Bottom Feeders at the Top
An old friend of mine recently tossed off a phrase that really stuck with me: bottom feeders at the top. It elegantly captures what the conservative movement in our country has achieved; elevating the very worst people to positions of the greatest power. And while it is easy attach this phrase to President Trump, there are plenty of other bottom feeders up there as well. Steven Miller’s evil sway over immigration policy. Brett Kavanaugh’s outraged indignation during his Supreme Court confirmation hearing. So much to be ashamed of, yet so little shame.
And while Trump has been awful for his entire public life, he was a late arrival to the political scene. And while the GOP awfulness reaches new heights in its continuing embrace of Trump, there was a point in our lifetimes that the GOP stood for a principled conservatism, for which it had its credible defenders. But there is one putrid example of unmatched awfulness; the all-powerful Senate Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell.
In its April 20th issue, the New Yorker’s Jane Mayer lays out McConnell’s greed and self-enrichment in lengthy and graphic terms in How Mitch Mitch McConnell became Trump’s Enabler-in-Chief. Her reporting is not for the faint of heart or the weak of stomach. If you choose to read her piece (I don’t believe it is behind a firewall), you’ll need at least an hour, and I recommend having a ready supply of and ice whiskey nearby.
Our focus on Trump’s defeat is paramount, of course. And while McConnell’s popularity in his home state of Kentucky is lower than Trump’s, he’ll be a formidable foe for his Democratic challenger, Amy McGrath. So whether he remains in the Senate or not, our number two goal must be to wrest control of the Senate from McConnell’s malign and poisonous claws.
If you can’t take the time or have the stomach to read the full article, I’ve gone back to excerpt from Meyer’s recounting some of McConnell’s most egregious deeds. I read it, so you don’t have to. But maybe you should.
The Times ran a scorching editorial titled “The Coronavirus Bailout Stalled. And It’s Mitch McConnell’s Fault.” The Majority Leader had tried to jam through a bailout package that heavily favored big business. But by then five Republicans were absent in self-quarantine, and the Democrats forced McConnell to accept a $2.1-trillion compromise bill that reduced corporate giveaways and expanded aid to health-care providers and to hard-hit workers.
McConnell, who is known as one of the wiliest politicians in Washington, soon reframed the narrative as a personal success story. In Kentucky, where he is running for reëlection, he launched a campaign ad about the bill’s passage, boasting, “One leader brought our divided country together.”
When Trump ran for President, he frequently derided “the corrupt political establishment,” saying that Wall Street titans were “getting away with murder” by paying no taxes. In a furious campaign ad, images of the New York Stock Exchange and the C.E.O. of Goldman Sachs flashed onscreen as he promised an end to the élites who had “bled our country dry.” In interviews, he denounced his opponents for begging wealthy donors for campaign contributions, arguing that, if “somebody gives them money,” then “just psychologically, when they go to that person they’re going to do it—they owe him.”
McConnell, by contrast, is the master of the Washington money machine. Nobody has done more than he has to engineer the current campaign-finance system, in which billionaires and corporations have virtually no spending limits, and self-dealing and influence-peddling are commonplace.
He married for money and power:
Three years after defeating Hollenbach, though, McConnell, amid accusations of infidelity, got divorced himself. He soon began searching for a new spouse. Keith Runyon … a former editorial-page editor of the liberal Louisville Courier-Journal, vividly recalls…him saying, “One of the things I’ve got to do is to marry a rich woman, like John Sherman Cooper did.” Runyon added, “Boy, did he ever.”
McConnell’s spokesman disputes Runyon’s account, but, in 1993, McConnell married Elaine Chao, an heiress, who is currently serving as Trump’s Secretary of Transportation. McConnell devotes a chapter of his autobiography to “Love,” describing how he and Chao, who emigrated from Taiwan as a child, are “kindred spirits.” He explains, “We both knew the feeling of not fitting in, and had worked long and hard in order to prove ourselves.” Chao graduated from Harvard Business School, ran the Peace Corps, served as President George W. Bush’s Labor Secretary, and has been a director on such influential boards as those of Bloomberg Philanthropies and Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. She also brought a sizable fortune into McConnell’s life. Her father, James Chao, is the founder and chairman of the Foremost Group, a family-owned maritime shipping company, based in New York, which reportedly sends seventy per cent of its freight to China.
And has pursued them from the get-go:
From the earliest days of McConnell’s political life, he has had questionable relationships with moneyed backers. His salary as county judge / executive was meagre, and, in an arrangement that troubled some in the community, a group of undisclosed Louisville business leaders quietly threw in extra pay, ostensibly for his giving speeches. David Ross Stevens, who briefly served as McConnell’s special assistant, told me, “It was like the big boys got together and gave him a pool of money.” Stevens said of McConnell, “He was the most shallow person in politics that I’d ever met. At our first staff meeting, McConnell said, ‘Does anyone have a project for me? I haven’t been on TV for eleven days.’ He was very clever, but it was all about ‘What’s this going to do for me?’ ” Stevens quit in disgust.
And he and his wife helped a big donor and notorious polluter escape accountability for an environmental disaster:
According to “60 Minutes,” McConnell and Chao helped another coal company skirt responsibility for one of the biggest environmental disasters in U.S. history. In 2000, Jack Spadaro, an engineer for the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration, began conducting an investigation in Martin County, Kentucky, after a slurry pond owned by Massey Energy burst open, releasing three hundred million gallons of lavalike coal waste that killed more than a million fish and contaminated the water systems of nearly thirty thousand people. Spadaro and his team were working on a report that documented eight apparent violations of the law, which could have led to charges of criminal negligence and cost Massey hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines. But, that November, George W. Bush was elected President, and he soon named Chao his Labor Secretary, giving her authority over the Mine Safety and Health Administration. She chose McConnell’s former chief of staff, Steven Law, as her chief of staff. Spadaro told me, “Law had his finger in everything, and was truly running the Labor Department. He was Mitch’s guy.” The day Bush was sworn in, Spadaro was ordered to halt his investigation. Before the Labor Department issued any fines, Massey made a hundred-thousand-dollar donation to the National Republican Senatorial Committee. McConnell himself had run the unit, which raises funds for Senate campaigns, between 1997 and 2000.
I really can’t do this much longer.
Between 1984, when McConnell was first elected to the Senate, and today, the amount of money spent on federal campaigns has increased at least sixfold, excluding outside spending, more and more of which comes from very rich donors. Influence-peddling has grown from a grubby, shameful business into a multibillion-dollar, high-paying industry. McConnell has led the way in empowering those private interests, and in aligning the Republican Party with them. His staff embodied “the revolving door,” as they went from working for one of America’s poorest states to lobbying for America’s richest corporations, while growing rich themselves and helping fund McConnell’s campaigns. Money from the coal industry, tobacco companies, Big Pharma, Wall Street, the Chamber of Commerce, and many other interests flowed into Republican coffers while McConnell blocked federal actions that those interests opposed: climate-change legislation, affordable health care, gun control, and efforts to curb economic inequality.
The most famous example of McConnell’s obstructionism was his audacious refusal to allow a hearing on Merrick Garland, whom Obama nominated for the Supreme Court, in 2016. When Justice Antonin Scalia unexpectedly died, vacating the seat, there were three hundred and forty-two days left in Obama’s second term. But McConnell argued that “the American people” should decide who should fill the seat in the next election, ignoring the fact that the American people had elected Obama. As a young lawyer, McConnell had argued in an academic journal that politics should play no part in Supreme Court picks; the only thing that mattered was if the nominee was professionally qualified. In 2016, though, he said it made no difference how qualified Garland, a highly respected moderate judge, was. Before then, the Senate had never declined to consider a nominee simply because it was an election year. On the contrary, the Senate had previously confirmed seventeen Supreme Court nominees during election years and rejected two. Nevertheless, McConnell prevailed.
He has since vowed to fill any Supreme Court vacancy that might open this year, no matter how close to the election it is. Indeed, according to a former Trump White House official, “McConnell’s telling our donors that when R.B.G. meets her reward, even if it’s October, we’re getting our judge. He’s saying it’s our October Surprise.”
Our biggest bottom feeder at the top.