On this week’s Lever Time: David breaks down the story of the biggest political donation on record; and interviews Pulitzer Prize-winning climate journalist Elizabeth Kolbert.
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What is Lever Time?
From LeverNews.com — Lever Time is the flagship podcast from the investigative news outlet The Lever. Hosted by award-winning journalist, Oscar-nominated writer, and Bernie Sanders' 2020 speechwriter David Sirota, Lever Time features exclusive reporting from The Lever’s newsroom, high-profile guest interviews, and expert analysis from the sharpest minds in media and politics.
David Sirota 0:00
Hey everyone, welcome to this episode of lever time. Today's show is a show about dark money and its terrifying influence on American politics. I'm your host, David Sirota on today's show, we're going to be talking about the blockbuster story co published by the lever and pro publica this past Monday, detailing the largest political advocacy donation in American history. $1.6 billion. That's billion with a B, and how that money found its way into the hands of Leonard Leo, the man responsible for packing the Supreme Court with right wing extremists. It's a huge story, and we're gonna break it all down. Then we'll be sharing my interview with Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Elizabeth Kolbert of The New Yorker, we discuss the history of how Republicans became the party of climate denial and obstruction. And how that was a change from a Republican Party, that once at least part of the Republican Party took climate change somewhat seriously. This week, also, our paid subscribers will get a bonus segment, the best moments from this week's lever live with special guest, Adam McKay, the Academy Award winning director of most recently, the movie I worked with him on don't look up, Adam and I talked about what it feels like to be living through an era of American politics, which feels like we're all inside of that movie. If you want access to lever time premium, you can head over to lever news.com To become a supporting subscriber that gives you access to all of our premium content. And you'll be directly supporting the investigative journalism that we do here at the lever. As always, I'm joined by producer Frank, what's up, Frank?
Producer Frank 1:52
Not much, David. Very glad to have you back with us in the studio.
David Sirota 1:56
I'm sorry, I was away for a little bit. I I needed a little bit of a break. And I got one.
Producer Frank 2:02
Yeah. And look, I've just been gunning for your position this whole time. So. So for me, it's everything that I've wanted. So as I appreciate the test, run a little bit of
David Sirota 2:12
Game of Thrones while I'm gone, like like, palace intrigue and the like.
Producer Frank 2:17
Yes. Like, oh, what if Serota didn't come back like?
David Sirota 2:21
Yeah, yeah. That'd be fine with me. That'd be fine. You're I heard you did great hosting before. And you've got a lot of radio or at least audio experience podcast experience. It looks like a lot of stuff happened while I was gone. I mean, the climate bill happened. Our big blockbuster story. I mean, I guess I was back for that. But right when I got back, which we'll talk about. I mean, it has been a really, really busy time for the lever right now. And of course, the climate dystopia has been unfolding in a really kind of terrifyingly crazy way, this summer. I mean, it's really scary what's going on out there.
Producer Frank 3:02
And a lot of the news that's breaking is not super hopeful, you know, I mean, we covered the climate bill extensively. But as we said, there's good stuff in there also a lot of bad stuff. So it leaves one wanting for more. Let's just say that, yes, with
David Sirota 3:16
droughts and wildfires, and fire tornadoes, and all sorts of iterations of the climate crisis that are absolutely terrifying. I mean, I do think there are reasons to hope I also think there are reasons to feel somewhat despondent. And that's a good transition into our first story, one of the biggest stories that we've ever broken here at the lever, and I would genuinely argue, I really mean this. I'm not overstating it, one of the biggest stories in American political history. Now, I know that sounds like an overstatement. But we are really talking about the largest political advocacy donation in American history. About a month ago, delivers Andrew Perez, got a tip that a reclusive conservative billionaire from Chicago, had made a $1.6 billion political donation. That's billion with a B. That makes it again the largest single political advocacy donation in the country's history. And not only that, but the money was gifted to a nonprofit organization run by our old friend, Leonard Leo. I'm joking when I say he's an old friend, but the guy that we focused on a lot, Leonard Leo Frankston tiktoks on Leonard Leo, we've done a lot of reporting on Leonard Leo, I mean, this guy, producer Frank, I mean, this guy is is like a Bond villain, isn't he?
Producer Frank 4:43
He looks like a Bond villain. He talks like a Bond villain. I never thought I would have to learn about this person. But now that I know about his existence, it Nothing makes me more furious.
David Sirota 4:55
It's pretty bad. And by the way, most of the pictures he really does. I want to be clear When I say this, I'm not saying Leonard Leo was a Nazi. But letter Leo looks like Tote from Raiders of the Lost Ark. Remember the guy like the with the hat and the sword? You know the who was chasing Marian and like the main Nazi villain
Producer Frank 5:15
100%? Yes, we are not saying he is a Nazi. We're saying he looks like the Nazi from Raiders of the Lost Ark. Just want to make that clear. He
David Sirota 5:23
just fits the caricature of like a cartoon comic book villain. And for those who don't know, he's the co chair of the Federalist Society, that right wing, judicial, focused organization, arguably one of the people most responsible for the Supreme Court's six to three conservative majority and the overturning, most recently of Roe v. Wade, he has run the political apparatus that has pushed to install through all sorts of advertising campaigns in the like PUSH to install the right wing Supreme Court justices that now comprise the majority on the Supreme Court.
Producer Frank 6:01
Yeah, Leo is the most influential person in American politics that you have never heard of.
David Sirota 6:06
That's right. We can't express how huge this story is that the lever and ProPublica broke the amount of money in the hands of one of the most most ruthless extremist political operatives, will be really will be reverberating through US politics for probably a generation $1.6 billion. It is an just there's no way around how big a pile of money that is. Because if you think about it, even that pile of money in the bank, just earning interest, that pile of money just as an endowment, the amount of interest that it would earn to be spent on politics, unto itself is enormous. So we're talking about a guy who has been unbelievably politically successful already, in shaping the American judicial system, now sitting on top of a $1.6 billion pot of money. And this is a story by the way, not only of Leonard Leo, not only about this reclusive Chicago billionaire who you've never heard of, but also there's a tax angle here how the tax code itself will now effectively subsidize Leonard Leo's right wing political machine. To get into more of these details. We're now joined by the lovers Andrew Perez, who originally uncovered Leo's giant mountain of cash, as well as pro publica as Andy Kroll and Justin Elliott, who co wrote and CO reported the story with Andrew. Hey, everybody, how you guys doing? Good to be here? Hey, okay, before we get into the meat of this story, and it is a very detailed story, I want to start first with Andrew Perez of the lever, just to tell us as much as you can, about how you originally started to uncover the story of this $1.6 billion dark money fund. And what was your initial reaction when you learned that it was 1.6 billion with a B billion dollars?
Andrew Perez 8:11
Well, so we have a source come to us with documents sort of detailing the transaction and the you know, what this organization looked like, and everything about it was unusual. So, you know, this, this nonprofit that's being run by Leonard Leo, and being funded by this Chicago, the secret of Chicago, businessman Barry side, they put this money into a trust, which was then organized as a 501, c four, nonprofit, commonly known as a dark money group. And so, you know, everything about it was unusual, including the fact that the way the way that it was funded was this man put his entire business empire into this trust, which then liquidate it, which then sold it to a to a, you know, basically a conglomerate, for $1.6 billion. And, you know, when I when I first heard it, I was like, wow, this is easily the biggest story I've ever heard. And I was also, you know, happily corrected my impression that we would never ever know, any donors to Leonard Leo's dark money operation, which, you know, of course, had successfully recently, you know, flip the Supreme Court built a conservative supermajority there that overturned Roe v. Wade, you know, I never thought we would know anything about who was funding his operations. And, yeah, now we know,
David Sirota 9:39
right. I mean, this is one of the great mysteries. This has been one of the great mysteries in American politics for quite a while for those who have followed money in politics, right. I mean, who is funding Leonard Leo is like the question that nobody has really gotten a clear answer on, right. Yeah.
Andrew Perez 9:56
Yeah. There was no answer to that question. You know, They've been operating since 2005. The numbers grew up bigger in the, you know, maybe late 2000s, early, early 2000 10s. And then, in 2016, is when they really started raising a lot of money. And it was to basically prevent Democrats from filling Supreme Court seat with Merrick Garland to replace Antonin Scalia. That's when their money really started coming in when they started getting, you know, donations of like $30 million anonymously. And that was something you know, we'd never really seen before, and it was something that we didn't have a good answer for. Who did this?
David Sirota 10:35
Okay, so let's, let's rewind here for a second. And I want to go to Justin, we'll start with Justin from the pro publica team. For those folks who don't know who Leonard Leo is, I just I think it's important to rehash who this person is why he has been called the most powerful person you've never heard of in American politics. Why don't you just give us the summary of who Leonard Leo is, and then and then we will get to the big donor behind him.
Justin Elliot 11:05
Actually, can I can I defer to Andy on that one? I'm not
David Sirota 11:07
sure. Andy, go ahead.
Andy Kroll 11:09
Leonard. Leo is one of these Washington types who isn't particularly well known to the public isn't someone you read about in the front page of the newspaper or see on cable television every day. But he is hugely influential, if not, you know, one of if not the most influential political activists of the last 30 or 40 years. He came up through conservative legal circles, really, we went to Cornell Law, clerked with a conservative justice conservative Appeals Court judge here in Washington. It was there, he befriended another appeals court court clerk by the name of Clarence Thomas, striking up a lifelong relationship between Leo and Thomas. But instead of going this route to the inside, becoming a judge becoming an elected official becoming a Capitol Hill staffer, Leonard Leo decides that his mission is going to be building a conservative legal movement from the outside, not on the inside, but by marshaling the money, training the lawyers training the judges, training the clerk's, and building this really this kind of groundswell to support conservative legal principles like originalism, like, you know, a very pared back anti government free market, religious freedom centric policy from the outside. And so he goes to work at this group called The Federalist Society, builds this pipeline at the Federalist Society to train, mentor, identify and then raise up into the courts a whole generation or to really have conservative lawyers, clerks, judges, and eventually Supreme Court justices, you can find Leo's fingerprints on five out of the six conservative justices on the Supreme Court. Right now we can get into obviously, the mechanics of that. And that also kind of gets to what he's going to do with this huge donation. But it's really hard to understate this guy's influence Leonard Leo's influence, and yet he has gone largely unnoticed for decades.
David Sirota 13:31
So Leonard Leo, kind of this almost movie character, cartoonish character of the guy behind the guy of this larger movement to take over the Supreme Court. He's had enormous success. We will get into that a little bit later. But after his enormous success in shaping the Supreme Court, and also other levels of the federal judiciary, in 2020, a transaction happens where a donor, a huge donor political donor, largely also largely unknown, to the public, not like the Cokes, not famous like that makes this transaction. So Justin, I'll turn to you and ask you for the profile of the donor who is this donor? And a little bit more detail of how this specific transaction worked? Sure. Yeah.
Justin Elliot 14:31
And just to connect it to Leo briefly, I mean, as Andy was saying, obviously the Federalist Society in this sort of conservative legal movement that Leo's part of a major part of I mean, it's an ideological project but you know, as we all know, sort of ideas are not enough. You need if you want to take power and you need money.
David Sirota 14:53
Well, not according to Leonard Leo, by the way, because the bottom of the story there was that unbelievable quote, where right Leonard Leo is is now in control of $1.6 billion. And he says, quote, I don't waste my time on stories that involve money in politics because what I care about is ideas. So I mean, Leonard Leo's, you know, pretending like he has nothing to do with money. Sorry to interrupt, but
Justin Elliot 15:13
yeah, hilarious. Yeah. And it's like, I'm sure he does care about ideas. Of course he does. But he's not known as the kind of ideologists or philosopher of this movement, what he's known for, is being really, really good. And as we now know, even better than we thought, at just raising huge amounts of money. And that money goes to kind of feed the pipeline of conservative judges that Andy described, it goes to these big multimedia campaigns to promote Supreme Court Justice nominations, or in the case of the Merrick Garland seat, to try to stop a seat from being filled. So this is a guy that's raised a lot of money over the years 100 Before even when we're talking about hundreds of millions of dollars,
David Sirota 15:58
largely anonymous, right? I mean, almost all anonymous money. Yeah, almost
Justin Elliot 16:01
almost all anonymous. And we still don't know where he raised a lot of that money except for the new 1.6 billion. And so our story really starts are the sort of important events of our story start in early 2020. With this other guy, named Barry side, it's spelled strangely strangely, it's BA, rr E. And he's a guy who, in 2020, is already in his late 80s. Quite, quite elderly. And quite rich, but but not well known. Part of the reason he's not well known is he made his money from this company called trip light, which no one's ever really heard of, you know, this is a company that's existed for about 100 years, they actually got their start in making automobile parts, like I believe there's some innovation in automobile headlights. But Syed has been involved in this company since I believe the 50s. And he's owned it for now for decades. And the company got into manufacturing electronics for computers, sort of at the dawn of the computer age. And it just became explosively successful. So they make surge protectors, like if you look under your desk, you might, you may well have a trip light surge protector. They also make the kind of credibly boring seeming equipment that is used in data centers, like not the actual servers and computers, but like literally like the racks that the servers sit on. As we were researching this, I kept thinking about that show Deadwood, about the gold rush and South Dakota and there's like, there's like the guy that is not digging for gold, but he's like selling shovels and picks and shovels. And this is kind of like selling picks and shovels. But for like the computer age gold rush. So this company, which is 100%, owned by Barry side becomes just incredibly successful, but it's largely unknown because it's privately held, you can't buy a share of it. We were able to establish through other reporting that, you know, in recent years, Barry side was was personally pulling down like 150 100 $60 million a year of income from this company. So he has a lot of money. So, you know, bringing it back to early 2020. What happens is, this new organization that Andrew described is created. It's called the marble freedom trust. And instead of the kind of normal political donation, which is just writing a check, Barry side does something quite unusual, which is he just transfers his entire ownership stake in this electronics firm trip light to this new Leonard Leo group, the marble freedom trust. So that's kind of the first step I can keep going or
David Sirota 19:06
Absolutely because because I think I want you people to understand what a trust is like how a trust actually works. So if you can explain that and why that's so important here.
Justin Elliot 19:17
Yeah, it's interesting. And it's, you know, it's unusual to see one of these dark money groups that is organized as a trust. People don't normally think of nonprofit organizations, which dark money groups are a form of. They don't think of them as corporations. But in fact, for legal purposes, normally, nonprofit groups, including like ProPublica, are technically formed as corporations. What is different here is that instead of forming this, this new dark money group as a corporation, they formed it as a trust and trust can be used for lots of different purposes. In this case, is, you know, we ran this by a bunch of tax lawyers. And the best theories that we heard for why they would have used the trust here is, first of all, there are some anonymity benefits. So if you're trying to do something in secret, and both Barry side and letter vo have a long history of being very interested in sort of, you know, moving in the shadows and not telling the world what they're doing, then A trust is useful, because you can create a trust, as I understand it, just by having your lawyer drop some papers that sort of says, I've created a trust, you don't have to tell the government. Okay,
David Sirota 20:38
so I want to stop you there for a second, because this to me is kind of insane. Right, like 501, c three is 501. C, fours, corporations, they have to register with the state, there's kind of a public registry. So if you're a journalist, you're a just person looking around about what's going on in your state, you can go to these registries, these databases, am I right? In saying that, by that by them, using a trust here, there's a situation where there's no actual way to know that it even actually exists. If you're a journalist or a member of the public, unless you get sort of a kind of a dislike, like somebody leaks it to you, or there's like, there's like a disclosure, but that short of that there would be no way to find out that this thing even existed,
Justin Elliot 21:28
is that right? It's right, certainly in the early years of its existence. So that's why I mean, it's August 2022, this thing was created in April 2020. And we're, and it's, you know, one of the largest political organizations ever, or, you know, sort of political advocacy organizations ever. And we're, we're only finding out about it more than two years later, that's only possible in part, because it's a trust, because we the reporters, couldn't go to like the, you know, the Secretary of State website of Utah, or wherever, whatever state and, and, and sort of look up the name and the officers, because it's a trust, they don't have to file that stuff. So that's one advantage.
David Sirota 22:10
I mean, that like so it's so to be clear, it's the darkest of dark money to do it this way, it seems to me is like, I don't know if there's anything a darker, but also legal in American politics and American life, other than this way. I mean, I've never seen something like this. So to me, I just want to stress for everybody. This is like, if you're doing it this way, you're doing it to keep it even darker, arguably, than a 501 C four traditional dark money group that we would at least know that the group exists, using the trust gives you another level of like, it's hard to even find out that the
Justin Elliot 22:48
group exists. Yeah, yeah, absolutely. Yeah. And it's also quite unusual. I mean, we did a whole analysis of like, a large part of the universe of these 501 C, four groups, and there's like exceedingly few that are formed as corporations, and even fewer of those that are political groups. So there's another advantage potentially, which is that it sort of gets into the weeds. But you know, when you form a corporation, the the governing document or the governing document that corporation they're called bylaws, right. And usually, these things are very boring to read. But you know, they say, this is the form it's going to take this is what it's going to do. This is what the board of directors is going to look like. For a trust. That's called a trust agreement. That's sort of the sort of analog of a corporation's bylaws. And it turns out, we were told by these tax lawyers that a trust agreement is harder to change than the bylaws of a corporation. So if you're a elderly rich guy who's about to give your fortune to a political operative, and you want to make sure that that money gets spent, how you want to be spent even after you die, there is an argument that can be made that a trust is a better vehicle to do that. Because once what's in the trust agreement, is very difficult to change. So that's the other that's our other theory. To be clear, we still don't actually know for sure why they use this trust form. Because they haven't said, but, but that's our best guess. Okay, so,
David Sirota 24:30
Barry side, this secret of Chicago billionaire transfers his business empire, or at least the resources of it into a trust who's who's whose trustee is Leonard Leo. So Leonard Leo is now sitting on top of a $1.6 billion trust and I want to get into very quickly The how this maneuver in doing this, and we'll get into the political implications in a sec. But how this maneuver also potentially saved Barry side up to $400 million in taxes that he might otherwise have had to pay. Who's the best person to take that that actually,
Justin Elliot 25:20
I should probably, I can weigh in on that. Also, briefly, briefly, the key thing, the key way to think about this, I think the most poor way to think about this is that they have been able to structure the transaction, as far as we know, totally legally, in a way that, in effect provides a huge, huge public subsidy for for this group, and whatever it's going to do with this money. And the way they did it, just briefly is the following. So if Barry side had simply held on to his company and sold it for $1.6 billion, he would owe taxes on that, on that $1.6 billion, exactly how much you would have owed is not clear. But it probably would have been in the hundreds of millions of dollars, as much as $400 million dollars in state and federal taxes, the same way that if you buy a share of stock, that it goes up in value, and you sell it, you owe taxes on how much money you made, it's the exact same concept. What happened here is Barry side didn't sell the company himself, he simply transferred the company to this dark money group. Then, several months later, the dark money group sold the company for the $1.6 billion. One of the things about these dark money groups we don't usually think about in these terms is that they are tax exempt nonprofits. So they generally do not pay income taxes. So when the Marvel freedom trust, sells this electronics firm for $1.6 billion, they now have the $1.6 billion free and clear of taxes. And so, you know, this is something that some tax lawyers, and if you want, we could get into the whole sort of twit twisting and turning regulatory history here. But starting at least 20 years ago, some tax academics said, look, there's a, there's a loophole here, if you want to call it that, that's going to allow these 524 groups to to get this massive tax break. And this, this is by far the business biggest example of this that has ever become public.
David Sirota 27:29
So if you transfer the company into the tax exempt trust, and then the trust sells the company, the trust, because it's tax exempt doesn't have to pay the taxes. Therefore, an additional four up to $400 million, or hundreds of millions of dollars potentially, is essentially instead of going to the government in regular taxes, it essentially goes into the trust, aka now Leonard Leo's giant mountain of cash. So in effect, it is a tax subsidy. One way to look at it is a tax subsidy for this already giant mountain of cash that the Conservatives legal mastermind about running a campaign to shape the federal judiciary is now sitting on top of I mean, that's what this is really about. And I think, then the question is, what can Leonard Leo do with this money? Andrew, I'll turn to you and ask you that question. What kind of restrictions if any, are on this money? What can he do with this money? Like, give us the kind of I don't know, the the sort of Bond villain scenario, what can he do? What is he not allowed to do
Andrew Perez 28:54
as a 501 C four group. You know, their primary purpose cannot be on politics. However, they can spend money on politics up to that line, like up to 49% of their money they can put into politics,
David Sirota 29:07
and the definition of politics is pretty fungible. Right. I mean,
Andrew Perez 29:11
yeah. So like that's like on campaigns, like if they wanted to donate to, you know, he's a long term financier of the Republican attorneys general Association. You know, putting money into that into a 527 committee is considered political activity. You know, but however, like, you know, the judicial campaigns that he has been leading the judicial confirmation campaigns are not political, those are issue advocacy. So, you know, they could do 100% of their money on that if they wanted, though, clearly, there's no real need for that at the moment. So yeah, they can put this money into politics into judicial advocacy. You know, they can we know who they funded in the past. We know that they've been funding. You know, the Senate Republicans dark money arm, which is called One Nation, they donated $9 million to them his network in 2020 and 2021. You know, they can donate to the Republican Governors Association, Republican State Leadership Committee, which helps elect legislators around the country. And you know, they can also then pour it into sort of like more conservative movement stuff. Like, you know, they've been funding groups that oppose critical race, teach and critical race theory in schools. And they can, you know, so that's a more kind of conservative ideological project, they can fund think tanks, universities, which we've seen that they're definitely invested in funding universities before this world, you know, Lea was supposedly behind, or was believed to be the guy who organized the renaming of the George Mason University Law School after the late Justice Antonin Scalia. So, you know, there's there's not a lot of limit on what they can do with this money. You know, I assume, like, they're not going to just pay themselves giant mountains of cash, but they probably have some latitude to do that. There is kind of an enforcement structure around it, probably to keep that from happening, though, you know, they don't need the money at this point, either. Like they we've we've done a little dive into them, they all bought their vacation homes already, like maybe maybe they could use a second but but like, they're already like, they're already rich, right. So like, right now, it really is about preserving, you know, the gains they've made. Preserving the Supreme Court as it is, and expanding, you know, their ambitions beyond that.
David Sirota 31:34
So, a guy who's already been unbelievably successful in shaping the Supreme Court, and the federal judiciary now is on top of a largely unregulated $1.6 billion mountain of cash. There's very little restrictions on on what he can do with it. So I guess my question, and I'll turn to Andy, my question then becomes, how common is what you've reported? Do we have any idea of how often this this kind of tactic is being used? Are we to presume that this is happening all the time? Are we to presume that this is unusual? And then and then if you or anybody else wants to weigh in on this? What if anything, can, for instance, Congress do about this, too, to try to bring it out into the open
Andy Kroll 32:32
so on the first point, I think the size of this donation from Barry side to Leonard Leo is that just the sheer magnitude of it obviously limits the universe of people to it's an extremely small but not that small given income inequality and the tax code and everything universal folks who could make these kinds of basically movement building donations them and that's what Barry side is doing. Here he is, giving this massive fortune, his legacy really, to Leonard Leo, to fund 20 years of conservative and libertarian politics, judicial nominations, state level activism, local activism, election work, across the board, you name it, academics, etc. And that's what this really is. That's how you have to think about it. You know, as one of our competitors noted, you know, the group is called marble freedom trusts, you know, because there's some sort of reference to the metamorphic process that creates marble that only takes place over some long term dramatic, you know, period of time, which won, you know, major eyeroll at that, but to there is a kernel of of truth there that we would, you know, be wise to, to heed, which is that's how they're thinking about this kind of money in this kind of activism, right. And those
David Sirota 33:52
really, really long term. So I should have, I should have asked this before, but but but can you just summarize what we know about what Barry side really wants? I mean, he's such a mysterious figure. Just tell us a little bit about how, how little we kind of know about him. I mean, he hasn't been even photographed all that often yet. He's, uh, he's, uh, you know, worth at least one point that he was worth $1.6 billion, like, what do we know about his motivations?
Andy Kroll 34:23
Yeah, I can dig into that one a little bit. And Justin, Andrew, jump into. I mean, it's really clear that he is a highly conservative, and libertarian leaning ideologue. And he this comes through, both through in his relationship with Leonard Leo, which we've established goes back, you know, possibly as much as a decade that they have been, you know, interacting, Lea was on the board of a previous berry side outfit. Kind of looks like a predecessor to this marble freedom trust. He's a big donor to groups like the Heartland Institute, which we know is a hardcore Climate skepticism, you know think tank pushing fossil fuels attacking climate scientists at one point comparing climate science to Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber, perhaps the most infamous episode in Heartlands history, they've got well over six figures and donations from Barry side. He is believed to be the donor of a really virulently anti Islam documentary that was circulated in 2008. During the campaign season. So we have these little brief glimpses and and snippets. And what really comes through is someone who Yeah, is a pretty devoted conservative slash libertarian is a log on economics, on the law, on education, on politics, you know, demographics, you name international policy, and that completely then aligns with what Leonard Leo is aiming to do, certainly on the domestic front,
David Sirota 35:52
right. So not not a casual political actor here somebody who is highly, highly ideological, highly motivated. Okay, so now I want to pivot to because I'm sure people who are listening to this are thinking, okay, there's a nightmare scenario here of a mountain of dark money that will dominate American politics for the next generation, Andrew or Justin? What, if anything, can Congress do about if not this specific mountain of cash, then all of this cash that is dark, anonymous, that's flooding into American politics, influencing judicial nominations, public policy in general? Is there anything that can be done, knowing that the Supreme Court the Lille created, Supreme Court majority, has done a lot of work to legalize this kind of what I would call corruption and influence? What can be done right now about this?
Justin Elliot 36:55
Yeah, let me let me address the tax aspect. Yeah. Which is, which is a small part of it. But you know, something we probably don't talk about enough, just because it gets so boring so quickly. But you know, I did hear for some from some tax lawyers, after we published the story, pointing out that this whole practice of of the law allowing, allowing somebody to give what they would call in the in the tax legal world, like appreciated property property ahead, that had risen in value to a dark money group, that then sells that property tax free. That's where again, the sort of public subsidy of this comes in. Congress could change that tomorrow. And in fact, you know, if there was political will, in fact, it turns out, if you tried the same maneuver with a different type of nonprofit, like a political campaign or a Super PAC, it's actually it actually already is banned in that context. Like, if you tried to do this with a super PAC, you would owe the multi 100 million dollar tax bill. So that that could easily be fixed if Congress, you know, wanted to fix it. I haven't heard of any constitutional issues related to that. So you know, that's something that we have heard some interest in the last couple of days.
David Sirota 38:20
That's, that's fascinating. Andrew, what about things like disclosure? What can be done there? What I know that there are some lawmakers that have been long pushing for a piece of legislation that's been sitting in Congress really, for years on just the basic disclosure, what's that about?
Andrew Perez 38:38
Well, so Democrats have talked about both kind of compelling disclosure of dark money donors to political groups, to or to politically active nonprofits. You know, like the group I'd mentioned, one nation would be an example of that, you know, they've also then talked about requiring disclosure of donors to these groups trying to influence judicial confirmation campaigns. That's something they've talked about, give us something that was gonna be included in the, you know, for the people act, that Democrats tried to pass their kind of most sweeping voting rights and democracy reform legislation. So you know, those are things they could come back to this would probably give them some case to do it. So this is actually one of the rare instances in which we know who funded who funded this outfit. You know, it's one of the rare occasions we've seen that at all. And it's also such a ridiculous pile of money that it can exist kind of as like a self perpetuating machine like it, you know, if the market goes, right, this, if it's, you know, no longer in the tank, like they could just be building and building and building this pile of money from what's already there.
David Sirota 39:51
Right. I mean, I mean, that's the endowment. That's why I say like, this really could dominate American politics for a generation because in the endowment model, it sits there and they just spend the interest. And the interest off of $1.6 billion, without even touching the principal is can be just unbelievably enormous. I mean, this, this reporting is just, it's like a glimpse of a world we never get to see. So I want to finish up this conversation, just to give folks a sense of what it's like to report a story like this. I know your team has been working on this, really for almost two months, I think. And I guess when this story came out, there was it was kind of a shock, give people a little bit of a glimpse into our our newsroom is that the story was all teed up, it was being fact checked, it was being, you know, triple checked by lawyers, et cetera, et cetera. And boom, out came on Monday, Monday morning, a New York Times story with the nugget of the story. It wasn't as expansive and deep as the ProPublica lever story, I'm not scoffing at it, it had the nugget of the $1.6 billion transaction. I'm just curious, like, what was that like for you? I know what it was like for me when I had to wake up Monday morning, because we've been working on this story. What was that like for you to see it there? What do you make of that? Just Just Just so folks who don't who are not involved in the reporting process, tell them what that was like any of you?
Andy Kroll 41:26
Well, if I, if I had my cell phone here, I could show you the shattered screen that was the result of of that morning's outburst from me, which I mean, it's, you know, in some ways, it's the worst feeling in the world, you work so hard on a story, and then you see a version of it come out. And you wonder how did that come to be? But I mean, I will say I have total credit to everyone here that, you know, we really worked hard all day to, to put all those finishing touches on the story and get a really good story out there that I think covers all of these different angles that we talked about, because this is such a monumental chunk of money, and it has the potential the potential to change our politics, our you know, American life for quite a while here.
David Sirota 42:16
I mean, to me waking up in the morning and seeing that story. It was like a kick in the gut. Because I because I've seen you guys working. You know, I mean, I mean, Justin, or Andrew, what was it like for you guys?
Andrew Perez 42:27
Yeah, it was horrible. It was, you know, it's funny. It's like I woke up a little bit later than everyone else. So like, I woke up to like, a million texts being like, I'm sorry. I'm sorry, I man, I'm sorry, man. And I was just like, no, like, what happened? What happened? And I'm reading the story. And I'm just like, wow, I hoped at least they left out the donor. Oh, no, no, he's in there. They've included the donor. Yeah. It's just brutal. Yeah.
Unknown Speaker 42:49
I would just throw in there that, you know, thinking back over the years, I feel like I've written stories about like, $100,000 worth of money. This is 1.6 billion, which you were saying, David, it's like, just getting around getting your head around the amount of money. I just think that it merits. It's hard the way the news cycle works. It merits sustained attention just because of the sort of mind boggling scale of this. Like you said I was thinking earlier. Like if you just put this money in a savings account, right? Not even anything fancy that was getting 2% a year. Like that's that's throwing off 30 plus million of interest and you're not even touching the principal. So anyways, the but that's just to say that we remain very interested in both Barry side and Leonard Leo and what's happening with this sort of giant pile of money and that, you know, people if you have ideas or know anything that we should know, please reach out to one of us our contact infos somewhere on the store, I think and yeah, we hope to we hope to we have to stay on this without revealing too much about our plans. Well, you
David Sirota 43:57
should know that. Ken Vogel who actually like but Ken Vogel is sort of in my own little life here is sort of like my Newman to my Seinfeld, like Doom it right like Ken Vogel. Again. I like him Bobo, Kim Vogel and I played in the same Jewish basketball league growing up together. And I'm, I'm not sure but I think he was on the opposing team that tackled me and broke my elbow. In a game. I was the best player on my crappy team. And they got mad at me. And it was the era in Philadelphia of the bounty hunter with the Philadelphia Eagles and the flagrant fouls, and the Sixers team that was like the bruiser team, and I got tackled broke my elbow. And I think I know Ken was in the league. I think he might have been on the opposing team. So this is the second flagrant foul, that he has been at least linked to him, scooping us but as I say, I like him and to his credit, he tweeted out our story, he promoted our story. He's Ken Vogel, The New York Times. He is a Yeah, he's a great reporter. And I agree with you. It's great that this story, pieces of the story were in the New York Times, it's great that our story came out. It's great to give this as much maximum attention as possible. And I want to thank each of you for your extremely hard work in reporting out this story. As I said, at the top of this, finding out the money behind Leonard Leo cannot be overstated, has truly been one of the big political mysteries of this era. And obviously, we don't know all the money, but we now have a snapshot, a glimpse of a giant mountain of money that we never would have known was there. But for this reporting, thanks to all of you. Thanks. We're gonna take a quick break. But we'll be right back with my interview with The New Yorkers. Elizabeth Kolbert out. If you're listening to lever time, you know, soft when you see it. Soft is a Democratic House member pledging to be for a $15 minimum wage, and then immediately backing down soft is a Democratic senator pledging to tax billionaires and then betraying that promise soft is Joe Biden insisting that he supports unions and then backing down to corporate lobbyists. But even the Democrats in Washington aren't as soft as sheets and giggles eucalyptus sheets, sheets and giggles should be the place you get your sheets because they're awesome. They're unlike anything you've ever tried. They're naturally softer than even the best cotton and they are temperature regulating they keep hot sleepers cool. They keep cold sleepers warm, even in the same bed. This is particularly important in places like Colorado where I live and where the temperature fluctuates all over the place. The cool thing is that Colin, the founder of sheets and giggles, he's mission driven. He's a guy right here in my hometown of Denver, who's been a longtime reader of the Levers journalism. He's been pushing Colorado to enact a public health insurance option. And he's making sure that sheets and giggles products are made sustainable, and ship in zero plastic packaging. Their sheets use 96% less water than cotton, and 30% less energy than cotton. For comparison, a single set of polyester sheets can leach 10 million micro plastic fibers into our waterways every single year just through the laundry. So look, if you want to support a business that supports our journalism, and a business that is values driven sheets and giggles is for you go to sheets giggles.com/lever for a 15% discount, and get yourself set up today. That's sheets giggles.com/lever. Their sheets are softer than the Biden administration. And you're helping support a great company that's making our journalism possible. And welcome back to lever time. For our final segment. Today I'll be sharing my interview with Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Elizabeth Kolbert. She's a staff writer at The New Yorker, and has been writing about the ecological impact of climate change longer than almost anyone. I spoke with Elizabeth, about the state of the climate movement, as well as about how the Republicans became the party of denialism and obstruction. They became that, after being a party did at least had some lawmakers that took climate change seriously. We discuss the evolution of the Republican Party and what it means in the era of climate apocalypse. Hey, Elizabeth, thanks for joining us.
Elizabeth Kolbert 48:30
Thanks for having me.
David Sirota 48:31
Okay, so your story about climate change and the now partisan nature of climate politics, it caught my eye because it's something that in my old age, I still have a vague memory of a vague memory of Republicans not being or at least not all Republicans being total climate denial lists. And I think how that party changed into a party of climate denialists is really important. It really may surprise some of our listeners that 20 years ago, some Republicans supported even spearheaded legislation to deal with climate change. Just very briefly, can you give folks just a summary of that history over the last 3035 years of going back to when the Republicans are they're released some Republicans who seem to take the crisis seriously?
Elizabeth Kolbert 49:24
Well, I mean, I think people would say, you know, historically, you go back even further than 30 years, you could go back really 50 years to the great age of environmental legislation in the US in the early 70s. Under, you know, Richard Nixon, really. And then, I guess, Gerald Ford, when Nixon resigned and a bipartisan Congress, when you look at the votes for the Clean Air Act, Endangered Species Act, those were, you know, I don't recall if those were unanimous, but they were really bipartisan. And, you know, you could say those were the halcyon days when people you know, had the parties had people had different views on different issues and the you couldn't depend on them to lockstep vote with their party has that. And when climate change sort of emerged as an issue, I will see it was it was largely the work to bring it to Capitol Hill of Democratic senators like, and representatives, like Al Gore and Tim Wirth, who held some of the very first hearings on Capitol Hill. But there is a very interesting story about John McCain, who was sort of dogged around New Hampshire in the year 2000. By then kid, now now adult, who called himself Captain climate, and there were a bunch of young climate activists who confronted all the candidates as they would go into these little, you know, forums and met in New Hampshire, which is a great part of the New Hampshire primary, that you can really meet the candidates and harass the candidates. And he totally is told the story that, you know, they would say, What's your plan? What's your plan for dealing with climate change, and he said that he didn't, he acknowledged he didn't have one. And he went back to Washington. And he held a series of hearings that people described as very good hearings, really serious hearings, three hearings. And after those hearings, he and Joe Lieberman, you know, reach across the aisle and came up with a bill that now looks like Oh, my God, you could never get that bill passed, you could never get a Democrat, you know, it's just monster, that bill. It was a cap and trade bill, it was modeled on the amendments to the Clean Air Act in 1990, which had used this cap and trade system to cut down very successfully and very cost effectively on sulfur dioxide, which is the pollutant that causes acid rain. And then, you know, the story more as we know, it unfolds, you know, John McCain, then take Sarah Palin as his running mate in 2008. You know, so So things go south, pretty quickly after that, and, you know, people have different theories, but clearly, you know, the idea that one party was sort of, you know, bought by the fossil fuel industry, and by a lot of dark money, you know, seems seems pretty compelling.
David Sirota 52:32
Yeah. I mean, I think that's the the question to follow along the evolution of the Republican Party. Is it your view that it is really an evolution of the party becomes a weapon of the fossil fuel industry and essentially bought by the fossil fuel industry? I mean, there used to be, and there are still some there, but there used to be what were known as oil patch Democrats in Congress, and Joe Manchin, I think, is a lame, his coal patch, a cold Democrat, he's kind of a remnant of that. And they still they still exist, certainly. But when you look at campaign finance filings, you see the oil and gas industry, really, at this point going almost almost blatantly all in for the Republicans, and I'm not, you know, deifying, the Democrats, they've got they've got their issues, too. But I guess, I guess my question is, do you think that the evolution of the Republican Party was basically just a financial transaction where the fossil fuel industry just bought the party went all in with the Republican Party financially? Or is there ideology behind it? Are there other factors that have that go into explaining the change of the Republican Party on climate change?
Elizabeth Kolbert 53:50
Well, I think I think it is probably, you know, a more complicated evolution and simply they bought a party, although that you know, you know, first pass, you know, estimate that's, you know, not bad, and a lot of money if you look at the public filings that's inadequate to show you know, how much Koch brothers money etc, has gone into these some of these really, you know, creepy campaigns. But, you know, we're looking at we can, we now have two parties that don't agree on anything they don't agree on, you know, COVID Okay. So, you know, you could say, well, whatever the Democrats were, you know, however you want to put it whatever progressive policies the Democrats are going to push, the Republicans were going to be against them and climate change was part of this mix. And I think if you look geographically, then things do become slightly more interesting, you know, because for example, now, well, North Dakota, which used to have some Democrats, you know, huge oil producer now. Now, we don't have any more Democrats, but Colorado, which is, you know, a very purple state lot of fracking happening Colorado did do for Pennsylvania, which we'd kind of would consider even a blue state lot of fracking going on in western Pennsylvania. So, the geographical politics are a little bit more complicated than the party politics these days, I'd say, Yeah, I
David Sirota 55:21
completely agree. And I'm here in Colorado right now. It's where I live. And you're right to cite it. As you know, we are now a relatively blue state, and we still have a huge amount of fracking and a huge amount of oil and gas development. Absolutely. I think then the question becomes, is there do you foresee in your reporting, or what you see out there in the world, any chance that the Republican Party is going to become more rational on this issue? I mean, I want to suggest that, listen, there's ways for the parties to disagree on what to do about climate change. But we I think, are still in a world where the Republicans aren't really, as a party proposing to do much of anything. I mean, they sort of most Republicans will sort of acknowledge that. Yeah, the the climate may be changing, but they're not really proposing to do much of anything on it. Is there any hope that that the debate, the discourse, the policy conversation between the two parties will at least start revolving around, you know, the Democrats proposed this, the Republicans at least proposed this? Or do you think they're just so all in on denial that that's that's just not going to happen?
Elizabeth Kolbert 56:42
Well, I do think that's an, you know, pretty interesting key question going forward. And I think that, you know, right now, and I guess I should preface this by saying, you know, what, one woman's opinion when reporters opinion, you know, the Republican Party doesn't really have much to say about anything that isn't, you know, you stole the 2020 election. So we're not talking about a lot of high level thinking going on, in my view, you know, so what happens, you know, if the party wins the house, let's say in November, you know, they'll just be the party of obstruction. That seems pretty clear. We have, you know, Democrat in the White House, and we'll have, you know, however, the Senate goes down, probably pretty evenly divided Senate, so they can just spend their next two years, you know, trying to do as many investigations as they can, and, you know, make as much trouble as they can, and then, you know, the rubber will hit the road as it were in 2022. And, you know, I think that, I mean, I've personally have a very pessimistic view of what the issues in 2024 or 2024 are going to be, and they're going to be, you know, did you, you know, are Democrats a bunch of lying thieves? Or are we going to get a bunch of lunatics running our country? And are we heading towards, you know, civil war. So, you know, climate change, unfortunately, is going to be once again, and this is why, you know, the inflation Reduction Act, whatever you might think of it was so important, because people realize you're getting this is your last chance, it may be your last chance for a decade, or who knows, you know, so it's it's a very scary moment for, you know, so many reasons and the inability to focus on you know, what I believe, and I know you believe is, you know, the crucial issue here. You know, unfortunately, just one of the many scary things going on, for sure,
David Sirota 58:43
for sure. And I think that the argument about the inflation Reduction Act, I've said it before, I'll say it again, I think as best as I can tell, there's a decent chance that the bill will somewhat reduced emissions, I think the tacking on of fossil fuel expansion to a climate bill was a very bad thing that has happened. I I am concerned that that a Republican Party not only winning the house, but winning Congress and winning the presidency in 2024, I'm certainly concerned that what they will do to that bill is they will end or limit the renewable energy investments and and expand the fossil fuel expansion in there that they will essentially be in a position to take that Bill and expand the worst parts of it and reduce the best parts of it. That's what I'm concerned about. But I want to go back to this this this question about the Republican Party and and how or whether it really acknowledges that climate change is a thing. I mean, the best I can tell is that the Republican, you hear a lot of Republicans and rank and file Republicans on social media and the like, say, look, the climate has been changing for millennia for you know, millions of years. The idea of human caused climate change. We're not really sure it's happening. The science is sort of, I mean, there are at least not saying Besides, most of them are not saying the science is complete garbage. But that, you know, the idea that humans can can control this is is a lot of nonsense. To me, I still can't see what a any kind of even Republican themed climate policy looks like. Right? Like a, there are Republican themed health care policies, right. The Republicans want to do, you know, buy insurance across state lines or various tax credits for employers and the like, because they the Republicans, at least acknowledged that the health care system is a problem. This, it seems, stands apart, that climate stands apart, that it's, it's a party that doesn't even pretend to have a policy. I mean, I guess I guess what I'm getting at is, like, have you seen in the past, right, from the McCain era, or prior to that kind of what a Republican themed climate policy might look like? It kind of one that honors, I guess, conservative ideologies? Or is that just does that just not exist? Well, I
Elizabeth Kolbert 1:01:05
should say, there, I was on a committee recently, that was, you know, looking on. I think it was called accelerating climate action. And there were some young Republicans on it, you know, and I think that, you know, the best that can be hoped is young people, you know, are increasingly concerned and educated about climate change. And, you know, that as the new generation takes power, you know, in the old, sort of, you know, theory of Scientific Revolutions, way, you, you know, maybe that a certain, you know, maybe the James Inhofe of the world have to be, you know, basically underground, but a new generation will come into power. And I think, you know, liquid, a conservative, you know, approach to climate change has always been, you know, market driven. And honestly, you know, there's a lot to be said for that. I mean, in a way, that's what, that's what we're doing now, we're just doing it with tax credits we're not doing with tech says, But, you know, if you were an economist, you'd say, well, taxes are a lot more efficient way to spend your money than tax credits. You know, cap and trade is, you know, a tax by another name. And that was a Republican, at one time considered a Republican proposal, as I say, John McCain, that was a cap and trade. So I think that there are, you know, obvious ways that you could use market mechanisms, that we are going to use market mechanisms to try to drive this process of adopting, you know, cleaner forms of energy. But you're, you know, to your point, how long and, you know, I think we have to, also, there's a complicated dance, obviously, between the candidates and the voters, right. So if I'm, you know, making a living off of fracking are my neighbors who are making a living off of fracking. And, you know, you come in, and you even, let's say, you're, you know, a well meaning Republican candidate, say, Look, you know, we got it, we gotta shut this stuff down. It's not exactly clear to me that you're going to win office. So, we have this, you know, we have these really bad politics. And I think that, you know, we also have to acknowledge that under you know, and I know that you have pointed this out, you know, under under Barack Obama, you know, we became a huge, you know, exporter of fossil fuels again, so, you know, we have a huge economic, we were or the vested interest in fossil fuels were sort of on the decline, and now we've bumped them up again, and now we have this huge industry that wants to export oil, wants to export liquefied natural gas. And that's going to be a really hard political force to deal with.
David Sirota 1:03:53
I completely agree. And the thing that kind of blows my mind is to think about the effects of climate change getting worse, you know, rivers, watersheds, drying up wildfires and the like. And you have one party that that accepts the science, rhetorically, one science, one party that wants to at least invest in renewable energy, and I look, I've got my issues with the Democrats and how they're not taking on the fossil fuel industry in a strong way, as I'd like to see them take on as a strong way as the climate scientists say they need that the industry needs to be taken on but you've got another party in the middle of this kind of ecological apocalypse. That's really not offering right now much of anything and if the situation if the ecological situation gets worse, it's like, how long can can that party go? And just pretend nothing is going on? I mean, who are they going to blame wildfires and droughts and and all the rest of it on? I mean, what's the Republican explanation for you know, fire tornadoes? What are they going to say?
Elizabeth Kolbert 1:04:57
Well, I fear I, I dread for We fear that we may find out but I think that your point is, you know, incredibly well taken. And we can use the example of, you know, the Colorado River Compact. And, you know, that is a very, you know, couldn't be more topical right now. And, you know, that's a mix of red states and blue states, right? Both overusing the Colorado River. And, you know, they were told to try to, you know, work it out amongst yourselves, you know, get some kind of deal here, they couldn't do that, because, you know, no one is going to give up anything until their backs are absolutely against the wall. So the federal government has the Interior Department is sad to come in and tell them what they're going to do. But this, all indications are, you know, this drought is not going away. You know, so I think the cuts that they announced are maybe supposed to take us through 2023. But you know, someone's going to inherit this mess. And if it's, you know, God forbid, a Republican administration, they're still going to have to make sure that people have water there. Seven states, they're, you know, they can't go without water. So I don't know what they're gonna do. You know, that was a disaster that the Trump administration just barely managed to dock. And, you know, leave to the Biden administration, right.
David Sirota 1:06:23
I mean, if you if you if you haven't proposed an answer to these, to these big questions, if you're still pretending like it's not really a big deal, then if you aren't, if your party is in power, and you need to have a policy, it's really not clear what you're going to actually do. I mean, and people are going to get more and more pissed off, the effects are going to be more and more extreme. And that is that truly is the dystopia. And I'm sorry to end this conversation. On a low note. I'm not sure where else to go. We're talking about, you know, the Republican Party and climate change, Elizabeth Kolbert. Thanks so much for taking the time today.
Elizabeth Kolbert 1:06:57
Thanks for having me.
David Sirota 1:06:59
That's it for today's show. As a reminder, our paid subscribers who get lever time premium get to hear our bonus segment. This week. It's the best moments from the most recent lever live with Academy Award winning director Adam
Adam McKay 1:07:11
McKay. I think we both hoped that that movie would come out, and that within a year or a year and a half, there will be some giant awakening about climate and our culture, and the movie would quickly fade away into a relevance but no, sadly, the denial of reality from our media and our culture about climate continues.
David Sirota 1:07:41
And please be sure to like, subscribe and write a review for lever time on your favorite podcast app. One last favor to ask. If you liked this podcast and our reporting. Please tell your friends and family about the lever and the work we're doing here forward our emails to them, encourage them to subscribe. The only way independent media grows by word of mouth. So we need all the help we can get to continue doing the work that we're doing. Until next time, I'm David Sirota keep rocking the boat
Transcribed by https://otter.ai