The investigative journalist and author discusses her book Dark Money detailing the Koch brothers, money, and politics.
Investigative Journalist and Author Jane Mayer
Tavis: Good evening from Los Angeles. I’m Tavis Smiley.
Tonight, a conversation with Jane Mayer. The journalist and author has spent years tracking the shadowy world of the ultra rich and their efforts to push the politics of America to the far right. She says a small circle of billionaires has created a private political machine that, over the last three decades, won control of statehouses and courthouses and now fills cabinet positions in the Trump White House.
We’re glad you’ve joined us. A conversation with Jane Mayer coming up right now.
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Tavis: I am so pleased to welcome journalist and author, Jane Mayer, back to this program. She has spent years tracking the shadowy world of the ultra rich and how they push their private political agendas. Her latest text out now in paperback is called “Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right”. Jane, good to see you.
Jane Mayer: Great to be with you.
Tavis: I guess it’s fair to say that you weren’t surprised, given the back story with what happened in November.
Mayer: I wish I could say that were so. I actually didn’t see necessarily Trump being the choice. I think the power of the right is incredibly great and hard to get around, but the people I was writing about, the Koch Brothers particularly, they backed other Republicans. So it was kind of a swivel in the road that they got to Trump.
Tavis: So maybe not Trump, but you certainly saw, given the influence that they had, the money they were spending, all the stuff you detailed here, that they were pushing to have someone of their choice, of their mindset, in the Oval Office.
Mayer: Yes. And what I was seeing and had been following all the way through the Obama years and on through the last election was the power of the machine that was pushing against the Democrats. There’s kind of so much money arrayed Democrats at this point and against Hillary Clinton in the last election.
So I was looking at that and all over the country. I mean, there’s been statehouses flipped with the right wing money all over the country. So it’s made it very hard for Democrats to win.
Tavis: This is a strange question to ask a person who’s written a book called “Dark Money” and even stranger question to ask, given your last statement. And I’m still going to ask it anyway,..
Tavis: Which is does the money make that much of a difference? I ask that in part because once you buy so many television commercials, at some point it just seems to me that we become anesthetized — okay, I’ve seen that commercial 10 times in the last two minutes…
Mayer: Right, right. It’s a good question.
Tavis: Does money really make that big of a difference?
Mayer: I think it’s a really good question and especially good because Trump was not the candidate who spent the most money. Hillary Clinton spent more money than he did and there were other Republicans…
Tavis: And poor Jeb Bush. Don’t get me started talking. Let’s not talk about Jeb Bush.
Mayer: Exactly. There were other Republican candidates who had much more big money behind them. So you look at Trump and you say, “So maybe the money doesn’t matter so much.” I think it’s a good question. I think the answer is, unfortunately, it matters hugely.
In almost every election all over the country, the candidate that spent the most money was the one that won. And when you think about Trump, he didn’t need a lot of big backers. He spent $66 million dollars of his own money. He was a billionaire in his own right running.
So that was one of the dynamics that took place. But if there’s something that — you know, a point that I’d really like to get across, it’s that the money matters in ways that’s not just what you spend on candidates.
What this book is about is about the back story of how people with very right wing agendas and a tremendous amount of money have subsidized a machine that’s not just about elections.
They are subsidizing programs in universities pushing their point of view, alternative media outlets like Brightbart News to push their point of view, think tanks that put out fake sort of academic-sounding studies that say global warming isn’t real because there are so many fossil fuel people in this movement that are the big money movement.
There’s so many ways they shape opinion in the country that’s not just elections. And that’s what the story’s about. It’s much deeper and, unfortunately, you know, harder to fight because it’s spending on a grand scale in many subtle ways.
Tavis: This is always the case with you when you talk. There are three or four questions swirling in my head at the same time.
Mayer: Okay. Sorry.
Tavis: No, no, no, no. It’s because you’re so brilliant. Let me just try to remember what I want to ask and I’ll go in this order first. Since you just mentioned fossil fuels and science, we just came, of course, off the weekend of this March for Science. How is it that the right ended up being such a wholly-owned subsidiary of the people that these marchers were in protest against over the weekend?
Mayer: Well, the fossil fuel industry, it’s probably the most powerful industry in the history of the earth. The amount of money that’s made by oil companies and gas companies is humongous. Face it. So they have a lot of power to spend and they look at any agenda that’s going to get us off fossil fuels.
It’s a direct hit to their bottom line. So they’ve been spending tons of money, millions and millions of dollars, to try to convince people global warming isn’t real. And to do that, they’ve been undermining science.
The reason scientists are against them is because the scientists have the facts, but the fossil fuel companies have the money. So they’ve been spending to try to change public opinion on global warming. I mean, it’s a fascinating problem.
All over the world, scientists and most of the general population are seeing that climate change is really serious and we’ve got to do something about it, but not in this country because of the money fighting it.
Tavis: So to your point — and I’m not naïve in asking this — but if the data is the data, if the facts are the facts, I know that — you know, I get the money argument. What the money allows you to do is to press your case. It doesn’t necessarily mean that people have to offer themselves up to be bought by your money or accept the lie that you’re pushing.
So how is it that a significant number of people in Washington are acquiescing to the lies that they know are being told just because of the money?
Mayer: Well, as usual, a great question, Tavis. The problem is, you’ve got this small group. We’re talking about maybe 400 billionaires and multi-multi millionaires, many of whom have their fortunes based in the oil industry. So how do they get what they want?
They put money into campaigns and they threaten to run primary opponents, challengers, against any candidate that won’t toe their line, and the candidates are scared about it. I mean, truthfully, you can see it happening again and again in Congress.
Tavis: So it’s fear?
Mayer: So it’s fear. The politicians want to get reelected. They don’t want a tough primary opponent and the Kochs in particular, they have made people sign an agreement that says “We promise not to do anything about global warming and in exchange you will get your campaign contributions.” An awful lot of people in Congress have signed that agreement at this point.
Tavis: I’m glad you went there because I think to not understand this is like willful denial or just being, you know, deliberately naïve. But the answer of fear is, I think, is better understood than the answer of just money. I mean, people are throwing money around here and there and everywhere.
I get that, but if you say to me that the real reason why I’m pushing this Koch Brothers agenda is not even because I believe it per se, but because I like my position and I don’t want to lose my seat in Congress.
Tavis: So even though I know this stuff is a little shadowy and a little shady, I don’t want to lose. So I’ll do what they tell me to do for the sake of saving my seat, not necessarily because I’m dumb enough to not believe the data in front of me.
Mayer: I would bet in their heart of hearts…
Tavis: Or is it both [laugh]?
Mayer: No. I bet in their heart of hearts, if you put a number of Congressmen on a lie detector test and ask them do they really not believe that global warming is happening and that it’s serious, they would answer they understand what the facts are.
Tavis: That’s what I was getting at.
Mayer: But they also want to get reelected.
Tavis: That’s what I was getting at, yeah.
Mayer: And that’s why the money’s so pernicious because it’s making people vote against reality just to get reelected, right?
Tavis: That makes sense. I get it now. So here’s the next question. The Koch Brothers aren’t the only two rich white guys in the country.
Mayer: No [laugh].
Tavis: They’re not the only two rich white guys in the country in the fossil fuel industry.
Mayer: That’s right.
Tavis: So how did they end up being like the two guys?
Mayer: Well, to a certain extent, they’ve become the two guys because they’re almost like cartoon characters at this point. They’re the ones we know. There are other ones that are important, but there are actually four Koch Brothers and one of those brothers, Charles Koch, they’re all from Wichita, Kansas.
Charles Koch is a really fascinating and driven character who’s been — I mean, he’s a tremendous influence on American politics. Very few people know him personally. He’s very secretive. He likes to be under the radar and he’s very bright.
He and one of his other brothers who own Koch Industries are now today worth about $85 billion dollars. So that gives them a lot of throw weight in American politics. They’ve got the money. He’s got the brains, and he’s got the passion. He’s really a passionate player in American politics.
Tavis: When you say smart, unpack that for me. Because some would argue that a guy who’s pushing lies deliberately just for the sake of protecting his own monied interests doesn’t necessarily make him smart. It might make him greedy. It might make him diabolical, but it doesn’t make him smart. You say he’s smart. Unpack that for me.
Mayer: Okay. I’ll tell you what kind of smart he is, all right? He has an undergraduate degree from MIT and two graduate degrees from MIT in engineering.
Tavis: Okay, smart, okay [laugh].
Mayer: And the thing is, it’s interesting what they’re in. They’re in branches of engineering, so what he and his brother, David Koch, who is also a graduate of MIT, undergraduate and graduate degrees, both of them looked at taking over American politics in some ways as an engineering problem. That’s how they look at the world.
They looked at the system and they thought how do you take it over? Where are the widgets? How can you turn the dials and where are the pressure points? And they’ve put 40 years into this and hundreds of millions of dollars to pushing their point of view. And what interested me when I was writing about them was their point of view — we are in a democracy. Their point of view…
Tavis: Allegedly [laugh].
Mayer: Allegedly, okay. They actually tried running an election in 1980 on the libertarian ticket. David Koch ran as vice president of the United States against Ronald Reagan from the right because they thought Reagan was too liberal, okay?
Tavis: That’s scary.
Mayer: So they tried running the old-fashioned way where you have to get votes from Americans, and they flunked. They got less than 1% of the vote in this country and they spent millions of their own dollars. So what most people do is they give up after that.
These brothers didn’t give up. They went back to the drawing board and they said, “Okay, we’re gonna win it another way. We’re gonna rig the system.” And they spent the last 40 as engineers figuring out how do you rig the system of American politics? Eventually, they’ve gotten very good at it.
Tavis: So this has just been a big engineering experiment for them.
Mayer: Well, I mean, I think they’ve bee protecting their business in fossil fuels. They’re oil refiners and they’ve got all kinds of — so many other things. I mean, I imagine a lot of your viewers don’t even realize it, but they use the Koch Brothers products.
I mean, if you use Brawny paper towels or Dixie Cups, you’re using Koch products. You know, Georgia-Pacific Lumber. Anyway, they’ve got stuff that’s in all of your stores, but they’ve got a huge business to protect.
They’ve also got a world view. I mean, they believe this, I think. They think that the free market should solve everything, business should rule, and that government shouldn’t be in the business of a social safety net for the poor and it shouldn’t put its finger on the scale in any way.
Tavis: Thanks to your brilliant research and the work of others, I was aware or have been aware for some time now of the products that they are behind. I do my shopping a little carefully based upon, again, the research that’s been done.
Here’s what I didn’t know and I got burned a few times. I shouldn’t say burned. It’s the wrong word, but I was just taken aback. It actually ruined my evening a few times.
I’ve been at a number of different cultural and arts events and I’m going through the program and I get to the back and this program is sponsored by the generous contribution of the Koch Brothers or Koch Industries, whatever it particularly is, Charles or David.
I had no idea that, to your point about being smart, they’ve been smart enough or wily enough or whatever it might be. Maybe this is a part of their world view as well.
But they’ve been really good — it’s scary to use that word — they’ve been really good about giving a lot of money to arts programs and cultural programs that I otherwise support, but I’m sitting here and this thing is being sponsored by the Koch Brothers?
It’s arresting when you realize that, but I lay all that out to ask whether or not that has bought them any cover, any sympathy, any — because I’m talking about liberal organizations and progressive causes that they give money to.
Mayer: Uh-huh. I think so. I mean, there’s this thing that their critics talk about. It’s called the Kochtopus and it’s what they describe the Kochs as having all these tentacles all through the country. A lot of what they’ve done is beneath the radar. That’s the part you don’t see as the political part.
What they do for show that you do see is they put their name on arts organizations and science and even some public television.
You know, I mean, I’m glad that they give to good things too. I mean, all these good causes need money. But it was actually, to tell you the truth, it was when I saw David Koch’s name on Lincoln Center in New York.
I was crossing the street and I looked up and I saw David Koch. I thought — I’m a New Yorker. I grew up there — and I thought I bet most people in New York have no idea who these people really are, and that’s what made me write this story. It caught my eye also.
Tavis: Let me ask you a very impolitic question. You can punt it if you want.
Tavis: Should we — I don’t want to put you out in a seat of judgment to ask whether or not people should take their money, but maybe the question is at what price do they take the money? Maybe the question is how do we get people to be aware of who’s giving this money? I’m just trying to…
Mayer: Well, I’m glad you asked this. No, this is a really touchy question.
Tavis: It is touchy.
Mayer: Okay, there’s a story behind this, which is that after 2012, the Kochs put a lot of money into trying to get Romney elected. Instead, Obama got reelected. So they went back to the drawing board to try to figure out what went wrong.
They did a lot of market studies and focus groups and their researchers came back and said, “Here’s the problem to the Koch Brothers. You’ve got an image problem. People think you’re greedy.” So it was at that point they decided that they needed to fix up their image.
And one of the things they consciously decided they needed to do was form alliances with unlikely groups, including they put money into historically Black colleges and they put United Negro College Fund and they started getting very involved in criminal justice reform. I don’t know if this is what you’re thinking of.
Tavis: Sure. That’s exactly what I’m thinking of, yeah.
Mayer: But they started pouring money into causes and making causes with sort of, you know, the whole criminal justice reform movement. My antenna went up because I’ve been watching them now for five years and I had seen and listened to a tape that came out that described their public relations people saying this is what we’re gonna do.
We need to look better and we’re gonna go to the Black community and try to improve our image and it’ll make us look good. So I was very suspicious of it and I have to say I still am. Because whatever good they do for criminal justice reform, that movement is doing more good for the Kochs.
By forming partnerships with them, you’re whitewashing their reputation. And their reputation — it’s a tough question because everybody needs money for good causes, but they have not been friends to the Black community. I am sorry. They have got — or to the poor white community.
Tavis: Or the white community, exactly [laugh].
Mayer: Or for white communities.
Tavis: Yeah, exactly.
Mayer: They have plants that make chemicals in this country that have been horrible polluters that cause all kinds of diseases to people…
Tavis: Environmental racism, yeah.
Mayer: Yeah. So, you know, it’s a tough question. It’s like when the wrong person comes and offers you a whole lot of money, do you take it?
Tavis: See, this reminds me — you mentioned Ronald Reagan earlier in this conversation.
Tavis: But in one campaign in the 80s, I want to say, he was given some money by the Gay Republicans. You remember this? The Log Cabin Republicans?
Mayer: Log Cabin, yes, right.
Tavis: They gave Ronald Reagan some money, the Log Cabin Republicans, as I recall. And it became a huge — this is years ago — this became a huge story. Ronald Reagan, Mr. Conservative, is taking money from the gays, of the Log Cabin Republicans?
And Reagan had one of the smoothest lines. He was good at this, of course. He had smooth lines, as I recall, and I’m paraphrasing. He said, “Maybe I took money from them, but that just means they support my agenda, not that I support their agenda.”
It was a slick line, so I raise this now because if you’re HBCUs or arts and culture programs or whatever, the fact that the Koch Brothers give you money, does that mean you support their agenda or they’re supporting yours? Or are you being used unwittingly in the process?
Mayer: This is a good debate to have, and I’ll tell you where I come down, which is, okay, there are places where there are, you know, overlapping interests and maybe the Kochs as libertarians really don’t want a strong criminal justice part of the government putting people in jail unnecessarily for years, okay?
And that’s good. What’s not so good, though, is that they’re putting money into campaigns all across this country of people who are running on law and order and throw the book at them and racial dog whistles.
Fine, it’s good that they’re putting some money into the United Negro College Fund, but then the United Negro College Fund or other activists should stand up and say, “And stop backing those racists campaigns across the country.”
Tavis: But they can’t do that.
Mayer: Well, they should.
Tavis: They should and I agree. I totally agree.
Mayer: You should and be consistent then. I mean, because it’s as if what they’re doing is they’re cleaning up their images where it shows and pouring money in doing the opposite thing where it doesn’t show.
Tavis: I’m not saying you’re suggesting this. The only thing I would add to that is, since we’re talking about this, I don’t want this to be misconstrued. Yes, those Black organizations and entities ought to do that, but so should the good white folk for taking this money as well, these arts and…
Mayer: They should. Bill Keller, the former editor of the New York Times, heads a wonderful organization that looks at criminal justice issues. And it did a study and it looked at what candidates the Kochs support on criminal justice issues.
And it was a slate of people with terrible points of view while they’re making a big show of meeting with Valerie Jarrett in the Obama White House saying we’re for criminal justice reform. I guess I feel, as a reporter, that the public should see the whole picture, not just the part that’s good for them.
Tavis: It’s moral consistency and I couldn’t agree with you more on that. So we’re on the same page about that. Let me ask, to the extent you feel comfortable talking about it, what personal price have you paid for this? I mean, have they sent people tracking you and chasing you and digging into your life and your…
Mayer: They have. Yeah, they have. I mean, and I’m not alone…
Tavis: They find anything [laugh]?
Mayer: Well, I’m good. They didn’t find anything too terrible. They looked, I’ve got to say. I heard they were looking at my former boyfriends and I was thinking, oh, my God. Who did I date [laugh]? They actually — it was kind of amazing. It’s never happened to me before in all the things I’ve covered as a reporter.
But when I started writing about the Koch Brothers, I discovered later they hired a private eye and it turned out to be the former Commissioner of Police in New York City, Howard Safir, who started digging through my life looking for dirt, I was told, so that they could tarnish my reputation and no one would believe the reporting I was doing.
Tavis: Well, they failed on that one [laugh].
Mayer: Well, I’m glad to say I lived to tell…
Tavis: It’s a national bestselling book, so they failed on that one, yeah.
Mayer: I lived to tell the story. But, you know, I’m lucky because I’m at a great magazine. I have an incredible publisher. I get to go on shows like this. There are people, though, who have tried to stand up to the Koch Brothers and to some others of these kind of very bullying super wealthy interests who don’t have the resources I’ve got.
And there are stories of people in there who really felt their phones were being tapped. They felt they were being followed. There’s an FBI agent in here who was being tailed by someone hired by the Kochs. You know, this is hardball. Why does it matter? It’s not just because you don’t want mean billionaires.
What you really don’t want is, I think, at least what I don’t want in this country is to have sort of oligarchs like they have in Russia who take out the press when the press starts telling the truth about them or who just push their way through the government to get policies good for them. You know, you’ve got to be able to have some countervailing power against people this powerful.
Tavis: I could ask what happens when one of those oligarchs is in the Oval Office, but I digress on that point. Let me offer this as the exit question, which is whether or not we have seen — since they love giving to arts programs and music programs — have we seen the crescendo? Have we seen the peak here?
Mayer: Of the Kochs in particular?
Tavis: Yeah, yeah.
Mayer: I think, you know, this is the thing. One of the Koch Brothers, David Koch, I don’t think he’s terribly well these days. Charles is still going strong and Charles is the engine behind this thing. They hoped in 2016, that was going to be their year.
They put together a group of other billionaires who pooled $889 million dollars to try to influence the last election, and they didn’t get what they want because they didn’t really like Donald Trump. So the question I’m watching to see is what do they do in 2018 and what do they do in 2020? They gonna come back? They’re getting old. I’m waiting to see. I don’t really know yet.
Tavis: Sounds like “Trading Places” with a sequel, with the two old guys [laugh]. I digress. The book is called “Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right” written by perennial bestselling author, Jane Mayer. Jane, good to have you on. Thanks for your work.
Mayer: Thank you, Tavis.
Tavis: Good to see you.
Mayer: So good to be with you.
Tavis: Good to have you. That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.
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