Mitch Part 3: 'Darth Vader Has Arrived' : Embedded Mitch McConnell continues his rivalry with John McCain, and dramatically changes the role of money in American politics.

Mitch Part 3: 'Darth Vader Has Arrived'

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

MITCH MCCONNELL: 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.

JOHN CHEVES: Senator McConnell calls these lobbyists, and he asked them for $200,000 in corporate soft money.

MATT MYERS: I thought it had moved beyond the line to as close to an outright bribe as you could find.

MCCONNELL: It's not going to pass now. It's not going to pass tomorrow. It's not going to pass ever.



Hey. I'm Kelly McEvers.

DREISBACH: And I'm Tom Dreisbach.

MCEVERS: And this is EMBEDDED from NPR. In our latest episodes, we've been reporting on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

And Tom, when we last left off, we were in this very dramatic place. Right? Mitch McConnell and John McCain had just had this showdown on the Senate floor. John McCain essentially called Mitch McConnell corrupt to his face. And I'm guessing that if that was the end of the story, we would not be sitting here right now.

DREISBACH: Yeah, not so much.

MCEVERS: (Laughter) OK.

DREISBACH: So it is not the end of the story at all. There is so much I have left to tell you about this rivalry between John McCain and Mitch McConnell. It went on for years, and the stakes only got higher.

MCEVERS: All right. Well, set us up for today's story.

DREISBACH: When we last left off, it was 1999. McCain was still fighting for campaign finance reform. Mitch McConnell, of course, was fighting against it. And the focus of their fight was this bill. It was called the McCain-Feingold bill, and it was designed to get big money out of politics. It's the biggest bill of John McCain's career. He proposed it along with Democratic Senator Russ Feingold, and that's why we have the name McCain-Feingold.


DREISBACH: Mitch McConnell hates this bill. He calls it terrible. And remember: he is one of the only politicians in the country who says there should be more money in politics, not less. And so he is the guy who goes on talk shows to criticize John McCain's bill. And that did not make him very popular.


MCCONNELL: Margaret Carlson of Time Magazine called me a thug.


DREISBACH: That, of course, is Mitch McConnell narrating the audio version of his memoir "The Long Game."


MCCONNELL: Maureen Dowd likened Congress to a bordello, calling me the hard-boiled madam. Liberal columnist Mark Shields compared me to Dracula.

DREISBACH: The watchdog group Common Cause actually called McConnell the Darth Vader of reform. And it seems like Mitch McConnell kind of liked it.


MCCONNELL: One morning, walking up to dozens of reporters, their microphones ready to capture my words, which they'd likely twist the next day in papers across the country, I welcomed them by announcing - Darth Vader has arrived.


MCEVERS: (Laughter) OK.


DREISBACH: And maybe, in a way, there's an element of truth to the Darth Vader nickname - at least in terms of style - because in this episode, you're going to see a different and much more aggressive Mitch McConnell. And you're going to see how this one man's vision to allow more and more money into politics - a vision that very few people stood up for at that time - how that vision became the world we live in.

MCEVERS: That is coming up after the break.


MCEVERS: OK. We are back. Mitch McConnell and John McCain are fighting over the McCain-Feingold bill. And Tom, just tell us what this bill would do.

DREISBACH: The biggest thing you need to know about this bill was that it banned something called soft money. And so let me just quickly explain this term.

MCEVERS: Cue the explain-y (ph) music.


DREISBACH: So first off, if you want to give money to someone who is running for office, there are rules about how much you can actually give them. At the time of McCain's bill, you or I could only give a candidate up to $1,000. That a thousand dollars was a hard limit, so they called that hard money. Unions and corporations could not give directly to a political candidate. That is illegal. They could form political action committees and give a candidate, still, only up to $5,000. That was it.

But there's a loophole in the law. Wealthy people or corporations or unions - they could give unlimited amounts of money to the Democratic or Republican parties. The parties could then use that money for things like canvassing or door-knocking or even ads that praised a candidate for something they had done. And all of that unlimited money was soft money.

MCEVERS: And so if it passed, the McCain-Feingold bill would ban soft money. Right?



DREISBACH: No more unlimited donations to the parties because, McCain said, people or corporations were essentially able to buy politicians with all that money. Mitch McConnell said banning soft money was a terrible idea, not just because he thought these donations were a First Amendment right - and he did think that - but because, he said, banning soft money would keep Republicans from winning elections.


MCCONNELL: Take away nonfederal money, we wouldn't be in the majority in the House, we wouldn't be in the majority in the Senate, we wouldn't win the White House. So I can tell you this - hell's going to freeze over first before we get rid of soft money.


DREISBACH: And year after year on the Senate floor, McConnell used Senate rules to keep McCain-Feingold from passing.


MCCONNELL: This is a stunningly stupid thing to do, my colleagues.

DREISBACH: But then, in March of 2002, after about seven years of fighting, McConnell can no longer stop it.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: On this vote, the ayes are 60, the nays are 40, and the bill is passed.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1, BYLINE: It's taken years, but the Senate votes to pass the McCain-Feingold bill. It goes next to the White House.

DREISBACH: McCain-Feingold passes. President George W. Bush signs it. And for John McCain, it is this huge triumph.


MCCAIN: We will eliminate hundreds of millions of dollars of unregulated soft money that has caused Americans to question the integrity of their elected representatives.

DREISBACH: For Mitch McConnell, well, he says it's one of the worst days of his life, not just because this bill, which he despised, became law, but because of who supported it. Here's what he says in his book.


MCCONNELL: (Reading) I found it nothing short of depressing that, when it was finally enacted, it was under a Republican House and a Republican president.


DREISBACH: Now, Mitch McConnell could have said at this point, you won, I lost - it's over. But he was not about to just lick his wounds and move on. Instead, he takes John McCain and this law to court.


MCCONNELL: It'll go to the Supreme Court. This is going to be one of the biggest cases of our time.


DREISBACH: Mitch McConnell sends lawyers to file a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of McCain-Feingold. Remember, he argued that limiting how much money can be spent on elections or who can spend that money violates the First Amendment. He wanted this whole law declared unconstitutional. And he really wanted to be the first guy to file a legal challenge because, if you do that, you get your name on the lawsuit, and so that the Supreme Court case would forever be known as McConnell vs. Federal Election Commission.

MCEVERS: And we can't get into Mitch McConnell's mind. But my question is, what is this actually all about? Right? Is this about ideology, or is this about self-interest?

DREISBACH: I mean, it's a complicated question because, yeah, it's impossible to get into the man's mind. No doubt, he has spent, at this point, more than 15 years of his life fighting on this issue. He has said that it's a deeply held belief of his about the First Amendment and that spending money on politics is free speech. But, of course, as we heard, he also says it was about helping Republicans win elections.

Still, putting his name on this lawsuit suggests to me that this was not just about winning those elections, but also about winning the argument with John McCain - who is right about money in politics. And in the end...


WILLIAM REHNQUIST: I have the opinions of the court to announce in number 021647, McConnell vs. Federal Election Commission...

DREISBACH: The Supreme Court decides, in a 5 to 4 decision...


REHNQUIST: ...With two relatively minor exceptions, the entire statute is constitutional.


DREISBACH: John McCain has won, and Mitch McConnell has lost. The ruling, with his name forever on it, just said that the law he hated was constitutional. As he writes in his book, he was, quote, "distraught enough to want to spend a fair amount of time with my office door closed." He says he called John McCain to congratulate him, and that was that.


MCCONNELL: (Reading) I'd taken the fight as far as I could, and it was time to move on.


DREISBACH: But it was not the end of the story.

MCEVERS: I was just going to say, I don't believe that.


DREISBACH: So the truth is, he does not move on. His fight is going to become less public, but it gets a lot more effective. And here's how - so for campaign finance laws to work, someone needs to enforce them. And McConnell says, why don't I pick who the enforcers are? So first, he takes on the FEC.

MCEVERS: Which is...

DREISBACH: The Federal Election Commission. It's kind of like the cops on the campaign finance beat. Someone breaks the rules, it's their job to step in and punish them. Now, each political party gets to pick three commissioners. And for the Republicans, McConnell had a lot of influence on those choices. And one of the guys he picked, Bradley Smith, had actually argued publicly that most of these laws, the laws he was now supposed to be enforcing, should be abolished.

McConnell's office told us that he just wanted people on the FEC who, quote, "share McConnell's commitment to robust and open political debate." John McCain was furious.


MCCAIN: I guarantee you that unless we reform the FEC, they will destroy this law.

DREISBACH: And the second thing that Mitch McConnell does is he teams up with a conservative lawyer named Jim Bopp, who also wanted to get rid of McCain-Feingold.


MCCONNELL: This guy is tenacious, he's brilliant, and he wins.

DREISBACH: They created an organization - called it the James Madison Center for Free Speech, and it raised money from wealthy conservatives, like Betsy DeVos who is now, of course, in President Trump's cabinet. And the purpose of this group was to keep fighting McCain-Feingold in the courts. They funded lawsuit after lawsuit. Most of them you've probably never heard of. But there was one case...


DREISBACH: ...That went all the way to the Supreme Court, a case you probably have heard of - Citizens United.

MCEVERS: The case that changed everything, and Mitch McConnell's part in it, after this break.


MCEVERS: OK, we're back again. And where we left off - Mitch McConnell was not giving up the fight. He helped start an organization that filed lawsuit after lawsuit challenging McCain-Feingold. And we had just gotten to the biggest of those lawsuits.

DREISBACH: Citizens United - it is one of the most famous or, depending on your point of view, infamous Supreme Court cases in American history.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Citizens United vs. the Federal Election Commission.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: A case that could undo the legal underpinnings of the nation's campaign finance laws.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #4: ...Potentially overturn almost a hundred years of our understanding about how campaigns are funded and financed.


DREISBACH: I should say, the two sides in this case are Citizens United - a conservative group in D.C. - versus the Federal Election Commission. Mitch McConnell was not a party to this case. But it was shaping up to be one of the biggest cases in decades, and Mitch McConnell was not about to miss out. So - and this is unusual - he asks that his lawyer be given time to argue the case for him, too, on top of all the other lawyers. He says he is uniquely qualified and had been a leader on the issue for 25 years.

And the Supreme Court agrees. They let his lawyer argue for him in court, and they gave the same opportunity to a lawyer for John McCain, which makes the whole thing kind of like a rematch of the case from six years earlier, the case that had McConnell's name on it. But this time, it was a new Supreme Court, it was more conservative, and in January 2010, they decided...


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #5: ...Supreme Court delivered a landmark decision on campaign finance today.

DREISBACH: Corporations and unions could spend unlimited amounts on elections.


JEFFREY BROWN: They threw out key provisions of campaign finance laws dating back to 1907.

DREISBACH: And on the day the decision was made...


DAVID BOSSIE: My name is David Bossie. I'm president of Citizens United.

DREISBACH: ...The head of Citizens United goes out to the steps of the Supreme Court, and who does he thank?


BOSSIE: ...Having Senator McConnell...

DREISBACH: Mitch McConnell.


BOSSIE: ...Be part of this case was a terrific asset to us, and we're grateful...

DREISBACH: For John McCain and his side, this was an absolute tragedy.


MCCAIN: ...And I condemn the United States Supreme Court for their naivete in the Citizens United decision, which is an outrage. On both sides, we have these incredible amounts of money, and I guarantee you, there will be a scandal. There is too much money washing around politics.

DREISBACH: For Mitch McConnell, it was a great day.


MCCONNELL: I think it was a terrific decision. I don't think there's any harmful consequences to come out of it. Everybody's free to have their fair say. There are more voices in America speaking up. I don't find that a problem.

DREISBACH: After Citizens United, supporters of campaign finance reform were kind of dumbstruck. The Supreme Court had not only struck down major parts of McCain-Feingold, but it opened the door to an incredible amount of corporate and union spending that had not been allowed before. Russ Feingold says it was devastating.

RUSS FEINGOLD: It's like John and I walked up and found a brick wall where there was a brick missing, and we spent seven years getting that brick and putting it in place and making sure it was solid. And then the Supreme Court came along with a bulldozer and knocked over the entire wall.


DREISBACH: For people like Russ Feingold, it was bad enough that the spending was now unlimited. Even worse, from their point of view, was that it was impossible to know where a lot of these new, large donations were coming from. People could donate to political groups and stay anonymous. For Mitch McConnell, this is a good thing. He says these donors deserve privacy, and making their names public, he says, could expose them to potential attacks.


MCCONNELL: If people have reason to fear that their names and reputations will be attacked because of the causes they support, well, then they're less likely to support them, of course. And that's the last thing we should want in a free society.

DREISBACH: But the thing is, for years, McConnell had the opposite position.

AL CROSS: He used to say that sunshine was the best disinfectant.

DREISBACH: That's Al Cross, a longtime Kentucky reporter and columnist.

CROSS: You know, we didn't need a lot of limits. We just needed disclosure.


MCCONNELL: I think we ought to have, at least, disclosure. And so...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Is that what your bill does, disclosure?


DREISBACH: That was Mitch McConnell in 1990.

CROSS: And now he opposes disclosure for the sake of privacy, which, to me, is outrageous. If I could name the most outrageous change he's made, that would be it.

DREISBACH: When people ask him about this change, Mitch McConnell says his earlier position was a mistake and that now he's correct.


MCCONNELL: Are you having a good time?


DREISBACH: And here we are, back where we started the last episode. In 2014, Mitch McConnell won his race for the U.S. Senate for the sixth time. And in that election, super PACs and nonprofits spent more than $22 million helping out McConnell. Much of that money was from donors who are completely anonymous. And a similar story was playing out in political campaigns all over the country on both sides.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Outside spending has now surpassed the mark for the most money ever spent in a midterm election.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: And dark money spending has surged to even greater heights.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: So no one knows who's buying what in Washington.

DREISBACH: So this is the world Mitch McConnell helped create. You might think that's a good thing, where everyone is free to have their say, or you might think, like John McCain did, that it's corrupting our politics. Remember what he said after Citizens United.


MCCAIN: I guarantee you there will be a scandal. There is too much money washing around politics.

DREISBACH: But because there is so much secrecy, how would we even figure out if there is a scandal? People who oppose Citizens United worry that foreign governments or wealthy people overseas could make illegal donations to political groups, and we would never know about it. Jane Mayer is an investigative reporter with The New Yorker, and she's one of the people trying to figure out where all this money is coming from.

JANE MAYER: There's some gigantic whales out there, big spenders who none of us have been able to identify. You sort of feel them moving underwater (laughter). You can see the currents moving, but you can't fish them out.

DREISBACH: One of those whales is a single anonymous donor who's given millions of dollars to a group dedicated to getting conservative justices on the Supreme Court.

MAYER: And it would be nice for the rest of the country to know which person has spent that much money on trying to buy a Supreme Court to his liking or her liking. But we don't know who it is. The thing is, the recipients of this money, they know who it is. The politicians know who's backing them. It's just the public that's kept out of the loop.


DREISBACH: Mitch McConnell is up for re-election in 2020. And some of the money going into that race we will know about. Last year, a super PAC that supports McConnell took in $25 million from one donor alone. But it's almost certain that McConnell and whoever his opponent is will get support from donors, and we will never know who they are. Many people expect this race to be one of the most expensive in the country.


MCCONNELL: It's time to go in a new direction.


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


MCEVERS: Just a couple more things we want to say before we go. Democrats in the House recently did vote for a bill that would put tighter campaign finance laws in place, including getting rid of certain super PACs that spend unlimited money and requiring that donors disclose who they are. But that vote will not be coming up in the Senate because the person who has the power to schedule that vote is the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell.

And the second thing we want to say is that we talked a lot in these last two episodes about the rivalry between John McCain and Mitch McConnell. Mitch McConnell says it wasn't personal. He says he respected McCain's tenacious work on his campaign finance bill.


MCCONNELL: It was a terrible bill. But, boy, was he tenacious about it. And that's a quality I deeply respect.

MCEVERS: Journalist Al Cross says McConnell and McCain talked before McCain died. And according to McConnell, they said they loved each other.


MCEVERS: Of course, even until the end of McCain's life, they still disagreed about a lot of things. You might remember how it was McCain who cast the deciding vote, a literal thumbs-down, on a bill that McConnell supported to repeal Obamacare in 2017. And McCain made no secret of his dislike for President Donald Trump. Mitch McConnell's relationship with President Trump is very different.


MCCONNELL: Aren't we proud of President Trump?


MCEVERS: And that is next time on EMBEDDED.


MCEVERS: This episode was reported and produced by Tom Dreisbach. It was edited by Chris Benderev, Mark Memmott, Eric Mennel, Lisa Pollak, Deirdre Walsh and me. Our intern is Nailah Andre. Research was by Susie Cummings, legal help this week 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. Thanks also to Noah Bookbinder, James Bopp, Sheila Krumholz, Tory Newmyer, Trevor Potter, Bradley Smith and Fred Wertheimer, also to Stephen George and Tara Anderson at Louisville Public Media.

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. Jane Mayer's book is "Dark Money: The Hidden History Of The Billionaires Behind The Rise Of The Radical Right." Subscribe to this podcast if you haven't already, leave us a review and come back for more Mitch on EMBEDDED from NPR.


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