Mitch Part 2: 'Money Money Money' : Embedded A lot of us don't pay much attention to money in politics. But Mitch McConnell does. And unlike most politicians, he speaks bluntly in favor of more political spending, not less. That stance led to a long battle with one Senator, who fought McConnell harder than just about anyone else.

Mitch Part 2: 'Money Money Money'

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Hey. I'm Kelly McEvers. And this is EMBEDDED from NPR. And where we last left off in our series about Mitch McConnell, it was 1984. Mcconnell was the unknown Republican trying to beat a popular Democrat. And with the help of Roger Ailes, he managed to win a seat in the United States Senate by only 5000 votes. Thirty years later...


MITCH MCCONNELL: Are you having a good time?


MCEVERS: Life is very different for Mitch McConnell. It's 2014, and he has just won that Senate seat for the sixth time.


MCCONNELL: We can have real change in Washington, real change.


MCEVERS: And one way he has done it is to spend lots and lots of money - almost twice as much as his opponent - in one of the most expensive campaigns in the country.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: He ran a very smart campaign, a very expensive campaign. He took nothing from...

MCEVERS: And a lot of money came from new sources.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Outside money has been flowing into the...

MCEVERS: SuperPACs, nonprofits that a few years earlier didn't even exist, groups that funded attack ad after attack ad against McConnell's opponent, Alison Lundergan Grimes. These were not funny ads with bloodhounds.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Grimes endorsed Obama's party platform, his war on coal, Obamacare. Their plan - citizenship for millions who broke the law. Illegal immigrants would become eligible for taxpayer-funded benefits - food stamps, unemployment, even Medicare.


MCEVERS: And it wasn't just McConnell that year. What was happening in his race for Senate was happening all over the country on both sides. And it was happening because of a system that Mitch McConnell helped create, a system that also helped him get one of the most powerful jobs in the world.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Mitch McConnell will soon become the 20th majority leader of the United States Senate.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: McConnell's now poised to be the Senate majority leader.

MCCONNELL: It's time to turn this country around.


MCEVERS: A lot of us don't pay much attention to how money gets into politics or to how much money is in politics, Mitch McConnell does. In fact, he has been incredibly focused on it for decades.

How much do you think Mitch McConnell has changed money in politics in this country?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: Oh, I think he's had a tremendous effect.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: Probably the greatest friend of money in politics in modern American history. He's done enormous damage to our political system.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: The uncontested, in my view, leader and should get the principle praise for what is done.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #9: You know, I don't know if it's too strong to say he's been the indispensable man.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #10: The most important player in the last 20 years, even if not the most publicly known.


MCEVERS: That's our show today - how Mitch McConnell spent a lot of his time in office on the one thing he needed most - to stay in office - and the man who, for decades, tried harder than just about anyone else to fight him on it - after this break.


MCEVERS: All right. We are back. And at this point, I'm going to hand it over to Tom Dreisbach. He's a producer on the show. And he's been digging into Mitch McConnell's decades of work on money and politics. Here's Tom.

TOM DREISBACH, BYLINE: So the way a lot of people talk about it, raising money is one of those kind of unfortunate chores that goes along with running for office. Mitch McConnell is not one of those people. He talks about money very differently. And here's a story about McConnell that should tell you exactly what I mean.

JOHN CHEVES: Back in the 1970s, he was teaching a class in political science at the University of Louisville.

DREISBACH: John Cheves is an investigative reporter with the Lexington Herald-Leader. And he heard this story from one of McConnell's students.

CHEVES: McConnell went to the front of the classroom and wrote on the chalkboard, I'm going to tell you the three things you need to succeed in politics and to build a political party - money, money, money.


DREISBACH: For someone who sees money as a key to politics like McConnell, it was certainly helpful that he was very good at raising that money.

ALAN SIMPSON: I mean, that just goes without saying. He's a master at it.

DREISBACH: That's Alan Simpson, a former Republican senator from Wyoming.

SIMPSON: He knows how to pull all the levers. The organ is playing. And he's not only hitting the keys, he's doing the footwork.

DREISBACH: A lot of senators hate raising the money. It takes time away from the actual Senate. It requires a kind of begging. Or as Alan Simpson puts it...

SIMPSON: It's disgusting.

DREISBACH: But he's been quoted as saying that when he saw McConnell fundraising, McConnell's eyes would, quote, "shine like diamonds."

McConnell doesn't describe fundraising as disgusting, and he's not ashamed to come right out and say exactly why politicians do it.


MCCONNELL: We do it because we'd like to win, because we'd like to win. There's nothing inherently wrong with wanting to win.

DREISBACH: It's not only that he thinks there's nothing wrong with it. It's that spending money on politics, in his view, is a fundamental First Amendment right.


DREISBACH: The way McConnell sees it, money actually is speech. You can't pay for an ad or a newsletter or a pamphlet without money. So if the government limits how much can be spent on politics or who can spend it, you are also attacking the Constitution.


DREISBACH: There was one guy - a guy who saw all of this very differently from Mitch McConnell, a fellow Republican, someone who devoted much of his career to fighting money in politics, which often meant fighting Mitch McConnell. That guy was Arizona Senator John McCain.


JOHN MCCAIN: Just look at the gifts that come into our office on a daily basis. Look at it at Christmas time. Federal Express finds the capital to be the busiest place for them to go.

DREISBACH: Here, McCain is arguing that there should be strict limits on the gifts senators could get from lobbyists. At the time, these gifts were legal.


MCCAIN: I do not know any average citizen in the state of Arizona that gets gratuities or meals or whatever it is to the tune of approaching $50 a day. I just don't know any - not even business executives, no one except we here in Congress. The American people want us to live like they do.

DREISBACH: McConnell eventually did support some limits, but he was offended by the implication that getting gifts was somehow corrupt. And he said so.


MCCONNELL: It should trouble every senator to be slapped across the face with the insinuation that he or she has somehow been bought by a cheap bottle of wine at Christmas or a crab cake sandwich or an honorary plaque.


DREISBACH: John McCain arrived in the Senate right around the same time as Mitch McConnell, but he went down a very different path. And it was actually because in his first term in the senate, McCain himself was implicated in a major scandal.


CARL KASELL, BYLINE: From National Public Radio News in Washington, I'm Carl Kasell. The Senate Ethics Committee begins a series of meetings today about the activities of the so-called Keating Five.

DREISBACH: John McCain was one of the Keating Five, named for a corrupt businessman named Charles Keating.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #11: A former savings and loan executive now under indictment for criminal fraud...

DREISBACH: Keating gave more than a million dollars to McCain and the four other senators. And in return...


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #12: It is alleged they intervened with federal regulators on Keating's behalf after he gave them political contributions.

DREISBACH: McCain was ultimately cleared of breaking the law or violating Senate rules, but the Ethics Committee said he exercised poor judgment. Al Cross is a longtime political reporter and columnist. And he says McCain's experience of seeing political money and corruption up close hurt his reputation and changed him.

AL CROSS: McCain saw that he needed to be a crusader for campaign finance reform to help cleanse the stain that had been applied to him.


MCCAIN: There's too much money washing around. And this money makes good people do bad things and bad people do worse things.

CROSS: He took this stuff so seriously and was so outspoken about it. I have to think that he had a moral imperative.


MCCAIN: One thing I can predict to you with absolute certainty on this floor, there'll be more indictments. And there'll be more scandals and more indictments and more scandals and more indictments and more people go to prison until we clean up this system.

CROSS: At the same time, McConnell was developing into the guy in the Senate Republican caucus who was willing to defend the system of influence and campaign finance that exists in Washington.


MCCONNELL: Where did this notion get going that we were spending too much in campaigns - compared to what?

DREISBACH: This is one of McConnell's favorite arguments, that Americans spend more on things at the grocery store than we do on politics. He's used versions of this compared-to-what line for literally decades.


MCCONNELL: Americans spent more on potato chips than they did on politics.

...Spent about what the American public spent in one year on bubble gum.

...Spent on bubble gum.

...Bubble gum.

...Bottled water.

...Bottled water.



...Alcoholic beverages, Kibbles 'n Bits ads. So when we talk about spending, we talk about it compared to what?


DREISBACH: Most politicians do not talk so bluntly in favor of money in politics. After all, it's basically conventional wisdom that there's too much, not too little. Al Cross says the fact that McConnell was one of the very few senators out defending the system helped him get ahead.

CROSS: I think McConnell saw that his ability to defend it and his willingness to defend it as a route to leadership, that his fellow Republicans would reward his efforts in that regard by electing him to a leadership position.

DREISBACH: McConnell proudly says that he was the spear catcher for the Republican Party on campaign finance. He was willing to stand up and fight against efforts to restrict money in politics. McCain was on the other side, fighting for those tougher restrictions. Pretty much every year in the 1980s and 1990s, a few senators would introduce campaign finance bills, and every year, Mitch McConnell blocked those bills. He got very good at it.


MCCONNELL: This effort to put the government in charge of political discussion is not going to pass now. It's not going to pass tomorrow. It's not going to pass ever.


MCEVERS: After the break, the McConnell-McCain fight continues.

MCEVERS: OK. We're back. And at this point, Mitch McConnell and John McCain have been sparring over campaign finance for years. And here is what happened next.

DREISBACH: After years of big, moral arguments about money and politics, in the late '90s, the McCain-McConnell fight took a turn. And now it wasn't just about politicians and money. The stakes were actually life and death. In 1998, McCain took on one of the most powerful industries in the country and an industry that made it a priority to help Mitch McConnell win elections. That industry was tobacco.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Tobacco land, USA, is that picturesque historic region of the U.S. southland...

DREISBACH: People like to say that in Kentucky, tobacco is king. And the journalist Al Cross, who lives and works in Kentucky, says the reason was simple.

CROSS: Tens of thousands of people in Kentucky - perhaps hundreds of thousands - had a little piece of a tobacco crop, and it made tobacco the third rail of Kentucky politics.

DREISBACH: People in Kentucky made billions growing and selling tobacco. They like to say it put shoes on kids' feet and dinner on the table. And people supported politicians that protected their livelihood like Mitch McConnell. But Kentucky has also suffered the consequences of smoking more than almost any other state. Right now, it has the highest rate of cancer death in the U.S.

And I realize you might be thinking, I get it, Tom. Everyone knows smoking is bad for you. But this story is not just about smoking. It's a fundamental example of how money works in Washington. And to explain that, I need to take you on a quick detour and tell you the story of how the tobacco industry hid the real effects of smoking.


DREISBACH: So back in 1964, the Surgeon General concluded definitively that smoking causes cancer.


LUTHER TERRY: Cigarette smoking is a major cause of lung cancer in men. Cigarette smoking is a significant cause of cancer of the larynx and probably the most important cause of chronic bronchitis.

DREISBACH: Still, in the 50 years after that announcement, more than 20 million Americans died from smoking. It was and still is the leading cause of preventable death in this country. Nearly 90% of smokers start before they turn 18, when they're too young to make a real informed choice. And the tobacco companies were making it almost impossible for people to make an informed choice. They systematically muddied the waters around smoking and health for decades. In 1994, tobacco executives told Congress under oath that the link between smoking and cancer was unproven and that nicotine is not addictive.


RON WYDEN: Yes or no - you believe nicotine is not addictive.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #11: I believe nicotine is not addictive, yes.

WYDEN: Mr. Johnston.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #12: Cigarettes and nicotine clearly do not meet the classic definitions of addiction. There is no...

DREISBACH: We now know that, behind the scenes, they were actually manipulating nicotine levels to get people addicted to smoking and keep them addicted. They were also actively marketing cigarettes to children because they needed, quote, "replacement smokers," an actual industry term for when those older smokers died, which was often from smoking. Of course we were never supposed to find out about that. The only reason we found out is because federal courts found that the companies conspired to commit fraud and racketeering over decades. And millions of secret documents were leaked or came out in court.

So what does all of this have to do with Mitch McConnell? Well, when you search his name in a database of these documents, it shows up more than 4,000 times in memos from lobbyists, letters to industry executives and plans to defeat tobacco regulations.


DREISBACH: I first heard about these documents from John Cheves, the investigative reporter. And a lot of times, when you report on money in politics, you feel like the crazy person in the movie staring at a wall of criss-crossing red string with names scribbled on index cards and lots and lots of question marks. You see a vote on an issue. You see a big campaign contribution right around the time of that vote. But who's to say it's not just a coincidence?

CHEVES: But when you go to these discovery documents, you can see the actual letters and phone messages sometimes and internal notes from the companies about their dealings with the politicians who they were giving campaign donations to and who they were requesting favors from.

DREISBACH: And we know from these documents that the tobacco companies and cigarette manufacturers spent millions on McConnell to show him their support. First, there were the gifts. Tobacco lobbyists gave him and his office NFL tickets, NBA tickets, tickets to a Ringo Starr concert, even, quote, "luscious citrus fruit" and a, quote, "beautiful ham" according to McConnell's thank-you notes. Remember - McConnell did not see anything wrong with this, and all of it was allowed at the time. But today, getting gifts from lobbyists is mostly banned because it looks like corruption. And when it came to campaign contributions, McConnell was always one of the top recipients of campaign money from tobacco interests. The documents strongly suggest that McConnell also worked hard to help the industry. He introduced a bill to protect the tobacco companies from lawsuits, a bill that tobacco company attorneys helped draft. He fought bans on smoking in airplanes and in federal buildings. He said that there was, quote, "no solid incontrovertible evidence" that secondhand smoke was harmful. And he sent a letter to a member of the National Commission on Drug-Free Schools. He said the commission should not include smoking in its anti-drug school curriculum. He said lumping cigarettes in with drugs like crack and heroin was, quote, "confusing our kids, and it is wrong."


DREISBACH: We asked Mitch McConnell about these documents. He did not respond to our specific questions, but he did say that in his home state of Kentucky, there was overwhelming support for the tobacco industry and for tobacco farmers back then. He told us, quote, "I fought hard for my constituency in that period, doing everything that I could to defend the livelihood of a huge number of people."


DREISBACH: And here is where the fight between John McCain and Mitch McConnell boils over. So in 1998, the tobacco companies had just settled a massive set of lawsuits brought by attorneys general all around the country. McCain was working on a bill in Congress that would make the settlement even tougher. It would raise the price of cigarettes to pay for anti-smoking programs. And it would make the tobacco companies reduce the rate of teen smoking. And if the rates didn't drop quickly enough, the companies would have to pay big fines.

MATT MYERS: This was a shot. This was a shot to do something that literally could save millions of lives.

DREISBACH: This is Matt Myers of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. He worked directly with McCain on the bill. The bill actually passed out of committee with a bipartisan vote of 19-1. That's how popular it was. McConnell came out against it.


MCCONNELL: We know, of course, that only 2% of smokers are teenagers. We wish they would not engage in this habit, and we ought to do everything we can to deter that behavior. But this bill is about big government and big spending and big taxes.

DREISBACH: The industry launched a massive ad campaign to defeat the McCain bill.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Now the politicians in Washington are voting to destroy our way of life.

DREISBACH: They argued that raising the price of cigarettes to pay for public health was really just a tax on smokers.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: That's not right. Contact your Senators now and tell them you oppose the McCain tobacco tax.

DREISBACH: Did you ever have conversations with John McCain in this period about what it was like dealing with tobacco industry money and influence?

MYERS: Almost every day.

DREISBACH: Here's Matt Myers again from the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.

What did he say?

MYERS: Well - trying to think of the right emotion - he felt like he was in the fight of his life. And for him, for somebody who had gone through what he had gone through, that's saying something.


MCCAIN: It's really a question of whether we believe an industry should be allowed to lie to Congress and the American people and get away with it...

DREISBACH: Here's McCain on the Senate floor.


MCCAIN: ...Whether an industry should be able to target kids to addict them to a deadly product and get away with it, whether an industry can pay billions of dollars in campaign contributions for protection against their misdeeds and get away with it.

DREISBACH: When McCain's tobacco bill finally came up for a vote, it failed. McCain had lost.

MYERS: It was a gut punch, and it was more of a gut punch than just you'd lost a contest - but that many of us truly believe that this legislation would save literally millions of lives over the next decade. It's losing that that is what really hurt.

DREISBACH: And then, after the loss, a story comes out.

MYERS: It was within a couple of days of the vote. If I remember correctly, we read it in the newspaper.

DREISBACH: It was The Wall Street Journal, and the story was about the kind of private conversation between senators that the public almost never hears.

MYERS: Shortly before the vote, Mitch McConnell had gone into the Republican caucus and informed them that any member of Congress who was waffling, who was concerned that the vote would hurt them at the polls because the bill was popular, that he had a pledge from the tobacco companies that they would spend money in the districts of those members who voted no to ensure they didn't pay a political price.

DREISBACH: What did you think when you heard that?

MYERS: I thought it had moved beyond the line of brazenly trying to influence the process with campaign contributions to as close to an outright bribe as you could find.

DREISBACH: McConnell said on C-SPAN that he did nothing wrong.


MCCONNELL: All I said was the obvious. The tobacco companies felt that their business was going to be destroyed. In my state, we have 60,000 tobacco growers. I thought the bill was a horrible bill. And all I said to my colleagues was a statement of the obvious, which is the companies were going to continue to express themselves...

DREISBACH: In other words, they were exercising their right to free speech by spending money. And just a few months later, McConnell was asking for more of that money for Republicans. John Cheves, the investigative reporter, found an internal industry email. And the thing about this email is that it suggests even the tobacco lobbyists were surprised by how much McConnell wanted.

CHEVES: Senator McConnell calls these lobbyists over to R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, and he asked them for $200,000 in corporate soft money.

DREISBACH: Corporate soft money - a legal contribution to the Republican Party.

CHEVES: And so in an email exchange - and, again, this was not meant to be seen by the public - the lobbyists at R.J. Reynolds kind of go back-and-forth saying, maybe we can do an additional $100,000 to McConnell right now and get back to him later with another $100,000 if we can get it then. And one of the R.J. Reynolds people, a vice president named Tommy Payne, said - and I quote - "are you feeling a choking sensation?"

DREISBACH: What do you interpret from that?

CHEVES: It sounded like they were feeling squeezed by Senator McConnell.

DREISBACH: A spokesperson for R.J. Reynolds declined to comment. Mitch McConnell did not answer our questions about this email. But he did say that both Republicans and Democrats in Kentucky supported the industry. Quote, "we were standing up for tobacco and fighting in every way that we could." He went on. "There was nobody not fighting for tobacco in Kentucky in that era - nobody."


DREISBACH: I've watched a lot of videos of Mitch McConnell on the Senate floor, and it probably won't surprise you to hear that they are usually boring. Most Senate speeches are, regardless of the senator. But this one is different. So it's 1999. We're on the Senate floor.


MCCONNELL: The senator from Arizona, I see, is on the floor. And I'm just interested in engaging in some discussion here about...

DREISBACH: McConnell says to John McCain, basically, come over here. He wants to debate him about campaign finance. At the time, John McCain was saying the system of big industries and wealthy people spending tons of money on elections was corrupt. And that's why, he said, we need to change the rules, put some limits in place. But McConnell kept saying, if there's really so much corruption, name names.


MCCONNELL: And so I ask the senator from Arizona, how can there be corruption if no one is corrupt? I mean, that's like saying the gang is corrupt, but none of the gangsters are. I mean...

DREISBACH: McCain says that's not the point. It's the system that's the problem.


MCCAIN: I refuse and would not in any way say that any individual or person is guilty of corruption in a specific way nor identify them because that would defeat - I'd like to finish. That would defeat the purpose.

DREISBACH: But McConnell refuses to give up.


MCCONNELL: And so I repeat my question to the senator from Arizona - who is corrupt?

MCCAIN: I've already responded to the senator that I will not get into people's names. So if the senator from Kentucky will not accept that answer, there's no point in me continuing to answer. I've already answered.

MCCONNELL: I heard the answer, but the...

DREISBACH: You can hear McCain getting more and more frustrated that Mitch McConnell just won't let it go.


MCCONNELL: If there is no individual he can name that's corrupt, then the word corruption may not be the appropriate word. Would the senator agree?

MCCAIN: I would not, I would say to the senator from Kentucky. And he is entitled to his views and his opinions and his conclusions. I'm entitled to mine.

DREISBACH: But then McCain reaches a breaking point, and he brings up that story about what happened right before the tobacco vote.


MCCAIN: I was in Republican caucus when a certain senator stood up and said, it's OK for you to vote against the tobacco bill because the tobacco companies will run ads in our favor. I yield the floor.

DREISBACH: McCain essentially tells Mitch McConnell to his face - it's you, you are the problem. You are corrupt. For years, these two politicians had been on a collision course. And now, on the Senate floor, these two men with very different views had just collided.

CROSS: McCain viewed it as a moral failing to be so influenced by and dependent upon money spent by lobbying interests.

DREISBACH: Here's Al Cross, the journalist.

CROSS: McConnell sees that sort of money as the exercise of free speech, and for the Republican caucus at least, a device that helps them remain in power.

DREISBACH: And that's worth it to him - the remaining in power despite, you know, whatever effects the money might have.

CROSS: I think the effects of money are a rather diffuse thing to analyze. I think you're either in power or you're not.


DREISBACH: In other words, winning is not always pretty. Democracy is messy. But if you lose, you don't get to accomplish anything.


MCEVERS: Before we go, we should say one more thing about Mitch McConnell and tobacco, something that happened recently. For years, McConnell was against most regulation of tobacco. But now he says he wants to raise the national age to buy tobacco - like cigarettes or e-cigarettes - from 18 to 21.


MCCONNELL: The sad reality is that Kentucky has been the home to the highest rates of cancer in the country. We lead the entire nation in the percentage of cancer cases tied directly to smoking. Our state once grew tobacco like none other. And now we're being hit by the health consequences of tobacco use like none other.

MCEVERS: This sounds like a reversal. It's something that public health and anti-smoking groups want. Some like the American Lung Association say they support McConnell's bill. But other groups say that tobacco and vaping companies actually want this law too because they think passing the law now will stave off more regulation in the future. The general counsel for a vaping company recently tweeted that, quote, "hopefully this will cause the FDA to re-evaluate its regulations."


MCEVERS: This episode was reported and produced by Tom Dreisbach. It was edited by Brent Bachman, Chris Benderev, Neva Grant, Mark Memmott, Eric Mennel, Lisa Pollock, Deirdre Walsh and me. Our intern is Niyila Andre (ph). Research was by Susie Cummings, fact-checking by Greta Pittenger.

Our lawyer is Ashley Messenger. We also had legal help from Steven Zansberg. Our theme song is by Colin Wambsgans, additional music by Ramtin Arablouei and Blue Dot Sessions.

Big thanks to congressional correspondent Sue Davis and editor Beth Donovan and to John Cheves of the Lexington Herald-Leader. His series about Mitch McConnell and money was called "The McConnell Machine," and he reported it with help from the Center for Investigative Reporting. The tobacco documents we talked about are all available online through the library at the University of California, San Francisco.

Thanks also to John Lumagui at WUKY, Stephen George and Tara Anderson at Louisville Public Radio, and to Noah Bookbinder, James Bopp (ph), Ron Crane (ph), Sharon Eubanks (ph), Russ Feingold, Stanton Glantz, Scott Jennings, Sheila Krumholz, Jane Mayer, Tory Newmyer, Trevor Potter, Bradley Smith and Fred Wertheimer (ph).

Al Cross directs the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at the University of Kentucky. And you can read his columns in the Louisville Courier-Journal.

Subscribe to this podcast if you haven't already. Leave us a review and come back for more Mitch because yes, there is more.


MCCONNELL: Margaret Carlson of TIME magazine called me a thug. Maureen Dowd likened Congress to a bordello, calling me the hardboiled madam. Mark Shields compared me to Dracula.

MCEVERS: That's next week.


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