President-elect Joe Biden’s Cabinet is being constructed in significant part from corporate Democrats and Obama-era national security hawks with a small side order of more progressive figures. This week on Intercepted: As Nancy Pelosi runs unopposed in her party for another term as speaker of the House, Congress has failed for many months to deliver meaningful aid to millions of Americans suffering through the Covid-19 pandemic. But lawmakers moved swiftly to approve the National Defense Authorization Act, an overwhelmingly bipartisan military and war spending bill. New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was one of just 37 Democrats to vote against the NDAA, and she is increasingly vocal in her criticism of her party’s leadership. In a wide-ranging interview with Intercepted, Ocasio-Cortez discusses the fight for Medicare for All, the battle for the future of the Democratic Party, red-baiting and the 2020 election, Biden’s emerging Cabinet, disaster profiteering in Puerto Rico, the weaponizing of the Espionage Act, and more. Then, The American Prospect’s Executive Editor David Dayen breaks down the negotiations over another round of Covid-19-related “stimulus” legislation, explains the failures of the Democrats and the viciousness of the Republicans on Capitol Hill, and discusses the battle over Biden Cabinet appointments.
Anderson Cooper: What is the mood in the White House? What is he doing? What is it like in there? Do you have a sense?
Maggie Haberman: Yeah, it’s grim. His mood is often dark. He is snappish. He is churlish. He is, in the word of several advisers, over the job.
Downfall (2004): [German.]
President Donald J. Trump: This wasn’t like a close election. You look at Georgia, we won Georgia big. We won Pennsylvania big. We won Wisconsin big. We won it big!
Downfall (2004): [German.]
DJT: I’m President of the United States. I just got 75 million votes. I run a country, and we cut taxes, and we did all of the things — regulations, Space Force, then I have to campaign. And then I go home, and I watched the television to see how we’re doing. The election was rigged.
Downfall (2004): [German.] Mein Führer!
DJT: No judge has had the courage — including the Supreme Court. I am so disappointed in them. Texas and all of these states, they come in — think how nice that is — and they say, “We want to support you, sir. Because you’re important to this country. We want to support you.” What happened to this country is that we are like a third world country. Have you ever seen the graph where you go like this and then it goes up to the sky? These machines are controlling our country.
JS: I’m Jeremy Scahill, coming to you from New York City. And this is episode 142 of Intercepted.
News Anchor: The wait from COVID disaster relief drags on.
News Anchor 2: Right now the infection levels across the country are the worst we’ve seen.
News Anchor 3: Over 16 million people have been confirmed positive, and more than 300,000 have died.
JS: We have now surpassed 300,000 people who have died from Covid-19 in the United States alone. And, as of this recording, Congress has yet to pass new legislation that would give desperately needed aid to people who are facing grave economic and health realities.
Millions of people across this country are facing the loss of their health insurance, their homes, their ability to provide for their families. The situation is dire, with as many as 50 million Americans facing food insecurity, with Black and Latino families suffering at disproportionate rates.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez: We already, by the way, passed a $4 trillion leverage fund for Wall Street in March. So let’s talk about the math here. Because y’all got a $1,200 check; Wall Street got for $4 trillion in access to liquid funds.
JS: At the same time, the Congress just passed yet another massive defense spending bill with overwhelming bipartisan support. And while Donald Trump is on his way out the door whether he likes it or not, his successor has been assembling a cabinet and transitional team that is replete with people who are tied to the war industry, Big Pharma, Wall Street, Big Agriculture. It’s a cabinet filled with hawkish Democrats who were key players in some of the worst aspects of Barack Obama’s time in office. Yes, there have been a few slots so far thrown to more progressive Democrats. But overall, this cabinet is largely shaping up to be one with deep roots in corporate interests.
But none of this is surprising. This is who Joe Biden is. This is what the institutional Democratic Party has been for a long time.
And the problem is not just in the forthcoming executive branch. These same dynamics have long been a part of the governing strategies of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer. Joe Biden won the popular vote by some seven million votes. But the Democrats fared pretty damn poorly in the 2020 House races — their majority shrunk. The leadership of the party on Capitol Hill is out of sync with the overwhelming desire in this country for Medicare for All, for increased wages, for affordable housing. And worse than that, from Biden on down, powerful Democrats are spending significant amounts of energy attacking and blaming progressives while cozying up to their conservative allies.
Joe Biden: Because that’s how they beat the living hell out of us, across the country, saying that we’re talking about defunding the police. We’re not. We’re talking about holding them accountable.
JS: And it is so clear that progressives are going to be constantly told Joe Biden is better than Donald Trump. Or progressives will be asked, “Would you rather have Donald Trump?” As though this is any sort of line of defense against the corporatist agenda of their own candidates and leaders. This was the same weapon used to constantly hammer the left throughout Obama’s eight years in power. “Do you want John McCain instead? Would you prefer Mitt Romney?” The Democrats need to be judged not on how they compare to the Republicans, but on how they conduct their own policies in the world.
There are going to be some major battles in the months and years to come against the obstructionist and right-wing Republicans. The Senate races in Georgia are very important. Removing Mitch McConnell as Senate Majority Leader would be a tremendous victory. But that will only be true if the Democrats actually adopt a radical plan of action. And recent history suggests that is far from guaranteed.
There is also a major battle for the future of the Democratic Party between those who want to stick with the Schumer/Pelosi/Biden/Clinton/Obama way of running things and those who want to fight to make the Democratic Party one that actually represents the interests of ordinary people in this country.
Now, there is a legitimate debate to be had on whether our current system of campaign finance and corporate influence could ever produce such a party. But there is no doubt that there are some progressive politicians within the Democratic Party who believe it’s a battle worth fighting.
Joining me now is one of the most committed among them. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez represents New York’s 14th district. That encompasses parts of the Bronx and Queens.
She rose to prominence back in 2018 when she defeated one of Nancy Pelosi’s top deputies in the Congress, Rep. Joe Crowley. That was an upset that sent shockwaves through the institutional party. Ocacio-Cortez recently sailed to reelection. And I am happy to welcome her back to this show.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, thanks so much for joining us here again on Intercepted.
AOC: Of course. Thanks for having me.
JS: So I want to start off just with a really simple, direct question: Why on earth has the Congress not given more aid to the American people, particularly poor and working people in this country who are suffering during this pandemic? The last round was just a huge boondoggle for corporate interests and businesses. Why has there been no aid forthcoming to the American people right now?
AOC: You know, honestly, I have been frustrated and heartbroken and very angry, trying to figure out the answer to this question.
You know, I think on one hand, it’s very easy to say that Mitch McConnell and the Republican Party is extraordinarily barbaric, which is true. But at the same time, there is still something to be said for the fact that President Trump did want stimulus checks out, and we still even haven’t been able to get those. And even in this package that’s currently being negotiated there aren’t stimulus checks in the current kind of state of negotiations. And so — why hasn’t Congress done this? I think that there is a real lack of urgency. And where that lack of urgency is coming from — I don’t even know. I don’t even think that this is the kind of situation where you need to have suffered in this way in the past in order to understand how bad the problem is. You know, regardless of how overtaken any member of Congress may be by corporate interests, at the end of the day, you still answer to a constituency and the vast majority of constituencies in this country are suffering.
But I do think that, you know, there’s a couple of things. One is that in that CARES Act in March, I do think that the Democratic Party gave up a lot of leverage. We essentially gave away $4 trillion in leveraged funds to Wall Street. I was opposed to that then. I took to the House floor and stated my opposition on moral and principle.
AOC (Speaking on the House floor): What did the Senate majority fight for one of the largest corporate bailouts with as few strings as possible in American history? Shameful — the greed of that fight is wrong for crumbs for our families, and the option that we have is to either let them suffer with nothing or to allow this greed and billions of dollars which will be leveraged into trillions of dollars to contribute to the largest income inequality gap in future. There should be shame about what was fought for in this bill and the choices that we have to make.
AOC: But even when I was speaking to my colleagues, I was also opposed to it strategically, because this massive bailout that we gave away in March was everything that the Republican Party wanted. It was everything that Mitch McConnell wanted, that Steven Mnuchin wanted, that Wall Street wanted. And I knew that if we gave away the farm then, we would have very little leverage to get them back to the negotiating table afterwards. And I’m afraid that that is the situation that we’re dealing with right now.
JS: Isn’t this grounds, though, to take a stand and say, “No, I’m sorry, Nancy Pelosi should not be the speaker and Chuck Schumer should not be the leader?”
AOC: Well, you know, I do think that we need new leadership in the Democratic Party. I think one of the things that I have struggled with — I think that a lot of people struggle with — is the internal dynamics of the House has made it such that there’s very little option for succession, if you will, you know? And I think it’s easy for someone to say, “Oh, well, you know, why don’t you run?” But the House is extraordinarily complex. And I’m not ready. [Laughs.] It can’t be me! I know that I couldn’t do that job.
And so even conservative members of the party, who think Nancy Pelosi is far too liberal for them, don’t necessarily have any viable alternatives, which is why whenever there’s a challenge, it kind of collapses. And that is, I think, the result of just many years of power being concentrated in leadership with a lack of real grooming of a next generation of leadership. And so when you have really talented members of Congress that do come along, the opportunities to lead are so few and far between, that they leave, that the kind of path of ascension, if you will, for a lot of members looking around, both progressive and conservative alike, is to run for a statewide office and get out of there.
And so what we’re really dealing with — which is, frankly, something that we’re not only dealing with last term or this term — but also the speaker has indicated that, you know, she may be looking at transitioning and leaving at some point and the left isn’t really, you know, making a plan for that either. So I do think that it’s something that we really need to think about.
JS: Picking up on that, I wanted to ask you about another piece of legislation. And correct me if I’m wrong here, but you recently voted against the latest National Defense Authorization Act, correct? You voted against it?
AOC: Yes, I did.
JS: And you were in the minority even in your own party, I think you were one of only 37 Democrats to vote against it. And this is part of a pattern, though, that we’ve seen through these four years of Trump, where we have the top-dog Democrats in the country going on cable news and telling us that Donald Trump represents an existential threat to our democracy and our democratic processes, which I think a lot of liberals and Democrats would agree with that statement, but then they turn around, and they team up with neo-cons like Liz Cheney, and they pass sweeping surveillance powers for this very president and his soon-to-be-departed Attorney General. They pass record-shattering military expenditures, but can’t get $1,200 bucks to suffering Americans.
AOC: Yup. Yeah.
JS: And I know you’ve been on the right side of this, but I’m asking: are you ready to say, “Pelosi and Schumer need to go?”
AOC: I mean, I think so. I mean, the question is, like, this year, for example, the hesitancy that I have is that I want to make sure that if we’re pointing people in a direction that we have a plan. And my concern, and this I acknowledge as a failing, as something that we need to sort out, is that there isn’t a plan. How do we fill that vacuum? Because if you create that vacuum, there are so many nefarious forces at play to fill that vacuum with something even worse. And so the actual [laughs] sad state of affairs is that there are folks more conservative than even they are willing to kind of fill that void.
And so what I’m looking at right now is what steps do we take, both in structural changes — because a lot of this is not just about these two personalities, but they are also about the structural shifts that these two personalities have led in their time in leadership, the structural shifts of power in the House both in process and rule to concentrate power in party leadership, of both parties, frankly, but in Democratic Party leadership to such a degree that an individual member has far less power than they did 30, 40, 50 years ago.
And so, you know, the answer is yes. The answer is we need to shift power; we need to make sure that we have a transition of power in the leadership of the Democratic Party. You know, because I think that the hypocrisy you point out is so animating. Frankly, it’s a huge reason why I ran for office and ran against a Democrat, because that hypocrisy can be just so rage-inducing for any person.
You know, for me, personally, it was when I was waitressing, and I would hear Democrats talk about why the Affordable Care Act was so amazing all the time, and how this is the greatest thing ever, and the economy’s doing wonderfully. And frankly, it is the same trick that Trump pulls, which is people touting the Dow as a measure of economic success when we’re all getting killed out here.
And so, you know, do we need new leadership of the Democratic Party? Absolutely. But how do we ensure that when we shift we don’t even move further to the right. And that’s the kind of thing that keeps me up when I think about what we’re going to do moving towards the future.
JS: Yeah, you know, I’ve followed this sort of discussion that’s been playing out on social media over the weekend, where you have Jimmy Dore and other personalities online, who have really sort of zeroed in on you, and they’re hammering you, and saying, “The only principled position here is for you, and other members of the Squad to tell Pelosi that you will refuse to support her speakership.” And right now Pelosi is running unopposed, and Kevin McCarthy is running for the Republicans.
And I give you credit for getting into the weeds online; not many Congresspeople do get into the weeds with people and respond to — also, you respond to a lot of ordinary folks. So I give you tremendous credit. But I want to give you a chance here to respond to that line of criticism. You know, I personally think Pelosi has to go. That seems to be what you’re indicating. You weren’t necessarily disagreeing with people, as I read it; it sounded to me like you had a very serious strategic disagreement with the premise of the debate.
So respond to that. The issue was: you won’t support her unless she puts a vote for Medicare for all on the floor, and you have criticized that line from a strategic perspective. So give us your full-throated response to that.
AOC: You know, I think it’s important that we’re very clear here: The resistance that I have to that is not resistance to us having a floor vote on Medicare for All. But how I do feel is that when we talk about getting a floor vote on Medicare for All, the obstacles to doing that are not just about personalities, right? This isn’t just about Nancy Pelosi having opposition to a floor vote on Medicare for All, though that very well may be the case. But there are also structural obstacles that prevent legislation, transformative legislation, not just Medicare for All but many others from actually passing.
So first and foremost, we don’t currently have the votes to pass Medicare for All. Now the argument is, if you put it on the floor, it’ll create a bunch of pressure, and even if it fails, we should get these people on the record.
Two issues with that: One is that, to a certain degree, we have people on the record. We have a co-sponsor list, and if your member is co-sponsored on it, you have the grounds to pressure them to fulfill that vote. But we don’t even have a majority of Democrats, or rather a majority of the House co-sponsored on Medicare for All yet.
But then the second thing people may say, “Oh, well, you know, that doesn’t matter. Because co-sponsorships are just for show. And where the rubber meets the road is if someone actually chooses to cast that vote.” Well, if the Republicans have control of the Senate, then people cast votes that they normally wouldn’t when Democrats have full control all the time. It’s just as ceremonial. And people — if they know that, we pass Medicare for All, and it’ll land on Mitch McConnell’s desk, they too can escape true accountability by just voting for it and then, you know, pointing at Mitch McConnell. But there are many folks where if Biden was president, and if we had Democratic control of the Senate, all of a sudden their vote would flip.
But again, it’s not to say that we shouldn’t have a vote on Medicare for All. My question is, do we use this specific leverage point to secure that as the progressive concession. And the reason that I disagree with that is because I actually believe that we can get — and we are currently negotiating to get and work towards — real material concessions for the left, that can move things into place to help build power for the next two years.
So the way I look at it is: Do we do this to get a floor vote that will get questionable media coverage, that will not pass, that will last kind of a day — plus, additionally, as a legislator from the left, I do take my leadership and guidance from peoples’ movements, and those movements that have been at the forefront of fighting for Medicare for All have not made this demand. But even if it was just a vast popular demand, I think it would be something worth considering as well.
But, you know, when it comes to using this leverage, I do think that there are things that we can do. One thing that we can do is actually work on repealing some of the structural rules that would prevent Medicare for All from actually getting passed, floor vote or not, and one of those things is an obscure House rule that is extremely influential and significant known as PAYGO. And I took up this fight last term. I was one of the sole House Democrats to vote against the rule, and House rules in the establishment of the Congress, because it had this thing known as PAYGO. And PAYGO is basically austerity politics, that has been baked into the very rules of the House of Representatives, which is saying that any expenditure that a bill has must have a tax increase or spending cut essentially accounted for in the legislation — and if it doesn’t, then it goes to the executive and then the executive and OMB will decide those cuts and that austerity for the Congress.
Now, federal spending doesn’t work that way. It’s not a piggy bank or a household. And if we want to have any prayer of anything even approaching New Deal-era investments, we have to get rid of PAYGO. And it’s not this huge controversy-inducing issue on the outside, but it is one of the biggest structural blocks to having public investment in the House. Even if we can’t get a full repeal of PAYGO, we can also secure waivers, PAYGO waivers on Medicare for All, tuition-free public colleges, and more — which is frankly how conservative Democrats are able to get all this defense spending to begin with.
JS: The current chair of the Ways and Means Committee is Rep. Richard Neal — he has played a very destructive role on behalf of the healthcare industry, Wall Street donors, he’s an opponent of Medicare for All. Should Nancy Pelosi refuse to reappoint him as chair of Ways and Means?
AOC: You know, I endorsed his challenger, Alex Morse, this year. I think that the connections to Big Pharma. and big healthcare are just extremely concerning. And you don’t even look at how Medicare for All has been blocked — which, actually, last term, one of the concessions that the progressive movement was able to get out of Nancy Pelosi was to get the first-ever congressional hearing on Medicare for All of which was chaired and housed at Ways and Means, and one of the things that was pushed by the chairman was that folks on the committee weren’t “allowed” — or were actively discouraged — from using the term Medicare for All at the Medicare for All hearing.
And so I think we need to shift a lot of our chairs. The way the Democratic Party determines chairmanship and leadership of committees is just — I mean, it’s a scandal unto itself. Even Republicans don’t have the seniority chair rules that the Democratic Party has. And again, this is one of the reasons why actual talented leadership so frequently leaves the House because committee leadership has largely been determined by two things. One, how long you’ve been around and two, how much money you fundraised.
I remember last year, you go through all this orientation stuff, and people have told the stories about how you get to orientation and they give you these recommended schedules of spending four hours a day calling wealthy donors, etc. But one of the other things that I remember I got that I was absolutely shocked by was a list of party leadership positions, from committee chair to caucus chair to, you know, anything you can imagine and there was literal money attached to it — a dollar amount attached to it. And it was just like a list. It was a small business chair, oversight chair, financial services chair, you know. And that was the amount of money that you were expected to raise for the party if you wanted to be considered for a leadership position.
And so it sure sets up some perverse incentives, doesn’t it? And to be fair, I don’t believe they are absolutely binding, because I just don’t think that there’s a rule mechanism for that to happen. But they are strongly encouraged. And so that sets up some pretty awful incentives for leadership across the board if your main mode of leadership and the main way that the Democratic Party chooses his leadership is A. who’s been around the longest and B. who’s able to fundraise the most from corporate interests. So yeah, I think we need new leadership.
JS: I wanted to ask you for a moment about the transition and the transition team, and this sort of slipped in under the radar, but Politico pointed out that some of the recent additions to Joe Biden’s transitional team were sort of distributed on the sly, there was no ceremony for it. And perhaps that’s because they were people who are from Goldman Sachs, from McKinsey, from Boston Consulting. You look at some of the premiere nominee positions: Tony Blinken, total Washington insider starts this firm that literally brags that they have a direct path to the executive office.
AOC: [Sighs & laughs with exasperation.]
JS: You have, Avril Haines, DNI, being celebrated — first woman DNI. She also was a defender of Gina Haspel, who was a key player in the torture and kidnap program run by the CIA. I mean, Rep. Ocasio-Cortez, how do you make sense of this corporate revolving door that Biden is once again activating, and the fact that you have ultra-hawkish right-wing Democrats, including people that have been apologists for people who are involved with the torture program?
AOC: I mean, it’s horrible. And I think it’s also part of a larger issue that we have right now, which is, there’s a lot of talk about, oh, the Biden administration is bringing back a lot of Obama appointees, which, depending on where you are in the party, may sound nice, I guess? But I think what a lot of people fail to remember is that, you know, we now have a Biden administration that’s bringing back a lot of Obama appointees, but when Obama was making appointments, he was bringing back a lot of Clinton appointees. And so this is not just a revolving door of private industry, but it’s a revolving door of just the same people for the last 10, 20, 30 years, in a time when this emerging populism and one of the main reasons — a huge reason why we got Donald Trump in the first place, in addition to just the racism that was waiting to be reanimated in this country, was just an extreme disdain for this moneyed political establishment — that just rules Washington no matter who you seem to elect.
And it’s not just individuals, but it’s an ideology, and it’s a way of doing things. And it’s, you know, this hand over fist self-dealing, and it’s this continued commitment to foreign wars that, frankly, people all across the political spectrum in the United States are sick of. And, you know, especially when it comes to foreign policy, we’re really in an appalling state.
This is why we had so many people rally behind different Democratic nominees. But now the situation is like: What do we do? Because the fact of the matter is that I would say probably the most conservative Democrat in the field is the one that won, and so one of the things that we have to deal with is: A. the deeper cultural issues here — it’s not just elected Democrats, but it also seems like the Democratic electorate seems to believe that conservative Democrats are the ones that win. And it’s almost as though our electorate is tricking itself. You know, it’s like we all know that we want something different, but we’re so afraid of losing — or at least we’re told that if we indulge what we want, we’re going to lose. And so this is an issue that we’re going to have to really organize around in terms of an electorate. But then publicly, we’re absolutely going to have to resist, because there is a consensus and bipartisan consensus in Washington, as much as it is heralded, is almost always around Wall Street bailouts, extension of war, mass surveillance.
JS: Red-baiting has just intensified throughout these past few electoral cycles. I mean, this has been something that corporate Democrats have always engaged in, but the lengths to which the other candidates for the Democratic nomination went to smear Bernie Sanders digging up things he said about the Sandinistas in the 80s, or taking out of context things that he said about Fidel Castro. And then more recently: Oh, don’t say defund the police, it’s going to offend our Lincoln Project people.
It’s like, I’m sorry, millions and millions of leftists in this country held their nose to vote for Joe Biden for president, the Lincoln Project didn’t sway a single vote. And yet, what do we have? We have a right-wing Democrat in the White House coming up January 20 in Joe Biden, and we have a party that just, I’m sorry, shits on the very people who put them in that position —
JS: — this time.
AOC: Absolutely. Absolutely. And I think one of the things that also is just so ugly about this, too, is that first of all, I think there’s a reason why this red-baiting was a much larger feature this time around than it was in 2016, and I think it is because of the emergence of leftists of color in the United States. There’s a very, very long and ugly history of the white political establishment in the United States red-baiting in a particularly ferocious way when it is Black people and people of color that are organizing for popular power, and particularly on class issues in the United States. You know, they did it to MLK, who was not a capitalist, was a democratic socialist; they did it to Malcolm X. And there’s also just a very rich history of Black, democratic socialist organizing in the United States. And all these folks that, you know, we learn about as children in public schools, were anti-capitalists: James Baldwin, Ella Baker, MLK, Malcolm X. And they saw the writing on the wall of just the social destruction, the just chasing of concentrations of capital, was bringing and is bringing to this country.
And so when Democrats start to engage in this red-baiting, and they engage in this, you know, “oh, these protesters are gentrifiers, or they’re white people,” essentially erasing all left activism of color in the United States. They may not know it, or maybe they do know it, but they are also participating in a very ugly legacy of white supremacy in this country.
The other issue with that is that it’s because this political class and this kind of larger power in the Democratic Party, they need to say they have to blame defund the police, because their actual political execution is so sorry, and it is so poorly done, thanks to a lot of the nepotism in Washington, because they’re relying on these consultants that are not, frankly, very performance driven, that if they acknowledge that they’re the ones who failed, then what recourse do they have? What claim to authority do they have? So they have to engage in this red-baiting.
JS: I know we only have a few moments left. But I do want to make sure to ask you about Puerto Rico. It’s almost never discussed anymore in the broader corporate media. I know, not just for personal and familial reasons are you interested in this, but you really were one of the leaders on Capitol Hill in trying to get justice and aid to the people of Puerto Rico, and some of what has played out has just been the same kinds of corporate vultures that engage in disaster profiteering. So I just wanted to give you a chance for a moment to update people on the battle for justice and aid to Puerto Rico.
AOC: Yeah, one of the reasons I also think that this is so important and what’s going on in Puerto Rico is so important is because I also think that it’s a test run for exporting this model to municipalities in the United States, and in fact, it already has happened.
So, you know, for folks who may not be aware, Puerto Rico is a colony of the United States. And one of the most modern manifestations of that colony, frankly, happened under the Obama administration, with the PROMESA Act where, under the PROMESA Act, which was passed under Democrats, we essentially took away the island’s fiscal power that it has over itself, which is one of the core indicators of sovereignty for any area — you know, even a town, or a state has power over its own kind of fiscal decision making. And so with the PROMESA Act, what the United States did was that they imposed a fiscal board over the island. And many of the people appointed to this fiscal board are just Wall Street folks that are trying to maximize profits. They’re extensions of this vulture-fund complex. And we’re engaging, once again, I mean, it’s just straight-up colonialism, just sucking all of the gold, resources, et cetera — all of the riches that there are from a colony of subjects where they have little-to-no control over those resources to begin with. And so one of the things that we’ve done is that I’ve partnered with Congresswoman Nydia Velazquez, who is long-committed to independent self-determination of the island.
JS: She’s my Congresswoman. I live in her district.
AOC: Yeah. And we’ve kind of authored an actual process for real self-determination, not just these plebiscites that you hear about that are not very disciplined in their rollout and to actually pursue a process of self-determination. But again, the reason why this is important is because we look at what happened with Flint, Michigan, and all of these families that were poisoned by their own government, this was the mechanism. Flint, essentially, became a ward of the state, if you will. And these counties and these municipalities, when their fiscal power is taken from them and gets handed over to some board that then gets stuffed with corporate interests or whose interests are just not aligned with the health and safety of actual people on the ground, these are the decisions that get made. And this is how people’s water gets poisoned, which is happening in Puerto Rico. This is how people get sick. And this is how they — this is how a lot of just extraordinary environmental injustices get executed on, because these things would never happen with the actual consent of the governed. And that’s what’s happening right now in Puerto Rico.
But my fear is that they’re just perfecting this model. And when municipalities get on the brink of bankruptcy, which is being precipitated by lack of Covid response and state and local funding, we’re looking at private equity takeovers of our neighborhoods. And that is just one indication and one example of why it is so important to understand that our destinies are tied. Our destinies are tied to people impacted by our foreign policy, our destinies are tied with people who are still impacted by the imperial and colonial legacy of not just the United States, but imperial powers overall. And that’s why these things matter, because when we allow them to happen, we are giving permission for them to happen to us.
JS: Final question for you, Rep. Ocasio-Cortez. There’s discussion right now about Donald Trump using the pardon power in the waning days of his administration. And primarily, it’s focused around potentially preemptively pardoning members of his family or his inner circle. But I wanted to ask you, and this could apply to either Trump or Biden, if you believe that these individuals should be pardoned: Julian Assange, Edward Snowden, Reality Winner, Daniel Hale, and others who have been charged under the Espionage Act because of leaking or publishing information that cut to the heart of some of the crimes of the American empire committed abroad. Should all of those people be pardoned by either Trump or Biden?
AOC: I do believe that Edward Snowden should be considered. I think there are considerations and concerns around Assange, to just be completely frank, but I believe the Obama administration was correct in declining to use the Espionage Act to pursue charges. And so, you know, I would agree with these assessments. And while I understand there’s kind of debate and many areas on this, but I think that it was part of the the authoritarian shift in the Trump administration to specifically levy the Espionage Act against these individuals,
JS: Right. I mean, I’m not trying to get you to endorse Julian Assange.
AOC: [Laughs.] Yeah.
JS: I meant to ask it in a very narrow — and I’ve also expressed some of my own opinions on this — but in terms of the the narrow question on the weaponizing of the Espionage Act, which was not written to go after whistleblowers —
JS: — against all of these people. I mean, do you think it’s appropriate to charge these individuals under the Espionage Act?
AOC: No. I do not.
Clearly, and I think this is a project worth pursuing, is that clearly our laws around whistleblowing, leaks, etc. are not only flawed, but one of the issues that we have is that all of these folks are being lumped in as though every situation is the same. And that is because our laws are written to treat them the same. And they’re not.
And so I do believe that people who have been prosecuted under these unjust laws should be pardoned. And, you know, where there was a transgression of justice, we can talk about actually pursuing accountability in charges. This is also a weird conversation to have as someone who’s trying to pursue abolition too. [Laughs.]
JS: Yeah. Of course. Of course!
AOC: So, it’s like —I want to put that there as well. Because, you know, it is a struggle. How do you deal with these situations? But the Obama administration was also extremely aggressive towards whistleblowers. And whistleblowing, the current structure of how you actually whistleblow, is still controlled by a political establishment of some sort. And so whistleblowing, our current pathways work OK under a threat like Donald Trump, but they don’t work as well, in my opinion, under Democratic administrations.
And so what do you do? If it feels as though the only way to expose a mass system of unconstitutional surveillance is to not go through the proper channels, we have to figure out that very key problem.
And I actually think that using the Espionage Act doubles down on the issue, because journalists are very often sometimes one of the only mediums to actually protect people sometimes when a whistleblower does go outside of the proper channels, because a journalism outlet can vet information, they have the resources to, the internal debates of whether this is information that is worthy of leaking or not. And when you set the Espionage Act as precedent, then what you do is that you take away that proper channel as well, and then you leave people with an even worse recourse, which is to just leak whatever they want kind of raw, without any vetting, whether its internal or whether it’s through journalism outlets, et cetera.
JS: Well, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, I want to thank you not just for joining us, but also for your willingness to engage with debate. And I think I think it’s really unusual. And I wish that more lawmakers would take the position you do. So thank you very much for being with us.
AOC: Of course. Thank you so much.
JS: Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, also known as AOC, represents NY’s 14th Congressional District. That encompasses parts of Queens and the Bronx. She is the youngest woman to ever serve in the U.S. Congress.
Sen. Bernie Sanders: Millions and millions of families who are scared to death that they are going to be evicted from their homes and join the half-million people in America who are already homeless. We have half of our population working day to day — living paycheck to paycheck — trying to survive. This Congress must address the economic emergency facing the American people.
JS: On the Senate floor last week, Sen. Bernie Sanders called out his colleagues for turning their backs on working people as they voted in favor of the National Defense Authorization Act. Sanders was among the minority who voted against that bill. It authorized more than $740 billion in so-called defense spending, while nearly nine months have passed since the Senate last provided relief to the millions of Americans impacted by this pandemic.
Congress is currently considering a new Covid relief bill, but remains divided on aid to state and local governments, direct payments to millions struggling to make ends meet, and corporate liability protections. Meanwhile, president-elect Joe Biden has announced more cabinet picks for his incoming administration that will have to face the fallout left by the Trump administration.
Joining me now to discuss all of this, as well as Joe Biden’s cabinet picks, is David Dayen. He’s the executive editor of The American Prospect.
David, welcome back to Intercepted.
David Dayen: Thanks for having me on.
JS: What do indicators tell us about how people in this country are being economically impacted at this stage of the pandemic? Where are we with job loss, food and housing insecurity — basically, overall inequality in this country?
DD: You know, we’ve only returned maybe a little more than half of the jobs that were lost in the pandemic. We have a moratorium on evictions, that hasn’t really even been that successful, like evictions have still gone through. But when it lifts, and landlords can clearly evict people, you could see anywhere from two to five million immediate families dispossessed from their homes; food insecurity is at all time highs, lines for food banks that we’ve seen on television running for miles. So you have, you know, on the one hand, this expectation of a burst of economic activity, which is shown in the stock market, which is why it has been accelerating throughout this pandemic, but is poised to even go higher. So owners and investors are doing just fine.
But then there’s this large group of job loss, which is particularly concentrated in the low-wage sector. There are statistics that show that for high-wage jobs, there’s been almost no job loss on net between March and today, whereas in the low-wage sector, all of the job losses concentrated. So there’s really just two Americas happening right now.
We’re speaking in the last week, pretty much, before Congress has to make a decision on whether they’re going to do another round of relief, which they haven’t done since March. And it’s very unclear whether anything will get done. And if nothing gets done, then we’re going to be in a true Depression-type situation for those millions of workers who have not gotten back on their feet.
JS: Do you have a sense that Nancy Pelosi got outplayed here, or did she do the best she could have done given that Mitch McConnell is the leader of the Senate and Donald Trump still holds the White House?
DD: Way back in April, Nancy Pelosi was on with Jake Tapper. And she was asked: Did you make a mistake because state and local governments didn’t get any real relief to cover budget shortfalls in the CARES Act?
Jake Tapper: So Cuomo says he would have insisted on state funding in the last bill. And now Sen. McConnell is saying he wants to push the pause button.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi: Yes.
JT: Was this a tactical mistake by you and Sen. Schumer?
NP: Just calm down. We will have state and local, and we will have it in a very significant way.
DD: This was eight months ago. And what we’re looking at right now, in this final bill, there’s a bipartisan kind of process for Covid relief that’s happening right now. And they’re splitting out the state and local benefit — which is not even enough to cover the shortfall — they’re splitting it out in such a way that it’s likely that part won’t get passed. And why that’s important is that state and local governments after the Great Recession, for example, they had to cut back because they can’t print money, they can’t run budget deficits, those cutbacks at the state and local level, that austerity, it offset the significant benefit that was being done through stimulus at the federal level. So this stunted the recovery. We know that this stunted the recovery back then, just 12 years ago; we know it had a significant impact on why jobs didn’t come back sooner enough and economic growth didn’t come back — we’re running into that all over again. And it’s really remarkable that we’ve been put in the exact same position, knowing exactly what it would do 12 years later. It’s hard to come to any other conclusion, but that the Democrats got really outplayed here.
JS: You recently wrote in The American Prospect, “Biden sought throughout the campaign to return normalcy to Washington, to put adults back in charge and show that experience matters. That’s not how things are working out. And the process badly needs to get back on track.” David, explain what you’re talking about there.
DD: Joe Biden has laid out a few different sort of north stars for how he’s going to build out his team to run the government for the next four years. So he’s talked about having a cabinet that looks like America; he has talked about the importance of experience and a variety of other factors. And where these twin focuses of experience and relationships with Biden and diversity clash, that comes out in very strange ways.
So I mean, the situation with the Department of Agriculture is a good example. So Marcia Fudge, who is a Congresswoman from the Cleveland area, has been on the Agriculture Committee since she got to Congress in 2008, has been a real champion for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP — sometimes called food stamps — and has really thought hard about how to deliver that in the best possible fashion.
Rep. Marcia Fudge: This bill reduces or cuts SNAP benefits all together for nearly two million people. Mr. Chairman, it makes no sense to place American families and farmers who rely on a farm bill at risk in order to carry out what I believe is a hateful, demeaning, and partisan agenda. I strongly oppose this sham of a farm bill.
DD: When you think about the Department of Agriculture, you think about farm policy, but actually, SNAP is the main thing that it does. The vast majority of the budget of the USDA goes towards delivering nutrition assistance. If Fudge was chosen to lead the Agriculture Department, which is what she wanted, and what the Congressional Black Caucus was pushing for, it would really be a rethink of how you understand the Department of Agriculture.
Instead, Biden had this existing relationship with Tom Vilsack, who served two terms as Agriculture Secretary under Obama. I guess it goes all the way back to 1988. The first time Biden ran for president and Vilsack was the mayor of Mount Pleasant, Iowa, a small town, and he endorsed him, that loyalty took precedence over this idea around diversity and rethinking the Agriculture Department.
Of course, Vilsack has been vilified by both Black farmers and family farmers for contributing to the destruction of family farm agriculture in favor of agribusiness; he was a dairy lobbyist for the last four years, making about $1 million per year. And now there is Marcia Fudge, who wanted to be Agriculture Secretary and they’re wondering what they can do to sort of, I guess, placate her, and they give her the Housing and Urban Development department, where she is not on the relevant committees. She was a mayor of a majority Black city in the Cleveland area, and she clearly has some understanding of housing, but certainly not at a deep level. So this whole idea that Biden is going to create this experienced cabinet falls down when they’re throwing out consolation prizes to people who get cut out of line by loyal soldiers of Biden over his career.
JS: My colleague Ryan Grim recently published this video chat that Joe Biden had with NAACP officials and others where the Vilsack nomination was one of the major points of contention on that call.
Derrick Johnson: If you consider the victory that you appreciated in Georgia, it was around 12,000 votes. And so as you consider appointments, you also must consider what impact would that have on voters in the state of Georgia. And I would submit to you that former Secretary Vilsack could have a disastrous impact on voters in Georgia.
DD: And Biden pushed back on that.
JB: Well, first of all, you’ll learn more about Vilsack’s record, but my point is this —
DD: But we’ve seen what he does. [Laughs.] You know, he was there for eight years. So this whole puzzle piece way that they’re putting together the cabinet, using diversity, but also making room for cronies and friends. It’s just leading to a very haphazard and sometimes cringeworthy scenario. When you have Susan Rice, who is been a foreign policy expert her entire career, being named to run the Domestic Policy Council; when you have Denis McDonough, who was chief of staff to Obama and a longtime staffer, but always on the national security side of things being named the Secretary of Veterans Affairs when he has no deep expertise in either veterans issues or the healthcare system, which obviously the biggest thing the VA does is the VA healthcare system.
JS: A lot of progressives, including some people on Capitol Hill, were mobilizing against Michèle Flournoy. On the other side of it, you end up getting General Lloyd Austin who, you know, much of the focus is about how he’s going to need a waiver. But what I’m more concerned about is when this guy was the commander of U.S. Central Command, was at sort of one of the major heights of the Obama-Biden kill machine, where you had this intensifying of the Saudi genocidal war in Yemen, you had intense military posturing and action in Syria, you had an expansion of special operations forces, and airstrikes in Iraq and elsewhere. It is always a thing of: be careful what you wish for. On the one hand, you kill this nomination of this neoconservative Hillary Clinton-Democrat Michèle Fluornoy. On the other end of it, you get someone whose entire worldview is about hammers looking for nails to whack.
DD: And then you know what happens when General Austin leaves the military, he immediately goes out and joins the board of Raytheon — Raytheon was one of the top defense contractors — and also he joins the board of Nucor steel, which supplies a lot of the raw materials for weapons and weapon systems. So this is someone that is just as conflicted as Fluornoy was.
But Austin, one thing that’s interesting about Austin, is that in this debate about whether to give him a waiver or not to give him a waiver, the individuals that you hear that are willing to go ahead and grant the waiver are people who are usually associated with the more pacifist wing of the Democratic Party, people like Rep. Ro Khanna and Bernie Sanders. And there’s this sense that Austin is less devoted to the warmongering neocon cause than maybe some alternatives like Flournoy was. There’s I guess, a pretty notable hearing that Austin had back when John McCain was alive, where he shied away from talking about regime change in Syria, and McCain just sort of balled him out and said that this is outrageous that you wouldn’t be on my side on this.
General Lloyd Austin: It will take a ground force to be able to protect refugees if we do this—
Sen. John McCain: Would you support a buffer zone, which would then protect some of these refugees who are being barrel-bombed and slaughtered by Bashar Assad?
LA: I don’t see the force available to be able to protect them currently, sir. So I would not recommend it at this point in time.
JM: So we wouldn’t be able to shoot down Bashar Assad’s aircraft as they barrel-bomb and slaughter innocent men, women, and children.
DD: So there are signs that Austin might be a better fit certainly than Flournoy. But you also have sort of the opposite of that with the things that you were talking about, and also his dash for cash after leaving the Pentagon and going right into the military industrial complex.
JS: For all of the talk about the kind of grift and corruption that took place under Trump over these four years, Biden seems to be pretty dedicated to greasing the wheels of that revolving door so that it spins faster in the direction of his administration. I mean, his nominees, so many of them are people who have just cashed in on their government service and made tremendous amounts of money. And now coming right back into government.
DD: You certainly have a number of Obama administration expats who have been named to top positions, and many of them spun right out of the Obama administration into the private sector, and now are coming back. There are two major economic policy nominees, Brian Deese, who will run the National Economic Council, and Wally Adeyemo, who will be the number two at the Treasury Department, both of them worked for BlackRock, which is the world’s largest asset manager, has about $7 trillion assets under management. It has been a primary actor in the deforestation of the Amazon, for example. It has significant coal investments, fossil fuel investments in the oil and gas sector as well. And Deese’s job there was supposed to be to green BlackRock, really. Really what his job was to sort of apologize and make excuses for what BlackRock continues to do. That’s certainly one of the more concerning parts of the Biden cabinet that we know right now.
JS: It does seem that the Biden strategy is to sort of go for the identity politics wing of discussion about diversity and, as incoming congressman Jamaal Bowman of New York has pointed out, not much in the way of ideological diversity.
Jamaal Bowman: I think ideological diversity is most key here. And we need to make sure that President-elect Joe Biden is picking as many progressives to his cabinet as possible.
DD: They have definitely foregrounded identity over ideology. I’ve been able to see the application for sub-cabinet-level positions, applying for jobs within the Biden-Harris administration. And there are a significant number of questions on that questionnaire about identity — not just gender, and race, but whether or not you were a first generation immigrant, for example; all of these are voluntary questions. That is the main thrust there of that application relative to what are your top-five policy beliefs for the position that you want to be part of, right? And sometimes that can be even weaponized.
So Deb Haaland, who’s a Congresswoman from New Mexico, who is being touted for the Interior Department position, and has most of the tribal support behind her, there was whispering that she’s not experienced enough to do the job, she doesn’t have executive management experience, even though she ran the New Mexico Democratic Party, and they found somebody else who is also an enrolled member of a tribe. His name is Michael Connor, and he was formerly a deputy at the Interior Department but he’s now a lawyer for Wilmer Hale, which is one of the top defense firms, law firms in the country. He’s represented mining interests. This would be someone that would be in control of leasing public lands for oil, gas, or mining, or whatever.
So you’re seeing that they’re trying to find people who exhibit these identitarian qualities, but also may have really bad ideas but they would be able to sort of hide behind that identity presenting themselves to the broader Democratic Caucus and within Congress.
JS: I just want to run through a couple of names to get your sort of quick, thumbnail sketch take of these nominees.
Janet Yellen for Treasury secretary?
DD: She certainly is more of a labor economist, comes out of UC Berkeley, which has this very progressive labor economics department, is more concerned about wages and I think will be someone who will want to boost fiscal policy to recover from the pandemic. In general, I think that’s one of the better choices that Biden has made.
JS: Xavier Becerra as the Health and Human Services nominee?
DD: Becerra has a pretty good experience in this department. He was on the Health Subcommittee of House Ways and Means when he was a House member. As attorney general, he pursued a really important lawsuit against Sutter Health, which is a concentrated — almost a monopoly — health network up in Northern California. And it’s why prices for medical treatment are much higher in Northern California than they are in Southern California because of this consolidated hospital network. So Becerra, I think, has an understanding of that; He’s a longtime supporter of Medicare for All.
Xavier Becerra: Oh, absolutely. I’ve been a supporter of Medicare for All for the 24 years that I was in Congress. This year, as attorney general, I would fight for that if we had an opportunity to put that forward in the state of California. Because I think what we do is we give people that certainty that they’re going to be able to access a doctor or a hospital.
JS: There are still a number of very crucial cabinet-level and top posts open on Biden’s team: attorney general, secretaries of labor, transportation, energy, education, the administrator of the EPA. Give us a sense of the discussion that you’re hearing around some of those future nominees.
DD: I think there’s an interest in getting Doug Jones to be attorney general. This is the former senator from Alabama who lost his seat in 2020. Again, there’s a history here. He ran the state campaign in Alabama for Biden in 1988. So once again, you know, going back decades is how Biden looks to these things in terms of finding loyal soldiers.
But Jones actually might be a pretty good choice. He has a strong civil rights record as a U.S. Attorney. He prosecuted the case against the KKK members who bombed that church in Birmingham where the four little girls in 1963 were killed.
As far as Education, Biden has talked about having a public school teacher be that position. Lily Eskelsen Garcia, the former head of the National Education Association Union, is seen as the top pick.
For all the haphazardness, for all of the slotting people into bad fits of the Biden transition and strangeness of this cabinet, it’s probably going to net out as a more progressive cabinet than Barack Obama’s, which was an extremely orderly process — so orderly that it was chosen before he was even elected.
There’s a famous WikiLeaks email from Michael Froman, who was a Citigroup executive at that time, that listed out here’s who I think should be the heads of all the key positions, and it was uncannily accurate. And it was sent in October of 2008, one month before the election.
You know, when you think about Tim Geithner, when you think about Larry Summers, Eric Holder, Arne Duncan, who was a pro-charter school guy at Education, you’re probably going to get this cabinet to be, you know, a couple ticks to the left of the Obama cabinet, which is strange to say, maybe. But it reflects Biden’s desire to at least listen to progressives — maybe not give them the exact people they want — but try to be a conciliator and pick people that are a little bit acceptable to broad segments of the party.
JS: You know, in a lot of the discussions that take place right now it’s Biden’s cabinet. What is Biden saying? What is Biden doing? I mean, Kamala Harris is without a doubt the most important nominee that Biden chose, and she now is the vice president-elect. She definitely was someone that the Hillary Clinton world was very invested in as she launched her run against Biden and others for president. What are your thoughts about the role that Kamala Harris is playing right now, and sort of her strategizing for the future?
DD: Certainly becoming vice president confers this legitimacy on the national stage. That is publicity that is hard to beat.
Kamala Harris has definitely positioned herself quite well. And I think that all she’s trying to do right now is be as loyal as humanly possible to slot in right behind Biden so that she can draft off, you know, his presidency and hopefully make a run herself.
I think there’s been one interesting thing that has been done during this transition and that is that her sister, Maya Harris, who was actually the policy director for Hillary Clinton, Maya Harris has been, I guess, involved in pushing her husband, who is a guy named Tony West to get a top slot, maybe Attorney General. And that’s been published that she was involved in sort of lobbying the transition over this.
Now, Tony West was number three in the Justice Department under Obama, but he currently serves as Uber’s chief legal officer. If you look at Prop 22 out here in California and Uber essentially, buying labor law, spending hundreds of millions of dollars on a ballot measure, and you look at the role of large tech firms and how disfavored they are becoming — we have lawsuits against Facebook and against Google now on antitrust violations — to try to elevate someone who’s Uber’s top lawyer to run the Department of Justice is pretty audacious and it’s even more audacious for that individual’s wife to be lobbying on his behalf, especially when she’s also the sister of the vice president-elect. That got shot down pretty quickly by the Biden transition, especially in the wake of having people like Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner involved in the administration; to have anything that smacks of nepotism I think is going to be pushed very far aside in a Biden administration. I mean, I think that’s been the only real misstep from Harris. I think she’s just sort of waiting around for her turn and hoping that it comes for her as soon as possible.
JS: David Dayen, I want to thank you very much for being with us here again on Intercepted. And I really encourage people to put Dave’s work on your radar if it isn’t already. He’s doing really some of the best work that could possibly be done in this chaotic transitional period. So David Dayen, thank you very much for being with us.
DD: Absolutely. My pleasure.
JS: David Dayen is the executive editor of The American Prospect. He writes a daily Covid-19 report called “Unsanitized.” You can find that at prospect.org. You can also sign up at prospect.org to get “Unsanitized” as an email newsletter. David has a new book out; it’s called “Monopolized: Life in the Age Of Corporate Power.”
JS: And that does it for this week’s show. You can follow us on Twitter @Intercepted and Instagram @InterceptedPodcast. 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 Lucy Kroening and Emily Kennedy. Our music, as always, was composed by DJ Spooky.
Until next time, I’m Jeremy Scahill.