve Bannon is a friend,” he said. Sean Spicer? “One of the most talented men I know.”
The walls are covered with photos and framed articles that are artifacts of his past. Caputo, 55, was once a Jack Kemp guy; later a Carl Paladino-for-governor guy. He has been a U.S. political operative in Russia, and the communications company he runs today still does business there now. Caputo has four employees here in East Aurora, another three in South Beach, and a slate of freelancers in Moscow.
Caputo worked on behalf of the Trump campaign for six months, but resigned in June 2016 after sending a tweet – “Ding dong the witch is dead!” – celebrating Trump’s firing of his then-campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski.
He remains a Trump supporter, though … and something more. Something that’s come out in a not-completely-comfortable over the last few weeks in Washington. Here’s an example: During a markedly rat-a-tat exchange with Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., about what Trump did – and did not – say to his then-FBI director about the bureau’s investigation into election interference by Russia, Comey voiced words he claims Trump told him: “If some of my satellites did something wrong, it would be good to find that out.”
That’s him. Caputo is a satellite. He orbits in the stormy Trump universe; as a conservative political operative, he’s orbited amidst storms for years. But this one is a little different. In March, Rep. Jackie Speier, a Democrat from California, brought up Caputo’s name during a House Intelligence Committee hearing at which Comey was testifying. She mentioned that Caputo once worked for a Russian media organization that supported Vladimir Putin, and that Caputo met his wife, Maryna, who is Ukrainian, in 2007 while working on an election in Kiev.
That put Caputo – who denies any accusations of collusion between Trump campaign officials and Russians – in a new and disconcerting hot spot.
“For me, it’s not a problem,” he said. “I’m in this life. But for my kids and for my wife, I’m the only one that gets sneered at in this town.”
Caputo has hired an attorney, former New York Attorney General Dennis Vacco, to represent him, and he’s eager to testify and move on. If he’s stressed by the possibility, though, he buried it well. Watching the Comey testimony with him is akin to spending Sunday afternoon with a football fan — although the beer is replaced by black tea.
As senators peppered Comey with tough questions, Caputo followed beat by beat, sometimes raising his eyes through his dark-rimmed glasses, other times interjecting the occasional “Here it is!” or “There it comes!” or “That’s a tweet.” As Rubio cornered Comey about Russia investigation leaks, Caputo sat on his couch, his left leg tucked under his right, right hand resting on his knee, making visible a silver skull ring.
“This investigation is full of leaks left and right,” Rubio said on television. Caputo yelled over him, “Here it comes!”
“Do you ever wonder why,” Rubio said to Comey, “of all the things in this investigation, the only thing that’s never been leaked is the fact that the president was not personally under investigation?”
Caputo emitted a loud, throbbing laugh. This is the political equivalent of a touchdown. A few times he got on the phone to talk to political clients who were going on TV, coaching them on how to spin the testimony as a good day for Trump and focusing on Comey’s revelation that the former director helped leak a memo about his conversations with Trump.
“He asked a friend to do that,” Caputo said during one call. “That’s unprecedented!”
Minutes after Comey’s testimony wrapped, his wife Maryna, who is 33, showed up with their two young daughters. Ana, who is four, was wearing a purple T-shirt with “Time to Shine” written in silver letters. Lia, who is 2, wore a violet ballet dress with a tutu.
“They bring me lunch every day,” said Caputo.
Maryna, who became a United States citizen a few weeks before her name was brought up in that House hearing earlier this spring, was watching "Dora the Explorer" with her daughters when a friend texted to say, “You’re all over CNN.”
Michael Caputo was away that day on business, unsuspecting of the furor he was about to face.
“My phone blew up with threats,” said Caputo, who is putting in a security system at his East Aurora home. Despite the hits – which Caputo has delivered to others over the years as well – he won’t leave the political industry.
“There is no escape. I have no choice,” he said. “At 55 years old, the die is cast. I have little ones I have to put through college.”
He’s not imprisoned. Caputo is choosing this. Yes, money is a concern. (To that point, Caputo’s has had well-documented tax issues as well.) But he could conceivably earn a living outside rough-and-tumble politics. He could pick an industry where congressional hearings aren’t a sport, or a business, but simply news.
But he won’t.
“This is what I do,” Caputo said. “It’s financial as well, but there’s no denying what my specialty is. And I love it.”