It’s become a familiar pattern for West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin: First, announce your opposition to one of President Joe Biden’s legislative priorities. Second, extract some concessions on the theory that this will attract Republican support. Finally, announce that you’ve had a change of heart and can support the bill, which is of course meaningless since the longed-for Republican votes never materialize and no floor vote ever happens. Now Manchin appears to be doing the same old dance with Biden’s budget plan. Whatever the merits of this political strategy, it has certainly turned Manchin into the most talked-about senator among D.C. pundits. But who is he really, and what do West Virginians think of him? Stephen Smith, founder of West Virginia Can’t Wait, joins Ryan Grim to discuss his state’s senior senator.
Ryan Grim: Since being elected to the Senate in a special election in 2010, when he replaced the late Bob Byrd, Sen. Joe Manchin has displayed a noticeable pattern. Whenever Congress is in the midst of intense negotiation over some important piece of legislation, whether it’s on voting rights, filibuster reform, healthcare, or the $3.5 trillion package that’s being negotiated right now, Manchin periodically appears on TV or in an op-ed somewhere to say that he’s opposed to whatever Democrats are working on.
Newscaster: West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin says he opposes the For the People Act.
Sen. Joe Manchin: I think it’s the wrong piece of legislation to bring our country together and unite our country. And I’m not supporting that because I think it would divide us further.
RG: This earns him a day or two of media coverage. Then, later, he has a mild change of heart and suggests that with this or that concession, maybe he could see his way to getting on board.
Newscaster: Democrats are suddenly open to a compromise offered by Joe Manchin of West Virginia.
Anderson Cooper: Manchin’s proposal would include Republican-friendly priorities like voter ID.
RG: And then by the end, he finds it in his heart to get on board with his party.
Newscaster: Joe Manchin announced that he will vote with Democrats to bring the bill to the floor for a debate, standing in the united front with his party.
RG: It’s become such a recognizable pattern that when Manchin declared his opposition to the Biden budget plan last week in The Wall Street Journal, he tried to get ahead of the skepticism that all this was just for show, beginning one paragraph in column this way: “For those who will dismiss my unwillingness to support a $3.5 trillion bill as political posturing …”
Now, if you have to include a line like that in your statement — no, really, I’m serious this time! — it might be a sign you’ve gone a bit overboard on dramatically inserting yourself into too many of these situations.
But this latest one, I’d argue, is by far the most important. If Manchin manages to slash the reconciliation package down to nothing, or he tanks it entirely, the Democratic Party’s last opportunity to reshape the social safety net will have slipped away. With Republicans poised to take the House and then gerrymander their way to a durable majority, it’s hard to predict when another chance will arrive. But Manchin tried a similar tack in February with Biden’s previous relief package, and only came away with a few small cuts to unemployment benefits. If that’s the direction this goes, the course of history will be altered.
So who is this man who’s amassed so much power to shape events?
Well, first of all, Joe Manchin is not just Joe Manchin: He’s Joe Manchin III. The first Joe Manchin owned a grocery store in Farmington, West Virginia, near southwestern Pennsylvania, and served as the mayor of the town. Two of his sons became politicians: Joe Manchin, Jr. became mayor and he owned a furniture and carpet store; A. James Manchin served in the House of Delegates, and as secretary of state and the state treasurer.
So when Joe Manchin III ran for House of Delegates in 1982, he had a number of considerable advantages. Once in office, he did what many West Virginia elected officials have decided to do over the years: He started a coal company. In 1987, he founded the coal brokerage firms Enersystems and Farmington Resources Inc. Today, he still owns and profits from those companies, though they are officially run by his son, Joe Manchin IV. All of this is detailed in a recent investigation in The Intercept by Daniel Boguslaw called, “Joe Manchin’s Dirty Empire.”
I’ll be joined in a moment by Stephen Noble Smith, co-founder of the group West Virginia Can’t Wait. Smith ran for governor in 2020, losing in the Democratic primary by five points. We’ll talk about Manchin’s career, and his first and only major setback, his loss in the 1996 democratic primary for West Virginia governor to Democrat Charlotte Pritt. Pritt remains convinced that Manchin’s support of her Republican opponent in the general election cost her the race, and as a result, reshaped partisan politics in the state, giving Republicans a foot in the door after generations of being locked out. For more on that race, check out Andrew Cockburn’s Harper’s Magazine story titled “The Enemy Within.”
So he lost in 1996, but in 2000, Manchin was elected secretary of state, and in 2004 he won his first of two terms as governor. While he was governor, his daughter Heather Bresch was moving up the ranks at the homegrown firm Mylan Pharmaceuticals, and in 2007 was named chief operating officer.
The local Pittsburgh Post-Gazette quickly reported that Bresch had not gotten a master’s degree from West Virginia University as she had previously claimed, and it led to a major scandal when the school corrected the paper and claimed she did, in fact, have one. An investigation found the university had fabricated grades in order to award the degree. A bunch of its top officials resigned, yet Bresch’s rise up the corporate ladder continued.
In 2012, her mother, Gayle Manchin, became head of the National Association of State Boards of Education, and began lobbying for schools to be required to stock EpiPens, according to a later investigation by USA Today. The maker of EpiPen, of course, is Mylan, and by then Bresch was the CEO.
Bresch had spent the two years prior to that boxing out EpiPen competitors, and then embarked on a plan called Project X2, in which Mylan eliminated its single EpiPen product, using its monopoly to force customers to buy not one, but two at a time. She drove the price from under $100 to well over $600. For more details on that scandal, see our new reporting from earlier this week in The Intercept.
In 2019, she sold the company to Pfizer, and pocketed more than $30 million in an exit package. The same month she left, West Virginians got some bad news:
Newscaster: People here in Morgantown waking up to some tough economic news this morning. It turns out that the Mylan manufacturing plant here is set to close its doors permanently next year. That means about 1,400 people will be losing their jobs.
RG: In 2019, Charleston native Stephen Noble Smith launched West Virginia Can’t Wait, an organization that recruited and ran hundreds of populist candidates for office up and down the ballot, across the state, in both parties. He joins us now to explain this strange and almost heavenly place called West Virginia.
Steven, welcome to Deconstructed.
Stephen Noble Smith: Thanks so much for having me on.
RG: No, thank you for being here.
So what’s the understanding of Sen. Joe Manchin, back in West Virginia? And I suppose there are multiple understandings of him. But if you’re a typical, casual voter, who is Sen. Joe Manchin to you today?
SNS: First, let me just thank you for asking a West Virginian. [Laughs.]
SNS: Because there’s a lot of pontificating on that question. But it’s really simple. So here’s a secret that every West Virginian knows: Joe Manchin, Shelley Moore Capito, our entire congressional delegation, they do not represent the working people of West Virginia. They never have. They never will. And that’s because — and everyday voters and non-voters in West Virginia know this — you don’t win high office in West Virginia because you’re a servant of the people. You win high office in West Virginia, because you serve Exxon, because you serve out-of-state landowners, bankers, and corporate lawyers.
And so the understanding of most of us here is that: Here’s another politician, sometimes they put a D after their name, sometimes they put an R, but at the end of the day —
RG: Sometimes both.
SNS: Yeah. And at the end of the day, it’s just dollar signs. And I think that’s what’s frustrating for a lot of us here is that outsiders will look and say: Oh, well, eventually, they’re going to have to listen to the Facebook ads and the phone calls and the pressuring. And these people don’t listen to or respond to facts or science. They don’t respond to the will of their voters. They respond to power. And that’s what our job is, as West Virginia Can’t Wait, is we’re building that credible threat that can oust leaders of both parties who are more interested in serving those giant donors.
RG: And so we at The Intercept wrote last weekend a story by Daniel Boguslaw about Manchin’s coal empire. Because in Washington, it never seems to break through that Manchin doesn’t just kind of represent people who work in the coal industry or represent owners of coal mines, but he himself is deeply financially entangled with the coal industry. That’s where the bulk of his fortune comes from, and continues to come from. He gets ongoing income from his coal brokerage empire. He has said that he has put it into a blind trust. But if it’s just a business, and you know what the business does, it’s not clear what the purpose of the blind trust is. And it’s now officially run by his son.
So how commonly known is it, in West Virginia, that he is and has been for a long time, a coal broker? And what does that do to people’s understanding of his politics?
SNS: I think it’s very well known. For most West Virginians, we know that’s the point. That’s the reason these people go into politics, is to get wealthy. It’s clearly not to serve the public good; it’s to make a little extra scratch. And there’s a long tradition in West Virginia of entering public office as a middle class or upper-middle class person and leaving very wealthy. That’s the deal you cut.
And so I think the way this shows up in West Virginia politics often is just in the very low voter turnout, that we see that people have rightly, rationally, given up on solutions from both political parties because they see what a scam it is. They see how corrupt it is.
RG: And Harper’s Magazine took a look at Joe Manchin’s career recently and dug up a little nugget that when he was in the state legislature, he started in the early 1980s, one of the first things he did was held hostage a bill that was intended to curb hospital costs, because he was pushing for this obscure measure that would favor physical therapists. And it turned out that one of his uncles was a physical therapist.
And people have been seeing that kind of thing in West Virginia from a lot of different politicians. It’s a small state; everybody knows each other. And so what is the political cost of that type of politics?
SNS: There isn’t any. And it’s because it’s incredibly hard — and this has been true throughout American history, not just West Virginia history — to build a lasting political infrastructure that is not in some way controlled by the very wealthy. And that’s our project here. It’s why we don’t think that one party is the answer. And I don’t think it’s unique to West Virginia. We’re celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Blair Mountain right now. And this is the bloodiest labor conflict in American history where coal miners went up against coal executives, and Baldwin-Felts Agents and eventually the federal government, risking their lives because there were no political solutions available to them.
We saw the same basic dynamic play out three years ago in the teacher strike, that if you want something done in West Virginia politics, and you aren’t wealthy, or you aren’t part of one of 10 different families, you have very few options, you can either do it for yourself, which is what most of us do, or lean on our neighbors, or you can organize a credible threat. And that’s incredibly hard to do. And there’s a lot of roadblocks to that.
But we also think it’s possible that folks are angry, and frustrated, and, in some ways, desperate enough that we’re seeing the beginnings of that kind of work. Western Virginia Can’t Wait started in the end of 2018, and in the last two years, we’ve recruited trained, and supported 110 candidates for office: pro-labor, no corporate cash, never hide from a debate, disproportionately working class, disproportionately women, disproportionately people of color, and LGBTQ candidates. And that’s reason for hope! But it’s not going to be easy, and it’s not going to happen in one election cycle.
RG: And so in 1996, Manchin ran for governor, [and] ended up losing the Democratic primary to Charlotte Pritt. Can you talk a little bit about that race and his unusual role that he then played in the general election?
SNS: Sure. I mean, a lot of this is rumor and speculation, but I think it’s pretty well understood that Manchin went for the gubernatorial nomination in the Democratic Party against Charlotte Pritt. Charlotte Pritt beat him in the primary as the more pro-labor, pro-working class candidate, and then Manchin helped spearhead an operation called, essentially, “Democrats for” her opponent.
People disagree about how public it was and how effective that particular tactic was, but Underwood won a very slim race against Pritt and it created the groundwork for the rest of his political career spent undermining the interests of working people on behalf of, or in service to, his own political career.
I think one other interesting thing to learn from that situation is this idea that those in power in West Virginia only listen to power, they only listen to threats. That, notably after that race, Manchin, it’s one of the very few times in his career where he actually moved politically, and became less anti-labor. Still not a pro-labor guy, but he abandoned some of the more outward support of right-to-work, for instance. This is a guy who’s been a proud ALEC member for the last 20 years. But after that election, because of the threat to his own political future, he moderated his positions on being an unapologetic anti-labor candidate, and you saw him, for the rest of his career, be more careful when it came to including organized labor.
But the lesson for West Virginians is the only way to move or persuade an establishment politician is to threaten to replace them. And that’s the work we’re after.
RG: So then he ends up becoming Secretary of State. He wins that in 2000. And then in 2004, he finally does become governor. What kind of governor was he?
SNS: [Laughs.] I mean, I hate to sound like a broken record, but he’s never hidden who he’s served.
So I mean, a couple of highlights or lowlights, if you want to call him that, one is that he successfully, proudly passed with a Democratic majority in both chambers, the largest corporate tax break in West Virginia history, setting up what would later become huge deficits that hurt public education and public health. But at the time, he celebrated these huge amounts of money — new money! It’s not like we weren’t serving corporations well before that. This was new money on top of the old money going to corporate interests.
Another defining moment of his governorship was getting an obscene amount of money in the federal stimulus in the early Obama years to build broadband infrastructure. And instead of doing what would have been the obvious thing, which is to build some sort of public infrastructure that could then lead to competition among private companies, they basically just wrote a giant check to private companies to build their own infrastructure. It was a boondoggle. It was a sweetheart deal. And that’s the kind of government we see over and over again.
RG: How is the internet there now?
SNS: Well, it’s not great! [Laughs.] Luckily, our call hasn’t been interrupted yet. But there’s a decent chance that it will be. And, you know, we joke about it, but it’s not a joke. The consequences of this kind of governing are real and severe.
Right now, there is death and pain everywhere in West Virginia: historically high rates of overdose deaths, and suicide, and mental illness. We’re living through the most concerning HIV outbreak in the United States in my hometown of Charleston, in part because you’ve got a generation of Manchin Democrats criminalizing harm reduction. I mean, this is real, real consequences. And it’s not new, and it’s not going to be fixed in a hurry.
RG: So, in his second term, his daughter, Heather Bresch, was promoted to chief operating officer at Mylan pharmaceuticals. Can you talk a bit a little bit about what Mylan is in in the context of West Virginia, and a little bit about the scandal then that emerged when the the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette flagged for its readers that she had been claiming to have a master’s degree from West Virginia University that she didn’t actually have?
SNS: Yeah. So Mylan’s place in West Virginia politics and economy has changed over the years, as has happened to any number of small and medium-sized businesses, homegrown businesses that then get the multinational corporate treatment, right?
So Mylan Pharmaceuticals started off as a really proud family business that employed a lot of people and made a lot of generics to help people’s lives better. And then, as happened throughout the pharmaceutical industry, it was eventually overtaken and stripped of its desire to do good in the world and became an engine to try to exploit pain and death in much the same way that coal and natural gas companies had been doing for 100 years prior.
And the evisceration of that tradition of public service that I think was real at Mylan for years, coincides largely with the rise of Heather Bresch’s CEO. And there’s the scandal you mentioned of the fake business degree she received. But the far greater scandal is, of course, the one that you all have been reporting on, which is to take a life-saving drug, to then squeeze out the only competition pretty directly and unapologetically, and then just for pure profit motives, to then double the amount in each pack so they could sell it even more. It’s just disgusting and the kind of corporate practice that has become the norm in West Virginia and around the country. We’ve let corporate interest in both parties capture the political system.
RG: And the story we did this week really had documentary evidence. It puts her front and center playing a direct role in this EpiPen price scandal. But Mylan’s involvement, and her being the CEO, was not a mystery. This was something that has been known for a long time. Is it something that has penetrated the West Virginia consciousness and has Manchin ever paid a public price for it?
SNS: I think the answer to both those questions is yes. It’s commonly known in West Virginia. At various times Manchin has had his feet brought to the coals as a result of it. But, again, that’s the cost of doing business for these families, right? For the Manchins and the Capitos of the world, you survive a few scandals and, on the back end, you, your family, everyone you care about is taken care of. This is the deal throughout West Virginia history: The pain and death of the majority has been profited off of by a slim majority of out-of-state owners and the political lackeys that they own in-state.
And so, you know, he’s allowed to — they’re allowed to — stay in power, because the work of challenging that kind of concentrated power is an awfully hard thing to do. And, frankly, made harder by a national political landscape that couldn’t give a damn about West Virginia and treats us as such, looking down on us through the stereotypes of hillbillies, and rednecks; assuming that we are too stupid to vote in favor of our own interests; I could go on and on — none of this will be news to anyone listening to this. But there’s a long and powerful tradition in the state of people fighting back. And it doesn’t help when the national news is convinced that we are our own problem, or somehow we’re doing this to ourselves.
RG: And so you mentioned that the national progressive groups that are going to pump West Virginia full of Facebook ads, or whatever else, to try to pressure Manchin are misguided and that’s not going to move him. So what does move Joe Manchin?
SNS: By our calculations, there have been three times in his career at best, where he’s moved on an issue that matters to working-class people, and every single time was because of a direct political threat.
I mentioned the example of losing to Charlotte Pritt. As U.S. Senator, he’s been a vocal advocate on behalf of miners’ pensions, and it’s no surprise that that has come with an endorsement and huge support at the ballot box by the UMWA. (Notably, Shelley Moore Capito also supported those same pensions and also received the same endorsement)
And then, during the Affordable Care Act fight, Manchin moved from being a pretty safe “No” vote on the ACA, or a vote in favor of repealing the ACA, to voting to protect it. But that was only in response to real grassroots work done by a whole bunch of organizations and groups on the ground. This was right after the Trump election, where there were all these resistance organizations cropping up, even in rural West Virginia. There were 32-some-odd of these groups. And we and other folks were driving real money, and training, and political support to these tiny little formations around the state. And it was in direct response to the growing power outside of his sphere of influence that we saw him move.
And so that’s the answer. It doesn’t come from advocacy, or ads or, well-reasoned arguments — certainly not alone. It comes from building credible political threats.
And so there’s a few ways to do that: One is to get money and resources to grassroots organizers and constituencies that are currently kept out of the political process. You add up enough folks who are kept out of the political process, and you’ve got a real shot of bending the political system. So that’s one way.
Another way is by recruiting and supporting candidates for office, which is, of course, a big part of what we do as well. We don’t care what office you’re running for. We don’t care what letter you have next to your name or no letter, we want to back the people who are interested in governing in a way that chooses the side of reducing the harm rather than profiting off of it.
And then it comes from just raising real money and building real political infrastructure, election by election, town by town, county by county, and you do enough of those things and you’re able to challenge — we’re able to challenge — the machines of both parties downballot and then eventually work our way up.
RG: To make a strong enough political threat against Manchin to move him in time for the reconciliation package, which is why everybody cares about King Manchin at this particular moment, kind of requires you to know what Manchin wants politically: What does he see for his own future? You hear a lot of people say that he wants to run for governor again. He’s up for Senate re-election in 2024. He won by more in 2012 than he won in 2018, despite 2018 being a big Democratic year. There could be other political opportunities for him, maybe in a cabinet or somewhere else. There are also private sector opportunities if he wants those.
What’s your understanding of what Manchin wants out of the rest of his career? And how does that factor into your strategy to influence him?
SNS: I think the first thing I want to say is: I don’t want to get anybody’s hopes up. There are a lot of folks out there who are riding the Manchin gravy train right now, and there’s a lot of press and news stories trying to figure out the psychology of this one person. I think, unfortunately, although it’s not a surprise, folks should be really sober about the chances of moving a 30-year political machine in a matter of days or weeks.
SNS: And that part of the problem is the psychologizing and the gamesmanship, that Washington-insider mentality that thinks that this is some game of personalities.
Manchin is a symptom; the disease is greed and corruption. And so I think the first thing I want to say is: This isn’t, we don’t believe, a situation where a few clever moves are going to work. That the only shot — and it’s a long shot — is to invest in the people on the ground in West Virginia who are directly opposed to his political project, not who are trying to make him look like the hero, not who are trying to beg and plead or make the nice argument, but people who are challenging his power that.
And folks can do that. Anyone can find us online. My cell phone is 304-610-6512. We’re happy to talk with folks that are interested in that project of building and investing in long-term power that challenges him on the ground here in West Virginia.
But I think the far greater risk is that a lot of the activity and posture around Manchin right now is actually doing the opposite: It’s actually making him stronger, it’s actually increasing his opportunities. We saw recently an article in the Gazette-Mail that showed just the outlandish fundraising success he’s had in the last few months, I mean, by something like a factor of 10 over a similar time during the last election cycle, he’s just raising money hand over fist, his influence is rising in part from groups that are buying into this notion that he can be moved here or there, that capital can be moved here or there. And that rather than falling for that promise, we hope that people will instead say: How can we challenge him? How can we work to replace him? And knowing that it’s our best chance of moving him now, as slim a chance as that might be.
But whether we win or lose right now in any individual fight, hopefully, if we do this kind of work, this kind of long-term base building that threatens his political base, then at the end of the day, what we have is not another generation of Manchins and Capitos. And that we think is the real hope and the real risk of all of this obsession and attention that Manchin is gathering these days.
RG: And you’ve been building this infrastructure and building statewide power for a couple of years now to the point where there’s a sizable — not a majority, but a sizable base across the state that supports the idea of West Virginia Can’t Wait.
When you look at the numbers that you’ve been able to amass, Manchin would need every single one of those, pretty much, in order to continue his own political career. Is there leverage in that? Or is it not a credible threat to say that the people that supported this movement, the West Virginia Can’t Wait movement, if Manchin destroys the Biden agenda, then those people will work to destroy him? Or is there not the kind of organization and credibility behind that threat yet?
SNS: I think it’s the best shot we have. Again, I don’t want to sell what we’re doing as a quick fix. We’re going to do what we need to do so that whether it’s 2022, or 2024, or 2026, or 2028, or 2030, or 10 years after that, we’re ready to keep growing in power. And, of course, it’s not hard for us to say that we won’t support Manchin and we won’t support Capito. We’ve never backed a corporate candidate. And we’ve backed 110 people for office on both sides of the aisle, and independents, and third party, including 15 people who are in office right now governing. And so, in that regard, yeah, I think it’s our best shot. But I don’t think it’s a one for one.
And the more important thing is the thing we do with that money, right? We started this website: ReplaceJoeManchin.com. But I think what’s helpful is to see: Where does that money go? And: What does it look like to build power? Because it’s something organizers say a lot.
Let me give you an example. So here in Charleston, I mentioned, this is a city that’s facing the largest HIV, most concerning HIV outbreak in the United States, Covid deaths — I mean, it’s just brutal — police brutality. And we have a Democratic majority in our city council, but it’s a corporate majority in our city council. So we’re running an effort right now to build our own vision, our own platform for the City of Charleston, West Virginia. We are reaching out doing door-to-door canvases, you know, socially distanced, outdoor town halls, phone-banking emails, and online surveys.
But our people also were really serious that one of our main projects — as we recruit and train people for office, as we challenge the Manchin machine locally — is also to increase the pool of people who vote and to reach folks who have been left out of the political process. So we hand-wrote letters to every person sitting in the Regional Jail, who’s a resident of Charleston, West Virginia, and said: “What do you want from the City of Charleston? What would encourage you to get out to vote? What would you want to see from a platform? Who do you think should run for office? Have you ever thought about running for office?” And that kind of work, the intentional long-term interest, base-building, recruitment, organizing of people with criminal records and people who’ve been charged with a crime and people who are living in cages right now, and people who are living on the street and wage workers who are, you know, working three, four jobs just to try to get by, people in recovery, who are tired of government, leaving them out of the solution, that work takes enormous time, and effort, and patience, and isn’t so much tied to what Washington is crowing about this week. And that is the work that will ultimately replace Manchin and Capito, and it’s not sexy, and it’s not a quick fix.
RG: So last question, but knowing Manchin as well as you do, how would you guess that he’s going to operate over the next couple weeks and months, with regard to this reconciliation package?
SNS: Yeah. I’m gonna predict the future. And it’s not hard, because it’s going to be exactly the same thing that’s happened for the last year and the last 20 or 30 years before that. He is going to go back and forth in the media. One week, he’ll say he’s not going to support it, the next week, he’ll say: Well, I might support it, if I do this. Then he’s gonna say: I’m definitely not gonna support that. Then he’s gonna say: But maybe this!
And, at the end of the process, he will have successfully stayed in the media and at the top of the minds of journalists and reporters. He will have positioned himself as the great dealmaker, and he will have successfully harmed, hurt, and undermined the people of West Virginia in favor of the more modest, more greedy goals of the people who actually sign his checks, the corporate bankers and lawyers.
That’s what’s going to happen over the next few weeks and months, and we’ll watch it again, and again, and again, and again until the people of West Virginia do what we need to do and what we’ve been doing for a while, which is to amass enough power to oust him.
RG: Well, Manchin did successfully sucker me into covering him, but it gave me an opportunity to talk with you. And I really appreciate that. Thank you for joining me.
SNS: Oh, it’s my pleasure. And please keep covering him! I’m comfortable criticizing the media broadly, which treats this as some sort of adorable chess match. But what y’all do differently, and we appreciate, is lifting up the stories of people and the effect that this corruption has on the people of West Virginia. So keep it up,
RG: It’ll be our pleasure. Thanks so much.
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RG: That was Stephen Smith, and that’s our show.
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