“It’s Armageddon Time for the Democratic Party”

Ralph Nader and reporter Lee Fang are this week’s guests.

Photo Illustration: Elise Swain/The Intercept; Photos: Getty Images (9)

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As President Donald Trump basks in his “acquittal” in the Senate, the Democratic National Committee is acting shady in managing the Democratic primaries. This week on Intercepted: Consumer advocate and former presidential candidate Ralph Nader talks about the state of the Democratic primary, the corporate DNC panic over Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, and what would happen to the Democratic Party if Sanders wins. Nader also discusses a phone call he had with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi just before the impeachment process began. As former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg buys his way into the Democratic primary, he is plastering the airwaves with hagiographic advertisements that ignore his awful record on race, labor unions, and how he escalated NYC’s stop-and-frisk program. Intercept investigative reporter Lee Fang talks about Bloomberg’s advisers and the strategy to block Sanders or Warren from getting the nomination, possibly seeking to force a brokered convention.

Jane Fonda: And the Oscar goes to Parasite. 

Donald J. Trump: Well, thank you very much, everybody. Wow. We’ve all been through a lot together over three years. And Ivanka is here and my sons and my whole family. These are the crookedest, most dishonest, dirtiest people I’ve ever seen and they’re vicious as hell, downright nasty and mean. These people are corrupt. In my opinion, they want to destroy our country. You never thought it was as bad as it is. Tremendous corruption. Tremendous corruption. I want to apologize for our country. Where have I gone? God, I’m sorry. I’m really not a bad person. Much of my life, nothing happens. It’s unbelievable. But think of that God, impeachment, all hell broke out for me, Trump. I didn’t have time to think too much, but I said, “This is not good.” And they brought me to the final stages of impeachment. And, you know, you could be George Washington. Thank you very much, everybody. Thank you.

[Music interlude.]

Jeremy Scahill: This is Intercepted.

[Music interlude.]

JS: I’m Jeremy Scahill coming to you from the offices of The Intercept in New York City. And this is Episode 116 of Intercepted.

Nancy Pelosi: As far as Michael Bloomberg is concerned I think that his involvement in this campaign will be a positive one.

JS: Last Fall, a few months ago, the third most powerful figure in the U.S. government, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, had a phone call with a man who is undoubtedly one of the most hated people among her base of Democratic Party supporters. I’m talking about the famed consumer advocate and former independent presidential candidate Ralph Nader. Their phone call took place as the Democrats were getting ready to launch their impeachment case against Donald Trump. On that call, Nader says that he laid out a strategy for attacking Trump that he believed could have resulted in his actual removal from office. Ralph Nader, who has spent his entire life working to implement a wide range of consumer and environmental protections, argued that it would be a mistake to narrowly focus on the Ukraine phone call and that there were issues far more pressing to millions of Americans regardless of their political affiliation. In a moment, Ralph Nader is going to share with us the details of what he said on that call and what Nancy Pelosi told him.

But what is clear right now, as Donald Trump continues his victory tour and purges dissidents from his administration, public servants who obeyed the law and appeared before Congress, is that the past three years of Democratic leadership and decision making has made Trump stronger. At several crucial moments in Trump’s presidency, Pelosi and Sen. Chuck Schumer have blown it. They have run scared and brought pea  shooters to a gunfight. And now, as the Democratic primary process intensifies, the institutional Democratic Party appears once again to be doing everything in its power to hurt the effort to unseat Donald Trump.  

Later in the show, I am going to be joined by my Intercept colleague and terrific investigator Lee Fang to discuss the candidacy of Michael Bloomberg, his emerging strategy to block Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren from winning the nomination and how the Democratic National Committee and its head Tom Perez are changing rules and abetting Bloomberg’s campaign to essentially purchase the nomination with his vast wealth. 

Ralph Nader on the Democratic Primary, Bernie Sanders, and His Phone Call With Nancy Pelosi

But first, to discuss the failed impeachment move against Donald Trump and the state of the Democratic primary, I am joined now by Ralph Nader. He ran for president in 2000, 2004 and 2008 and throughout his life he’s been one of the most important voices for justice, the environment, consumer protections in U.S. history. His latest book with the consumer advocate Mark Green is called “Fake President: Decoding Trump’s Gaslighting, Corruption, and General Bullsh*t.” It really is an important book and could serve as a roadmap for unseating Donald Trump if anyone in the leadership of the Democratic Party would take the time to read it.  

Ralph Nader, welcome back to Intercepted. 

Ralph Nader: Thank you, Jeremy. 

JS: Let’s begin with the impeachment and your assessment of the strategy that Nancy Pelosi and the Democrats employed in going after Trump. 

RN: Well, I and others beseeched her to go with a strong full hand of impeachable offenses and have them reflect kitchen table issues. Well, that didn’t happen. We did see that major committee chairs wanted to put a bribery provision in. She turned that down. They wanted to expand the obstruction in defiance of subpoenas, a critical impeachable offense beyond the Ukraine matter. She turned that down. The Democrats were basically subjected to one person decision, Nancy Pelosi, the House Speaker. Well, she gambled and lost badly. Not only he was acquitted, but polls went up for Trump which was astounding. So now the question is will the committee chairs whose expanded recommendation to her was rejected, will they now come back to her and say round two? She has stated repeatedly that she thinks Trump “is a liar, a crook, a thief, and he should be in prison.” It’s a pretty good start. She also stated she wants the five committee chairs to continue their investigations into the corruption and wrongdoing and refusal to enforce the laws on behalf of the health safety and economic well being of the people. That’s the banking committee, the Oversight Committee, Judiciary Committee, etc. And if they do that, they are going to run up against a Trump stonewall for further information witnesses, which means they’re going to be obligated to issue subpoenas, which will be defied. That is a per se impeachable offense.

When Trump defies these subpoenas for witnesses and documents, Speaker Pelosi will have to face up to the Constitution. The Constitution does not require her to go to court. They can enforce their own subpoenas. So they can go to the floor, no witnesses are needed, clean cut. Trump, you defied the subpoenas. You defied the essential power of Congress without which all other authorities are debilitated. If they cannot get information under the Constitution from the executive branch, how debilitated will be the war power, the appropriations power, the tax power, the confirmation power? You defied it. You’re going to be impeached. These subpoenas would be associated with all kinds of kitchen table issues where people have a stake in these impeachments, didn’t have a stake much in Ukraine important is that is. It’s too remote. But they do have a stake in for example, his destruction of life-saving consumer protections, environmental protections, workplace safety protections, in his destruction of social safety net protections for children. 

JS: But are those impeachable offenses?

RN: Yes, they are when they’re associated with corruption, and shredding. In other words, this isn’t just normal deregulation, what they’re doing now to the EPA is stripping it of its capacity to enforce the law. They’re pushing out scientists. They’re downgrading other professionals. They’re cutting budgets without congressional authority, and they’re run by people who have conflicts of interest and are corrupt, some have already left like Scott Pruitt. It’s the failure to execute the laws. That’s one of the impeachable offenses in the Constitution. Now, if Nancy Pelosi doesn’t do that, Trump will go all over the country, all over his tweets, all over the obsequious media with his disparaging nicknames and taunting and gloating. I told her in a conversation I had with her three months ago. I said, “Nancy, you know what he’s gonna do? He’s gonna say, ‘Nancy Pelosi had the majority in the House and she had all these crazy charges and she didn’t want to get them through. You know why she couldn’t get them through? Because they’re all lies. They’re all fake. I did nothing wrong.”

JS: Ralph, what did Pelosi say to you when you were laying all of this out?

RN: She said that I want an airtight case and she thinks Ukraine is an airtight case. Number two, she thought the public attention span couldn’t endure multiple impeachment charges. And number three, I think she cut a deal with her 12 Blue Dog Democrats that was the only thing she was going to bring forward. They could have had a national security military sheen about it that insulated them. And what’s really important here is she wanted to tie up the Republicans in knots in the Senate and she only used one knot. She used one finger out of 10 that could have been curled into a tough fist. 

JS: Why did Nancy Pelosi meet with you, given the way that you’re to this day vilified by the establishment Democratic Party for daring to run for president multiple times? 

RN: Well, it wasn’t a meeting. It was a telephone conversation. I think because they’re interested in what I have to say. I mean, I could give them all kinds of strategies to landslide, Donald Trump, if they would listen. I could show them how to argue their case. I’ll just give you an example: you’ve got some currency in the Democratic party now for universal basic income, I mean Andrew Yang, most prominently. And it’s viewed as a giveaway and pandering to the people. How do you argue universal basic income in addition to alleviating dire poverty, in addition to increasing consumer demand for goods and services which stimulates the economy far better than a corporate tax cut? Well, one way is you say, hey, these corporations have already had universal basic income. 


What do you mean? 

Yeah, what do you think massive corporate subsidies, handouts, giveaways and bailouts are? They’re massive universal basic income giveaways. They are not only getting all these taxpayer freebies, but they also get trillions of dollars in the last decade of free government research and development which built Silicon Valley and built the biotech, nanotech, a lot of the aerospace and pharmaceutical industries. That’s pretty good, universal basic income. 

They don’t know how to argue it. That’s why once in a while I get through on a phone call. 

JS: Is the strategy you’re advocating putting forth those charges, getting an impeachment on those charges, sending it to the Senate for trial as a way of educating the public or revealing these crimes? Because it seems very unlikely in this day and age that more than one or two Republicans, no matter how much evidence was out there would have jumped ship on Trump over the issues you’re describing. They love that form of deregulation and they seem to not really care at all about the overt corruption that we’re witnessing.

RN: Not when they’re preceded by dozens of highly televised House committee hearings on misuse of presidential power that is harming in kitchen table matters where people live, work and raise their families, the American people.

JS: But these people aren’t watching MSNBC, C-Span or CNN. I mean, Fox News is the single most powerful news entity as well as social media. And as Trump has said, he’s his own media outlet. I mean, I see it Ralph, as part of the problem is there is such low trust in media, such low approval ratings of the Democrats in Congress, that it doesn’t matter if you hold those hearings, given the media landscape today. This is not like the 70s where it’s every single night on the news. It’s people are seeking out information they want, not seeking out the truth. 

RN: Wrong analysis.

JS: All right. Correct me.

RN: When you see the kind of witnesses that the House could have brought, the kind of empathy, that kind of resonance, just the way they did when they brought some of those civil servants. You have to admit their testimony reached a lot of people. Fox has its own constituency. So do the other networks, the other cable, the social media, the newspapers, the word of mouth. These are very easy abuses by Trump to understand unlike the more arcane diplomatic situation with Ukraine. 

JS: Right. How does this impact the broader move at the ballot box to try to defeat Donald Trump?

RN: It produces slippage by the Democrats. They’ve already acknowledged it in the last two weeks. You see, the Democrats cannot defeat Donald Trump by themselves because they don’t use all the arguments and all the issues. There has to be a parallel movement to get out the vote against Trump because the Democrats are not listening. It’s almost impossible to get through to Tom Perez, the chairman of the Democratic National Committee. It’s very hard to get through to any of these people. They think they know it all and what kind of know-it-all? The caution of Nancy Pelosi has brought her defeat in four out of the five congressional elections 2010, ’12, ’14, ’16, squeezed through in 2018 with the help of progressive candidates, but it’s not exactly confirmation that her cautious approach is winning for her. It illustrated itself in the Senate debate recently over the Ukraine impeachment articles.

JS: At the same time, you have the sort of establishment Democratic Party and figures like you know, he’s not so significant in many ways right now, but his history is worth reminding people of James Carville, who was one of the brains behind Clinton’s ascent to the presidency, basically having an aneurysm over the notion that Bernie Sanders could be the Democratic nominee. 

James Carville: The only thing between the United States and the abyss is the Democratic Party. That’s it. And if we go the way of the British Labour Party, if we nominate Jeremy Corbyn, it’s gonna be the end of days. So, I am, I’m scared to death. I really am. 

JS: Your current assessment of how Tom Perez, the establishment elite of the Democratic Party are mobilizing against Bernie Sanders in particular, but also against anyone with a truly progressive policy platform. 

RN: Well, the Democratic corporate establishment deep in the Democratic National Committee and the super delegate fiasco — imagine, nobody elects them, but they can tip the balance — undermined Bernie in 2016. But they’re at it again. They have to stop Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren because their hegemony is over if one of those people gets elected, and they want to continue dialing for corporate dollars. They want to continue Obama’s record setting fundraising from Wall Street which exceeded his Republican opponents. Imagine, he got more money from Wall Street than John McCain in 2008. That’s the internal struggle. This business about socialism, that’s just a cover but they’re willing to emulate themselves this year, and let Trump win by basically stereotyping any kind of progressive legislation as socialism.

The argument should be by the progressive Democrats, “Look, here’s what we mean by socialism. It means full health insurance. It means a living wage. It means retirement security. It means protecting people from the serious erosions of their rights as workers. It means the ability to repeal the Taft-Hartley Act and reflect majority desires in the retail trades like Walmart to join unions and so on.” But if you want more examples of people, well, let’s see the post office. That’s socialism. Public drinking water departments all over the country, I guess that’s socialism and public libraries. I guess that’s socialism, public electric utilities, over 1,000 of them around the country, including Jacksonville, Florida. How about the Tennessee Valley Authority deep in red state territory? You think you can repeal that by conservative voters in Tennessee and Alabama? They’d run you out of town. So they don’t know how to argue this.

And here’s the umbrella argument, Jeremy. Look, it’s a choice between Trump’s corporate socialism which you cannot diselect and throw the rascals out because it’s Wall Street controlling Washington, or democratic socialism where if you don’t like it, if you don’t like law and order to corporate domination of your lives, and the corporate state, which Franklin Delano Roosevelt called fascism in a message to Congress in 1938, you can always throw the rascals out. That’s the difference. And what is corporate socialism? It’s seizing your tax money and bailing out the crooks in Wall Street in 2008 with trillions of dollars. Corporate socialism is shoveling out your hard earned dollars to company subsidies, handouts, giveaways, etc. And above all, it’s taking your money away by giving it to tax breaks for the rich and powerful which creates huge deficits that are going to be paid by your children and your grandchildren instead of putting the trillion and a half dollars of Trump’s tax cut, including cutting his own family’s taxes into rebuilding America. That’s the way you argue it, Jeremy. 

JS: What is the emerging elite Democratic corporate wing of the Democratic Party strategy in this primary? What are they trying to do? Who are they going to get behind in your assessment? 

RN: They like people like Joe Biden, you know, he comes out of the corporate stake, out of the Obama world, out of the Clarence Thomas, enabler chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and mistreating Anita Hill and, and he comes out of that. They like him and if he falters, they’ll go for Bloomberg, because they know he’s got a lot of money to go up against the Republicans. It’s just redux. Its corporate state Democrat redux. That is they’re almost identical in military and foreign policy with the Republicans. They’re almost identical and booming, bigger military budgets and lathering the military industrial complex with whatever they want. They’re almost identical with avoiding applying law enforcement to Wall Street. All that is deliberate. All that is part of the Rep/Dem consensus, the two party duopoly that stereotypes third parties, and when they start seeing an insurgence in their own party, they go to work on it behind the scenes, tipping close primary elections. They go to work on them, slandering them by stereotyping them. 

And the most interesting person emerging here is Pete Buttigieg. He’s coming on almost like a new Obama or a new Clinton, this kind of smooth moderation. He’s signaling with his fundraising parties with billionaires and millionaires, that he’s going to be acceptable to them. 

Pete Buttigieg: Donald Trump, according to news reports and his allies raised $25 million today. We need to go into that fight with everything that we’ve got. We need a politics that is defined not by who we reject, but how we bring everybody into the fold. And if you are low income, or if you’re able to contribute a lot, if you’ve always — 

JS: Hillary Clinton also really early on in Tulsi Gabbard’s candidacy for the Democratic nomination, smearing her as essentially a Russian agent. Tulsi Gabbard is of course suing her for defamation. Now, I have a lot of problems with some aspects of Tulsi Gabbard’s history, her record, her relationship with some very frightening individuals in India, some of her positions on gay rights that have now shifted, and I think she has some questions to answer about some of her positions on Syria but it reminds me also of how you were treated and I’m wondering what your assessment is of that preemptive strike against Tulsi Gabbard by Hillary Clinton to say, hey, this is the new Jill Stein. This is who the Russians have chosen. 

RN: Hillary Clinton if she continues berating Tulsi Gabbard’s afraid that she’ll go independent and so-called, take away some votes in key states. I don’t think that’s going to happen. The more serious attack is the use of the word electability. If they can’t use the word Democratic socialism, they use the word electability to marginalize main progressive candidates in the Democratic primary. Now, this is basically a symptom of the defeatism of the Democratic Party. How can anybody running for president against this relentless savage sexual predator, this constant liar on matters of serious import to the American people — separating millions of people from reality into his commercialized fantasy, this person who’s a bigot and a racist and he follows up with actions reflecting that — how can the Democrats even raise the issue of trying to find a candidate who’s electable against this person? That’s just a technique to marginalize progressive candidates — and they use the words moderate and centrist and leftist and extremist to pursue the same strategy — to mainstream their corporate Democratic primary candidates. 

For example, Joe Biden is called a moderate. Joe Biden, for example, has supported wars abroad that are unconstitutional. Why is that a moderate? Joe Biden has been to toady the big banks. Why is that a moderate? Why is it considered leftist to support universal health insurance and a living wage and cracking down on corporate crime? Those received enormous results in the polls. Left, right support, 65, 70, 75, 80, 90 percent. Why is that considered extreme or leftist? Because the progressive Democrats don’t know how to argue their case, Jeremy. As a result, the media which follows them, it gets jaded. They hear the same wind up. It’s a good wind up, but it’s too repetitive. And it excludes a whole range of factual conditions on the ground that will alert more and more millions of people to say to themselves, she’s on my side, he’s on my side and they don’t do that. Therefore, they don’t generate any news, even though they’re in the eye of the media during the primary season, day after day.

JS: We know that there were very dirty tricks played in the 2016 primary by Hillary Clinton and the DNC against Bernie Sanders. The Iowa caucus made a lot of Sanders supporters believe that that already is happening right now. Not just the overt kind of war against the Sanders and to a lesser extent, but still there Warren candidacy, but if you have a DNC that is willing to rig its own primary, what is Bernie Sanders’ path not just to winning that nomination, but then running a national campaign against a humongous war chest that Trump already is amassing?

RN: First of all, he has to attack the Caucus system. The Caucus system is a form of voter suppression. Let’s face it. I mean, how many people can take out four or five hours, travel to a location, stay there at night, leave their kids?

JS: We can barely get people to just go and vote in a poll, you know, in a normal one person, one vote.

RN: Just a normal primary, like New Hampshire. So he lost an opportunity after 2016 to go after them. Although he did change some rules. He reduced the number of super delegates which is a way the corporate Democrats jab in at the end to tip the close race between their candidates and progressive candidates. And now the super delegates only kick in at the Democratic National Convention on the second round, but still, they can be decisive. And you know, the super delegates are members of Congress who are Democrats and former Democratic governors, etc. They haven’t been elected to anything as far as this election is concerned, but they can decide the outcome.

JS: If Sanders does get the nomination, what will that mean for the Democratic Party? I mean, would it be akin to, you know, to sort of what the Tea Party and ultimately Trump did to the Republican Party? I’m not drawing a comparison between their individual policies or their morality in terms of Bernie and Trump. But in terms of what it does to the party, it seems to me like Bernie winning would effectively shatter parts of the Democratic Party for the better, like get rid of some of these toxic elements that dominate that party. 

RN: If Bernie wins the election against Trump, should he get the nomination, it has to be a massive surge of voter turnout which will sweep out a lot of the Republicans in the Congress. So he will have a much more receptive Congress. It will sweep out the corporate Democrats in the Democratic National Committee, and it will reorient the Democratic Party to where it should be which is a party of, by and for the people. That’s why they want to fight him.

JS: Is there a future for third party organizing in this country given what is happening right now with the ascent of Donald Trump and the threat of an even more authoritarian second term if the Democrats lose? 

RN: I see two scenarios here for third parties. One, they proceed as they are proceeding, maybe get some more votes to nudge the major party that’s closest to their views in the right direction. A second scenario if the Democrats lose to the worst president in history, the crudest, the most overt disgusting, foul-mouthed corporate toady who’s destroyed the rule of law and constitutional observance, if they lose to him, I can see the Republican Party breaking open. I can see some reminiscence of the Republican Party being created in 1850s. Splitting and replacing the Whig Party. In an era of billionaires who are willing to fund new parties, that is not out of range. They will call it a new centrist party something the way Bloomberg has been talking about. And then the third — and this is the one the Democrats got to be really afraid of — a progressive third party with hundreds of millions of dollars in their war chest, enough to get five to 10, 12, 15 percent. So this is really Armageddon time for the Democratic Party. They’ve been losing and losing to the worst Republican Party in history, the stupidity, the ignorance, the bigotry, the corporatism, the self-serving enrichments, etc. They’re a mirror of Trump. If the Democrats lose this one, there’s going to be a lot of fissure and a lot of splits. 

JS: Ralph Nader, thank you very much for being with us. 

RN: Thank you, Jeremy. 

JS: Legendary consumer advocate and former presidential candidate Ralph Nader is with Mark Green author of the new book “Fake President: Decoding Trump’s Gaslighting, Corruption and General Bullshit.” You can check out more of Ralph Nader’s work at nader.org.

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Lee Fang on Bloomberg’s Advisers and His Strategy to Win the Democratic Nomination

JS: After many years of trying to figure out a viable way to run for president, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg finally decided in late November to enter the crowded Democratic race for president. A few months earlier, when Bloomberg was on the Economist podcast, he pretended to have no interest in entering the race even if Joe Biden’s prospects for the nomination started fading.

Michael Bloomberg: The polls say that the most likely voters in the Democratic Party are much more liberal than I am, and would not vote for me. Now, if I was the only one, they would vote. If I was the only one that they thought could beat Donald Trump, they might. But our conclusion was you could not get the nomination. And there are plenty of other ways to make a difference. 

JS: Apparently things have changed. In the short few months since Bloomberg officially entered the race, he has used his massive fortune as the eighth richest person in the United States to fuel his campaign, purchasing his way into a position as one of the top five candidates in several national polls. So, let’s take a closer look at Mr. Bloomberg, the guy who just said he was probably too conservative for many Democratic voters.

MB: Ninety-five percent of your murders — murderers and murder victims — fit one M.O. You can just take the description, Xerox it and pass it out to all the cops. They are male minorities, 16 to 25. That’s true in New York. That’s true in virtually every city in America. And that’s where the real crime is. You’ve got to get the guns out of the hands of the people that are getting killed.

You want to spend the money on a lot of cops in the streets. Put those cops where the crime is which means in minority neighborhoods. So this is — unintended consequences is people say, oh, my God, you are arresting kids for marijuana that are all minorities. Yes, that’s true. Why? Because we put all the cops in the minority neighborhoods. Yes, that’s true. Why do we do it? Because that’s where all the crime is. And the way you get the guns out of the kids’ hands is to throw them up against the wall and frisk them. 

JS: That’s a clip of Mike Bloomberg justifying New York’s stop-and-frisk policy in remarks that he made at the Aspen Institute back in 2015. By the way, the video of that has been online for about five years on YouTube. But the clip resurfaced after podcast host Ben Dixon posted it to Twitter on Monday night. And then with that, the “BloombergIsRacist” hashtag went viral. CNN eventually reported on it and responded to the post by questioning the integrity not of Bloomberg but of Ben Dixon. 

Cristina Alesci: The podcaster and the writer that released the sound is clearly a Bernie supporter. If you look at his Twitter feed, he’s very anti-Bloomberg. He is promoting a hashtag “Bloomberg is a racist.” We don’t know how he got the sound to begin with. 

JS: By the way, the CNN business reporter who made those comments? Yeah, she worked for Bloomberg News before joining CNN. The stop-and-frisk policy peaked in 2011 at nearly 700,000 stops per year under Bloomberg’s administration. In 2013, a federal judge said that the New York City Police Department tactic “amounted to what she called a policy of indirect racial profiling” noting that “nearly 90 percent of the people stopped are released without the officer finding any basis for a summons or arrest.” In response to the judge’s ruling, which found that the police department’s practice violated the constitutional rights of those targeted. Mayor Bloomberg at the time had this to say: 

MB: Throughout the trial that just concluded, the judge made it clear she was not at all interested in the crime reductions here or how we achieve them.

JS: After years of justifying the aggressive use of stop-and-frisk under his administration, Bloomberg changed course and apologized just before he announced his bid for the Democratic nomination. Lawyer and activist Addy Barkin, who clerked for the federal judge who made the ruling in that case and reviewed the NYPD records said “Stop-and-frisk was an illegal and racist policy that did nothing to make New York safer.” Barkin went on to say Bloomberg “apologizing as he announced a presidential campaign alongside an ad prominently featuring photos of himself with black New Yorkers is particularly cynical and disingenuous.” 

After the Aspen recording went viral on Tuesday and began to be reported on by large media organizations, including the New York Times, Michael Bloomberg released a statement saying, “I have apologized for taking too long to understand the impact of stop-and-frisk on Black and Latino communities. I inherited stop-and-frisk in an effort to stop gun violence. It was overused. I cut it back by 95%. I should have cut it back sooner.”

Well, what Michael Bloomberg conveniently left out of that statement is that stop-and-frisk actually peaked under his administration. But this isn’t the only policy that should cause voters to question whether Bloomberg would champion the needs and issues of everyday people if he was elected president. As mayor, he frequently fought against unionized workers, pledging to reform pensions. Right now he’s singing a different tune. But just a few years ago, he said he was not in favor of raising the minimum wage.

MB: You don’t solve the problem as the populace would argue by taking things away from the rich to solve the problem by giving opportunity to everybody and by creating jobs. And some of these things, I think some of the policies are misguided. I, for example, am not in favor, have never been in favor of raising the minimum wage.

JS: Now Bloomberg has been an advocate at times for important issues like gun control, and to an extent combating climate change. But in many cases, as he himself has previously noted, he is to the right of most likely Democratic voters. Joining me now to discuss how Michael Bloomberg is essentially buying his way into the presidential race is investigative reporter for The Intercept Lee Fang. Lee, welcome back to Intercepted. 

Lee Fang: Thanks for having me. 

JS: CNN showed a chart that detailed how Bloomberg’s ad spending far outpaces all of the other top presidential candidates, more than 350 million dollars. Just by contrast, Tom Steyer is at about $178 million and Bernie Sanders, $37 million. Bloomberg ran this $10 million ad during the Super Bowl. 

Calandrian Kemp: When I heard Mike was stepping into the ring, I thought now we have a dog in the fight. I know Mike is not afraid of the gun lobby. They’re scared of him. And they should be. 

JS: He also ran an ad during Trump’s State of the Union address.

Announcer: The real State of the Union, a nation divided by an angry, out of control president — 

JS: What impact is Bloomberg’s ad strategy having on the Democratic primary and what can we read into the intent being of Michael Bloomberg’s ad campaign?

LF: I mean, you mentioned some of the figures here. But just to put it in perspective, Bernie has the largest grassroots fundraising machine we’ve ever seen in Democratic politics, over 1.3 million individual donors giving repeatedly on a month to month basis, small donors, raising a lot of money. And within just two and a half months or so, Bloomberg is already spending nearly 10 times the amount of Bernie. The figures that you’re citing the 351 million dollars that Bloomberg has spent, that’s in disclosable radio and TV buys, some online buys but we don’t know the full figure because he’s also doing some of these semi-earned media, kind of gray area ad strategies around influencers. You know, he’s apparently paying folks to go on Instagram and promote the Mike Bloomberg campaign. The actual extent of the money is kind of limitless. We’ve just never seen this in American politics even going back to the gilded era of a plutocrat, an oligarch coming in and spending this type of money.

Even makes Tom Steyer, who’s a billionaire worth, you know, between one and 2 billion dollars, former hedge fund manager look like a popper, a peasant in comparison because Steyer broke previous records with $178 million or so in TV ad buys, and Bloomberg in just a few months has nearly doubled that. And just in terms of net worth, Bloomberg’s worth over $60 billion. We see in election after election, folks who can spend the most in TV ad buys, online ad buys have a huge edge. Folks who had not considered Bloomberg before are suddenly talking about him. You see his name recognition skyrocket. He’s up in the top five or six in national polls which seemed inconceivable for someone just a few years ago who had been funding Republican campaigns and considered himself an independent or a Republican. Now he’s considered a potential Democratic nominee. So that’s what money can buy you.

JS: You know, Robert Reich — the public policy professor at UC Berkeley, and of course, under Bill Clinton, he was the secretary of labor — he noted in The Guardian recently that Bloomberg is “in the top four in many Super Tuesday states. In Texas and North Carolina, he has overtaken Pete Buttigieg for fourth. He has the third-highest polling average in Florida, ahead of Warren, and fourth-highest in Michigan, Ohio, Georgia, Pennsylvania and New Jersey, whose primaries all fall after Super Tuesday.” 

It does seem like a naked attempt to purchase the nomination for the Democratic presidential candidacy. But at the same time, it feels like part of what he’s trying to do is sabotage any left candidate, particularly Bernie Sanders from winning this nomination. Is there any credence to that line of thinking?

LF: We’re not inside of the Bloomberg headquarters. We don’t know his exact strategy. But just looking at the kind of overall dynamics here, we can conjecture a little bit. He did not run in the first four early states. In large part because as most election observers know, those first four states are not about the delegates. These are relatively small states that don’t award a lot of delegates. It’s a lot about the narrative coming out of each of these states, who has the momentum? Who’s everyone talking about? Who’s getting that earned media? Who looks like a winner to voters? And for Bloomberg, he’s not playing in those states so he can shape the narrative. He can come out of it and say, “Look, I didn’t even compete, so I’m not a loser. Given all the chaos, the infighting of the current Democratic field, I’m the one you can look towards as the unity candidate.”

If you look at Bloomberg’s very public comments in the last few years, he’s very hostile to the ideas and the individual in terms of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. He hates the idea of a wealth tax and a much higher minimum wage. And a lot of these other kind of big economic issues advanced by those two candidates. And this is an unusual Democratic Convention or nomination process because we have so many people running. Many of these candidates have their own constant fundraising machine so even if they do poorly in the first few states, they can continue fundraising and financing their campaigns. And going into the convention, the nominee has to have something like 1,900 pledged delegates to get the nomination or the candidate needs that many delegates. If a single candidate does not have that magic number, then it becomes a brokered convention and anything can happen. The super delegates — members of Congress — can then vote, people can trade delegates, and if Bloomberg can simply run up his numbers, so that he gets enough pledged delegates going into the convention, he can deny Warren or Bernie that magic number, and then use his influence within the Democratic Party.

Now you have to remember many of the lobbyists, the distinguished party leaders, these other folks who are the super delegates, the members of Congress, they owe their seats to Bloomberg money or they have consulted for Bloomberg or they’re literally hired by Bloomberg right now to advise his campaign. So the folks who are actually going to make the determination of the final nominee are loyal or literally working for Bloomberg. So you know, we don’t know the exact endgame strategy here. Will they give the nomination to Bloomberg or will he act simply as the kingmaker and use his block of delegates to then deny Bernie and Warren or you know, whomever the nomination and give it to someone else? We don’t know. But it’s looking a lot like he’ll play a deciding role if there is a brokered convention. 

JS: Well, and it’s hard to not conclude, Lee, that the DNC under Tom Perez seems to be doing everything it can to promote Mike Bloomberg as a candidate. Not saying that they’re saying “This is our candidate” but changing the rules for participation in the debate coming ahead of Nevada, for instance. Bernie Sanders and Tulsi Gabbard both have criticized that decision. Tulsi Gabbard, of course, is calling on Tom Perez to resign as chair of the DNC. But this is what Bernie Sanders said last Thursday in New Hampshire, about the DNC changing its rule:

Bernie Sanders: And now suddenly, a guy comes in who does not campaign one bit in Iowa, New Hampshire, he’s not on the ballot. I guess in Nevada, or South Carolina, but he’s worth $55 billion. And I guess if you’re worth $55 billion, you can get the rules changed for debate. So to answer your question, I think that that is an absolute outrage and really unfair.

JS: First just explain the rule change or the new rule that would allow Bloomberg to participate in the next debate in Las Vegas. 

LF: Well, early last year, the DNC released the rules for qualification in these DNC endorsed debates and essentially, they were two pronged. One prong was you had to score high enough in a certain number of polls, and you had to have a certain number of donors. You had to have a large enough donor base to qualify and that’s part of the reason why Tom Steyer ran ads asking people to give him $1 so he could qualify for the number of donors rule to qualify for the debates. Cory Booker, Tulsi Gabbard came incredibly close to qualifying for some of these debates, but were denied just because they received a high enough number in some of the polls, but not the certain qualified polls of the DNC. There’s a lot of debate about you know, should the rules be changed just slightly to allow greater participation, greater inclusion, more voices on the debate stage of folks who certainly have a lot of supporters out there. And, you know, maybe the Democratic party would benefit from having them there to have these different viewpoints and the DNC never budged. They refuse to change the rules going into the fall even though there were less and less people appearing on the stage.

And now here we are, the DNC suddenly changing their rules, potentially getting rid of the donor requirement, keeping only the poll requirement, which appears to be just a tip of the hat to allow Bloomberg onto the stage because again, Bloomberg isn’t accepting any outside donations. He’s not receiving any grassroots donor support but he is now polling very high because of the TV ads he’s airing. So here we have the DNC bending its rules to allow Michael Bloomberg on stage, whereas the DNC refused to budge to allow Cory Booker or Tulsi to get on stage when they were very close to qualifying and both candidates had a large amount of support.

JS: Bloomberg does seem to be spending money in some of the upcoming states, particularly Super Tuesday, aimed at harming the candidacies of Bernie Sanders and if she’s still in the race, Elizabeth Warren.

LF: Bloomberg is airing ads casting himself as the higher statesman who can come in and fix this messy process. That’s a very advantageous position for a person like Bloomberg who avoided the early states intentionally. And if you look at Bloomberg’s strategy in his unlikely 2001 mayoral race, he played a very similar role. 

Jon Stewart: Fighting incredible odds with nothing more than high hopes and $60 million of his own money Republican Michael Bloomberg defeated democrat Mark Green by a 50 to 47 margin. Bloomberg overcame many obstacles in his race for Mayor including a complete lack of political experience, minimal name recognition and a debilitating fake smile. 

LF: Fernando Ferrer who lost to Mark Green in the Democratic primary in 2001 felt that the Democratic Party had taken minority voters not seriously and not treated them with respect. And Bloomberg spoke to those fears. He gave massive grants to local African American and Hispanic nonprofits. He forged alliances with many of the major religious groups and pastors there and argued that the Democratic Party couldn’t be trusted to truly serve marginalized communities and simultaneously sponsored ads and engaged in get out the vote activities in Staten Island that played to racial fears of white voters. 

JS: I wish I could say that I was surprised by this but of course you had an MSNBC pundit Jason Johnson reacting apoplectically when Nina Turner one of Bernie Sanders top campaign officials and top surrogates called Michael Bloomberg an oligarch on their airwaves.

Jason Johnson: If you want to name-call people, that’s not going to help Bernie if he becomes a nominee, and he’s going to need Mike Bloomberg’ money —


Nina Turner: Who’s name calling? I’m not name-calling anyone.

JJ: If he’s going to need Michael Bloomberg’s money down the road.


NT: It’s ironic that you’re defending somebody that is buying his way through a democracy.

JJ: I’m not defending rich people.

NT: Yes you are. You are defending him.

JJ: — That’s how you guys operate but when it comes to actual campaign politics —

JS: You know, this is the latest in what I think is clearly a pattern of MSNBC using its airwaves to smear and attack Bernie Sanders, on the one hand, but also to run defense for anyone that is not Bernie Sanders. You also had Chris Matthews who, you know, famously said he had, you know, a tingling in his leg listening to Obama speak recently saying: 

Chris Matthews: I remember the Cold War. I have an attitude towards Castro. I believe if Castro and the Reds had won the Cold War, there would have been executions in Central Park and I might have been one of the ones getting executed and certain other people would be there cheering? OK. So, I have a problem with people who took the other side. I don’t know who Bernie supports over these years. I don’t know what he means by socialism. 

JS: Talk about the role of the so called liberal media in playing defense on the one hand for Michael Bloomberg or, you know, more right of center Democrats and also smearing Bernie Sanders. 

LF: Well, look, these cable news programs, television broadcast news companies, these are for profit corporations that are trying to sell ads. They’re not interested in a thoughtful conversation around the complicated political and policy issues at play here, what’s before voters. They’re trying to dive into the most sensationalist tabloid-esque aspects of the presidential race to get a lot of viewers without pushing the party or the country to the left. 

Look at 2016, CBS you know, we did a story showing that at their own investor conference, their CEO had been cheering on Donald Trump. They said, look, we’re going to make so much money from Donald Trump running just in terms of ratings and selling TV ads to Super PACs. They were cheering on Donald Trump and just in the same situation here with the Democratic primary, Comcast, which owns MSNBC has, through its PAC and through its executives have given a lot to Donald Trump, given a lot to the centrist candidates. Joe Biden launched his campaign with a fundraiser at the home of Comcast’s chief lobbyists.

You know, if you’re, if you’re watching MSNBC, you’re not getting a detailed explanation of what’s going on in Congress of the regulatory moves of the Donald Trump administration, really diving into the actual policy impact on any economic policies with what Donald Trump is doing. You’re getting this kind of tabloid treatment of the race, and many of the hosts here are just so clearly biased against any candidate that proposes a structural economic change. They can be very progressive on social issues, on immigration, on issues that don’t affect the bottom line of big business, but when it comes to changing the economic order, raising taxes, reeling back American empire, the MSNBC hosts, with some notable exceptions are certainly to the right. 

JS: Also on MSNBC, James Carville, I believe was on Morning Joe went on a rant.

JC: There’s a certain part of the Democratic party that wants us to be a cult. I’m not interested in being in a cult.

JS: You know, Carville, who was, you know, one of the top strategist for Bill Clinton’s rise really seems to be completely and totally worked up and terrified of what the Sanders movement represents and the notion that the elites could lose control of the Democratic Party. You also have Hillary Clinton intervening in the form of the nobody likes Bernie clip:

MSNBC: The Hollywood Reporter noted that in the documentary, Clinton says that Sanders “was in Congress for years. He had one senator support him. Nobody likes him. Nobody wants to work with him. He got nothing done. He was a career politician. It’s all just baloney,” she said. “And I feel so bad that people got sucked into it.”

JS: Also early on saying Tulsi Gabbard was Russia’s choice of a candidate.

Hillary Clinton: I’m not making any predictions, but I think they’ve got their eye on somebody who’s currently in the Democratic primary, and are grooming her to be the third party candidate. She’s a favorite of the Russians. They have a bunch of sites and bots and other ways of supporting her so far. 

JS: What’s your assessment of what their freak outs mean for the situation that we now see unfolding in this Democratic primary? 

LF: Number one, we’ve seen this before. In 2016, you just had a chorus of pundits tell us that Hillary Clinton would be the most electable Democrat possible, many of them secretly working for the Hillary Clinton campaign and not disclosing that on air, and they were wrong and you know, had another chorus of pundits on TV saying Donald Trump could never be elected to the presidency, and they were wrong. 

And you know, another point I want to make is that a lot of these former Democratic strategist or you know, former elected officials who now go on television and tell you exactly what you’re supposed to think and feel about the Democratic primary, they’re not disclosing what they do on a paid basis, day to day. They’re not working actually to elect Democrats, many of them. They’re working for the corporate interests that want to maintain their power over the economy. They don’t want to see higher taxes. They don’t want to see greater regulations or antitrust. 

James Carville, many people don’t know this is now a consultant to Palantir Technologies, the Silicon Valley firm that’s helping ICE and police agencies round up immigrants and deport them. Look at the actual biographies of many of these “Democratic strategists” who are appearing on CNN or MSNBC. Maria Cardona, another pundit you see on CNN constantly opining against the left, against Bernie Sanders. She’s a partner at Dewey Square Group. What do they do? They’re helping hospital corporations lobby across the country. They’re helping the gig economy firms fight against a minimum wage standard or labor rights for drivers in California. You know, these are “pundits” who say that they’re Democratic strategists but really, they’re consultants to the ruling elite, to corporations that want to maintain the current economic order. 

JS: Last month, you wrote a piece about Mike Bloomberg. You talk about how he claims that his decision to rely only on his massive fortune to finance his campaign makes him uniquely incorruptible, but then you write “in his bid for the presidency, Bloomberg has retained a circle of staff and advisers who have a long history of working as consultants and lobbyists for corporate interests.” Who are some of the notable people working on Bloomberg’s campaign right now?

LF: I mean, he is a unique figure in that he’s completely self-financing where Donald Trump made that claim, but he actually relied on the donations and super PAC support from many other billionaires and special interests. The exception to Bloomberg’s pitch is that he’s staffing much of his campaign with lobbyists, with special influence peddlers who have made a fortune working to undermine the public interest as a profession. 

One of Bloomberg top advisors is Bradley Tusk, who was one of Bloomberg’s former campaign managers when he was running for mayor. Bradley Tusk is reshaping the labor rules that govern our society. I mean, he’s not a very well known figure outside of New York City politics, but he’s someone who was Uber’s chief lobbyist for many years. He’s gone on to lead a coalition of gig economy firms to lobby states all over the country for a new set of labor rules that could really reshape the future of work for the next century, basically creating new laws that say if you receive your work duties through an app, normal labor standards no longer apply to you. That means you are automatically classified as an independent contractor, meaning that you can’t get minimum wage. You can’t organize a labor union.I mean, this is really radical stuff that’s slowly reshaping the American economy. He’s advising Michael Bloomberg. 

Another person Michael Bloomberg spokesperson Stu Loeser, as Purdue Pharma was dealing with the crisis that they caused, brought Stu on as a crisis communication consultant. And then another person, one of the main organizers behind the Obama 2008 campaign, Mitch Stewart is now a political consultant. He’s worked for multiple corporate campaigns to advance free trade deals, also working in the gig economy. So Michael Bloomberg, he’s honest when he says he’s not relying on anyone else’s money, but he is staffing his campaign with consultants and lobbyists who actually do represent special interests. 

JS: Given the state of campaign finance laws as they exist right now, what does this mean for elections going forward in terms of spending and dark money and soft money, etc? 

LF: After the Nixon Watergate scandal, Congress got tough on campaign finance because you know, part of the way that Nixon carried out so many dirty deeds was through, you know, briefcases of money secretly given to him to engage in this kind of subterranean effort to sabotage his opponents. So Congress passed big campaign finance reforms. But then within a few years after this passage, we had Buckley v. Valeo, which knocked down about half of those reforms. And since Buckley v. Valeo candidates can give unlimited money to their own campaigns, allowing people like Bloomberg and then also the government is restricted from ever preventing spending limits. We have some campaign finance limits in terms of how much you can give to a campaign, but there are no limits for how much a campaign can spend because of the Buckley v. Valeo rule. A lot of our fundamental problems with our campaign finance system, go back to Buckley v. Valeo.

And then the other point I want to make about campaign finance is that if you’ve got a lot of money, if you’re a multi-billionaire or a special interest group, you form interlocking set of consulting firms, and NGOs and charities that look like they’re designed to benefit the public interest but they’re really designed to create, you know, a political network that can advance a policy or candidate goal. Hillary Clinton tried to do this with the Clinton Foundation and many of her different nonprofits. You know, she had five or six different quasi-political nonprofits that either attacked her opponents or defended her personally. But Bloomberg has something exponentially bigger. Bloomberg philanthropy spends about $700 million a year in various grants. He’s also giving money directly and indirectly to other groups, but this has created a whole new set of goodwill for Bloomberg. And it goes beyond our traditional campaign finance system because none of this has to really be disclosed, right?

You know, we see some of the ad spending, we see some of this other stuff because it has to be reported. But when he’s collecting endorsements from dozens of mayors around the country, they’re lining up and thanking him for the grants that he gave to their city, for these innovation grants, these art grants, these mayoral boot camps that mayors attend. We have pretty much half of the Democratic party, folks who are in prominent roles who ran in competitive elections, who can thank Bloomberg in one way or another either for philanthropic gifts or direct campaign contributions. So half of this money or maybe even more than half of this money is not even considered traditional campaign finance, even though it’s certainly playing a political role.

 JS: Lee Fang, thank you very much for your work. And thanks for joining us again on Intercepted.

LF: Thanks for having me.

JS: Lee Fang is an investigative reporter for The Intercept with a long standing interest and how public policy is influenced by organized interest groups and money. You can find him on twitter @lhfang.

[Music interlude.]

JS: And that does it for this week’s show. You can follow us on Twitter @Intercepted and on Instagram @interceptedpodcast. If you like what we do on this program, you can support our show by going to theintercept.com/join to become a sustaining member. Intercepted is a production of First Look Media and The Intercept. Our lead producer is Jack D’Isidoro, our producer is Laura Flynn. Elise Swain is our associate producer and graphic designer. Betsy Reed is editor in chief of The Intercept. Rick Kwan mixed the show. Transcription for this program is done by Nuria Marquez Martinez. Our music, as always, was composed by DJ Spooky. Until next week, I’m Jeremy Scahill.

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