This week’s Georgia Senate runoff gives Democrats a 51-49 majority in the upper chamber. Raphael Warnock raised a staggering $175 million this cycle to take on former football star Herschel Walker, all of which translated into a relatively slim 3-percentage-point victory on election day. Georgia Republican political operative Brian Robinson and Intercept contributor George Chidi join Ryan Grim to discuss the election.
[Deconstructed theme music.]
Ryan Grim: Welcome to Deconstructed, I’m Ryan Grim.
In the last few weeks leading up to Tuesday’s runoff, we learned that Herschel Walker had told an audience while he was campaigning that he actually lives in Texas, and separately told a crowd that he was running for the House of Representatives.
In fact, he was running for a Georgia Senate seat, and on Tuesday he lost, which means Democrats will be heading into 2023 with a 51-seat majority courtesy of Raphael Warnock.
Newscaster: Democrats have tightened their grip on the U.S. Senate after Raphael Warnock defeated Republican challenger Herschel Walker in Georgia
Newscaster: Sen. Raphael Warnock’s victory in Georgia is a crucial win for President Biden’s agenda over the next two years.
RG: Warnock’s victory caps off a pretty impressive cycle for Democrats who were able to defend every Senate seat they had on the ballot and even picked up the open seat in Pennsylvania.
With Biden’s win in Georgia in 2020, and two Democrats representing in the Senate, many in the media are heralding George’s arrival on the electoral map as a bonafide purple state.
Newscaster: Some have suggested that Georgia may be turning purple
Newscaster: What shade of purple has Georgia turned? Can we now definitively say that Georgia is a purple state?
Newscaster: It is a purple state without question.
Newscaster: It looks like it’s pretty purple at this point.
Newscaster: Yes, it is a purple state right now.
RG: But it’s not quite that simple. As one of my next guests says, Georgia is actually still a red state, but with blue characteristics. It took Warnock an inconceivable amount of money — $175 million — to win a race against a guy who seemed not to know what chamber he was running for.
Walker had less than half that and it was still too close for comfort. So is all the purple talk overblown?
I’m joined now by two guests who know just about everything and everyone in Georgia politics. Brian Robinson is a veteran Republican political operative in the state, and George George Chidi is a Georgia activist, writer, and Intercept contributor.
RG: Brian, welcome to Deconstructed.
Brian Robinson: Thank you! Thank you for having me.
RG: You got it. And George, welcome back.
George Chidi: Glad to be here.
RG: All right. Brian, let me start with you: Tell listeners a little bit about what brings you to Georgia politics.
BR: Well, I’ve been in Georgia politics for more than two decades. I was on Capitol Hill in the Georgia delegation in the aughts; in 2010, I came back home and did a campaign for Nathan Deal and we went on to win the governorship. So I was Deputy Chief of Staff for Governor Deal for five years and then went out on my own. I have a communications business, so I do a lot of corporate work, public affairs/communications work, and just a teeny bit of campaign work. It’s a little too stressful and time-consuming for me to do a lot of it. But I’m also the Republican talking head in the Atlanta media market [laughs] that you see on the Atlanta airwaves —
BR: — talking about Georgia politics.
RG: And George, you’re both a kind of writer and an activist. For people who haven’t listened to your previous appearances, how did you get into this?
GC: So sadly, I was an elected official for a while, he says — I’m smiling as I say it. I was a small-town city councilman, for the city of Pine Lake in Georgia, population [of] 780, not counting geese. One thing leads to another; as a writer, the crossover between politics and journalism is interesting. And so I am blessed and/or cursed with more knowledge about what goes on the Democratic side of things than most folks are out here.
RG: And George, you are saying that you’ve never seen a GOTV mobilization operation like you saw in this runoff.
GC: Ho-ly mackerel!
RG: Does that mean even compared to this general election? What’s it been like at your door the last couple of weeks?
GC: I’ve had seven door knockers in the last seven days. And I got two on Election Day.
GC: I talked to one of them. So he was with a labor group that had first flown people out to Arizona, and then flew them out here. I have sort of been comparing notes with other folks in DeKalb County. They must have had 1,000 people paid $25 an hour, working ground, knocking on doors, just around here for the last week. And everybody I know has been flyered eight ways to Sunday, everywhere they go. And it’s really — it’s sort of fundamentally different, different even than the 2021 runoff.
I’m sort of looking at it like: Well, OK, you must have dumped $10 million into the field in the last week. And that’s what this big-money, nationalized state-level race looks like. Like I got the full-court press, and it’s something to behold.
RG: And, Brian, when you hear that, how do you think that that compares to what Republicans were able to put out in the field?
BR: It wasn’t a comparison at all. But part of it is: The Dems had what, a 3:1 spending advantage? It was a massive gap.
BR: So, they were triaging, whereas the Warnock night people were like: Where can we put all this excess money?
And let me tell you where they put it: People watching TV over Thanksgiving break, saw two to three Warnock ads for every one Walker ad. And they were able to expand the universe in this kind of way: I am a Republican, my wife is a Republican, but my wife is a white, college-educated Metropolitan Atlanta Republican. And the Dems had so much money that they were sending her mail with abortion messaging —
BR: — thinking that that would be something that would persuade perhaps three out of every 10 white, Republican women to go out there and vote for Warnock.
So they had the spending advantage that really opened up doors for them. It was also true in digital spending. I mean, you can’t go online and read a news story without there being a Warnock digital ad telling you to go vote. I simply did not see that from the Walker campaign. So their opportunities were multitudinous, [laughs] if that’s a word —
RG: [Laughs.] Right. Good enough.
BR: Then Walker had.
RG: Was there anybody in your circle that had always voted Republican who either sat this one out or switched and voted Warnock?
BR: Oh, sure. You couldn’t go to a cocktail party in metro Atlanta without meeting the Republican Warnock voter.
And look: It wasn’t the history of violence; it wasn’t the actions related to mental illness; it wasn’t the abortion stories — none of that. I think people were willing to say that’s his past, he’s a new man, he’s gotten help. And Warnock spent a lot of money on that message, and I don’t think it really mattered.
I think at the end of the day, Republicans needed Walker to give them a reason — soft Republicans, the Kemp-Warnock voters perhaps — they needed to be reassured by him. They needed to hear why they should vote for him. Give them some confidence! Talk about some Georgia-related policy issues! Do another debate! Answer some media questions and show that you have some substance!
For the whole runoff, Walker didn’t do interviews at any of his campaign events; would walk by cameras, wouldn’t answer shouted questions. In the end, they kept the media 20 feet away from him at all times — even conservative outlets like Fox News Channel ran into that issue with him. And we had this small group of voters who are the decision-makers here; they are comparison shoppers, and they go on merit, not on tribe. And those folks needed to get a sales pitch for them to buy and they didn’t get it.
RG: Like: Just please tell us something, anything! [Laughs.] And he’s given them — Y
BR: Yeah, just give us a hook to hang our hat on. And we’re gonna be with you. And look: This was super-duper close. The Dems need to be asking themselves today amidst their hungover celebration on Wednesday, why did we spend 3:1 and only win by three points against a candidate that we all think is flawed?
BR: What’s wrong with our party that we did this bad?
RG: That is a great question. George, what is the answer to that? You would think that you’d run away with it?
GC: I think part of it is that there’s this perception that Georgia is a purple state. And Georgia isn’t exactly a purple state. I’ll push back on that. Georgia is like a red state with blue characteristics.
GC: Let us not forget that Stacey Abrams, like the savior of democracy, got smoked like a sausage! She lost, was it five points? Like, she lost like Jason Carter lost.
RG: Yeah, I think it was — yeah.
GC: Yeah, like she lost like it was a 2008 race. In part, because I personally think that for all of the vaunted talk about a turnout machine — that showed up for Warnock, I might add — it wasn’t actually there for her in the general election. The general election turnout was a 2018 number; it was not 5 million voters like came out in 2020. It was 4 million, which was proportionately a smaller turnout than what happened in her first race.
On top of that, there was a bit of a breakdown in November. There was a breakdown in the relationship between the Abrams campaign and some of the grassroots turnout machines because of the way money was working. And that’s sort of inside baseball, but she wasn’t getting the turnout that we were all expecting, because the local organizers in places like the Black Belt, and in Savannah, and even parts of Metro Atlanta weren’t getting all of this crazy national money that Warnock produced for this runoff.
Let us not forget that Brian Kemp won; that Brad Raffensperger won; that Burt Jones who’s an insurrectionist won. And that there were more votes cast for Republicans than Democrats — collectively for the congressional districts — there were more votes cast for Republicans than Democrats combined for all of the State House seats, and all the state Senate seats, like there were more Republican voters than Democratic voters in Georgia, except for this one race.
RG: And so, Brian, this reminds me a little bit of the way that Virginia unfolded maybe 10 years ago. For years, Virginia was this kind of red-leaning, but purplish swing state. And then all of a sudden, around 2008, you start seeing it swing towards Democrats. And amid that turn, what was left of the Republican Party in Georgia — I mean, in Virginia — just went further and further right and it became this kind of: if we can’t compete statewide, at least we’re going to live by our principles. And it continued to marginalize them in the state. They only recovered with Glenn Youngkin in this last election.
You’ve seen it in other states: [When] the state becomes more blue or more red, what remains of the party that’s moving into the minority then becomes more extreme. And Georgia is an interesting case, though, because you guys are still in control statewide. It’s just that you lost four consecutive Senate races now, plus a presidential race. But otherwise, you’re in control.
So what are Republicans telling themselves is the future of the Republican Party in Georgia after this?
BR: Well, I would say it is three consecutive Senate races that we’ve lost —
BR: Perdue and Loeffler lost in ’21, and then Walker lost this year.
Look, the Republicans are in much better shape than I would have thought two years ago. The reports of our death have been greatly exaggerated. We all thought here that demography was destiny, and we’re now a majority-minority state. So you look at Brian Kemp, he won by seven points, no way he got to that number without getting a lot of non-white votes. So the coalition is beginning to change. Gone are the days where you can get 80 percent of the white vote and the Dems get 90% of the Black vote, and then you kind of compete over the rest of the white voters.
And you got to have a multiracial coalition. The Republicans have begun to build that. Our insurance commissioner is John King — his real name is Juan Reyes, born in Mexico, speaks native, fluent Spanish. And when he goes and speaks to Latino business groups, etc, they swoon. I mean, they absolutely eat him up.
You look at the Asian-American population in Gwinnett and North Fulton, very big populations here, and these are immigrant communities, recent immigrant communities that are entrepreneurial with a high emphasis on education. What did Brian Kemp do? He opened schools and was the first to open the economy during Covid. They took notice.
They won on policy; they won on economic issues, not so much on cultural issues. If anything, the cultural issues hurt Republicans here. Abortion didn’t help Republicans. The gun issue didn’t help Republicans. They won because they were seen as competent, sane stewards of our economy.
Oh, and what else did they do? They stood up to Trump when our election was called into question. Those things captured the middle in this state. And that is why Republicans are in the great standing that they’re in.
As far as your question about how you avoid going to extremes: Look, moving forward, we’re going to be an even more heavily majority-minority state. The white population is gonna continue to go down as far as a percentage. And you have got to nominate candidates in ’24 and ’26, particularly ’26 when all the statewides are back up, who can win statewide; people who can capture the middle. And that’s not a Trump-type candidate — somebody who can keep the Trump coalition together, and then add those moderates, those decisive consumers who went with Warnock, but also what with Kemp. You got to get those people.
And so here’s what I’ve been saying: Republican voters if they want to stay in control through 2030, they have to nominate not the person they want to take home from the bar, they want to nominate the person they want to take home to mama.
RG: Let me ask both of you a follow-up question on that: I forget his name but there was an establishment favorite Republican running against Walker, but Walker consolidated so much support so fast like —
GC: Gary Black.
RG: Yes. Yes.
So let’s say in a world where Trump never boosts Walker and Walker stays in Texas, does that candidate beat Warnock despite Warnock’s money advantages and despite Warnock’s kind of natural talent as a politician?
GC: So I’m going to say yes, because I’ve been saying yes.
I know Gary Black. I’ve met him a couple of times. I actually met him first at a Nigerian-American dinner in Clarkston. And please understand, if you’ve got a downstate Agriculture Commissioner who’s willing to show up to a Nigerian-American event in Clarkston, Georgia, I will sit up and notice that. And I found him calm and intelligent and reasonable and affable and self-deprecating.
I don’t know for sure if he would have beaten Warnock but I think he probably would have, all else being equal. Let me say, by the way, let me just echo something that Brian said: So look, I voted for Stacey Abrams; I voted for Raphael Warnock; I voted for Bee Nguyen. But I also voted for John King — surprise!
RG: Ticket splitter!
GC: — because I know John King. And he’s Gary Black-like in this regard. He’s a quietly professional, intelligent, disciplined civil servant who isn’t going to do crazy things. And I like him.
And if I could vote for him — yeah, I mean, Brian’s got a point. This sort of forward-looking, politically adaptive politics that meshes the personal with the political is a way forward for Republicans, even as the demography of this state changes.
RG: Brian, what do you think? Does Black win this hypothetical race against Warnock?
BR: Yes. And I would say Latham Saddler, too. I was on that campaign team. And a large part of the messaging in the Black campaign and the Latham Saddler campaign — Latham is in his 30s, former Navy SEAL, worked in the Trump White House, but on national intelligence issues, national security issues, just a great resume. And I agree, Gary Black has won three times statewide, has a proven track record. But when Trump got behind Herschel Walker and really kind of forced his will on that, really lobbied Walker to move to Georgia from Texas to run for the seat, it was just a freight train going down the tracks that no one on the Republican side could stop.
And when McConnell came out and endorsed Herschel because I think he decided it is better to ride on a steamroller than to be in front of a steamroller, it blocked any hope of third parties nationally coming in to help one of these other candidates who could have won.
The takeaway is this: Republicans were the favored party this election cycle in Georgia. Georgians wanted to replace Raphael Warnock but were not given an option that they could get comfortable with. Those comparison shoppers weren’t sold.
RG: How popular is Jon Ossoff at this point? He’s not up again until, what, 2026? Do you think that by then he’ll be a prohibitive favorite to win reelection? What does he have to do, Brian, to kind of win over those comparison shoppers?
BR: Yeah! Well, I’m having coffee in Washington with his communications director on Saturday, who I’ve never met. So I’ll ask Jake Best that question, too. But I do have some advice for them on that.
One thing that Ossoff does really well, and I don’t know another politician who does this, but he calls his political opponents and just checks him with them. He calls me, a Republican talking head.
BR: He calls Martha Zoller, a radio host in Gainesville. He calls statewide elected officials — just to check in, you know? And it’s really hard to go out there and attack somebody who is nice to you like that.
One thing that Warnock did that Ossoff is mirroring is that I do a lot of speeches around the state to stakeholder groups: industry groups, city councils, mayors, county commissioners, that type of group.
And I’ll say: How many of you have heard from Warnock’s office?
And every hand goes up. And the Republicans will come up to me later like: I’m not voting for the guy, but he called City Hall and said, what can we do for your city? And we’ve never gotten that call before.
Or: We had this issue, and we went to them, and they were responsive. And they stayed on top of it!
Or: I had a meeting with Raphael Warnock and he knew my issues, he was well-briefed. He had great questions. And then we got a follow-up.
BR: That is the power of incumbency. That is what Ossoff has at his fingertips. And it can hurt you or help you, and for Warnock — and Ossoff to this juncture — it has helped them because they’ve used that staff to be responsive to Georgians. And for those comparison shoppers who have those interactions, you lock those guys down, they’re going to be with you. They might even give you money. And I think that’s a huge asset for Ossoff moving forward.
The second piece of advice on it is: Be moderate enough that you’re able to make the argument in ’26 that you’re a moderate, that you can capture the medal.
Raphael Warnock is not a moderate. He got up last night, and you could just see the relief that finally he could be who he really is.
BR: First thing he gets up and talks about is voter suppression. All we’ve been hearing about for a year now is that he does projects with Ted Cruz! And I mean, the moment that political pressure was off, he was reverting to form to who he really is, and it’s not a moderate.
Ossoff has a chance to, at times, stand up to the craziness in his own party [and] have his own brand. And what I would also do that Warnock did well was associate yourself more with projects you bring to Georgia, or that you play a part in, like all these electric vehicle plants that are being built here that are being driven by Governor Kemp, and be associated with those things more so than whatever Chuck Schumer is pushing.
RG: And George my read on Ossoff has been that he’s been a pretty consistent kind of progressive voice in Washington, much more so than you would have expected from a swing-state Democrat in years past. But he doesn’t embrace some of the lingo that would get you tagged as too progressive: Medicare for All, Green New Deal — although if you hear him describe what his climate solutions are or describe what his solutions are to the healthcare crisis, they’re kind of indistinguishable in a lot of ways from what people understand as the Green New Deal or Medicare for All, but without going there.
What’s your read on how effective he’s been in Georgia, how popular he is, and did his popularity boost Warnock a little bit?
GC: So, like the read on Ossoff and Warnock is that Warnock tends to help Ossoff more than Ossoff helps Warnock.
GC: Although I think there’s plainly a partnership there.
Both of them are, in my opinion, among the more effective senators in the United States. And I’m a little worried that one or the other of them is going to run for president in 2024. Because they’ve got this national fundraising base, a really high profile, and they’re good at this stuff.
Yeah, Ossoff — and I run into him every once in a while, and he knows my name, and he knows your name, and he tells me that he wants to read more stuff in The Intercept by me —
GC: — and then I blush, which is funny since I’m Black.
GC: But there it is.
RG: But that’s what a politician wants.
GC: Isn’t it, though?
RG: They want you to feel that blush.
GC: So now I have to get mad at him for something just to stay even.
Here’s the thing: I think he’s a progressive, but I also think that he’s got — I don’t want to use the word technocrat — but he’s got his nose in the structures of the way the government works, in his role as in oversight. The work that he’s been doing on prisons, wins him almost no votes.
GC: And I say this as somebody who is deeply concerned about the prison system, like the federal prison system, the state prison system, the local Atlanta prison systems, all of which had been getting people killed at outrageous rates for the last few years. He’s like the one guy in Washington who’s like pounding on that.
And I’m thinking in my head: Nobody is going to vote for you for this. Like he’s doing it because he believes that it is necessary to the function of government. And that vision for the role of a senator is refreshing and a little rare. And I like to see it, because I am one of these guys who cares about candidate quality, quote-unquote, and whether or not the people who are in positions of authority are using it to make a better government.
In that regard, if he can keep pounding on things like that for four years, he’s definitely gonna be the guy who’s running. The one person who’s got a shot on him is Brian Kemp, who’s going to be out of a job in 2024. I would assume Brian Kemp, assuming Brian Kemp doesn’t run for president himself, which I think is a reasonable conversation to start having, might just take a shot at that Senate seat. That’s gonna be another nationalized, gigantic race, too.
RG: Brian, what’s your guess on that? Kemp: Do you think he’s got his eye on the White House? Do you think he’s got his eye on the Senate seat? And also, I’m curious what you think of George’s fear that one of these two senators might leap at the White House in 2024. Would that be a boon to Georgia Republicans who then might have a better shot at taking the seat back?
BR: Well, I mean, I don’t know that it would have an immediate impact on that seat unless Warnock won the presidency [laughs] or stepped down to run.
BR: I will say that the DNC wanting to move Georgia into basically the second round of primary votes would put Warnock in pole position. South Carolina begins it; that’s a majority-Black primary; you’re coming to Georgia, majority-Black primary — and Warnock’s home state — you’re pretty much setting him up for something.
I think Kemp is keeping his options open right. He is on a lot of lips of major donors, because he beat Trump, because he won in a state that was tight against a national celebrity in Stacey Abrams, somebody who was literally the president of United Earth on Star Trek, and a common guest on late night TV shows, the Democratic response to the State of the Union. I mean, big deals, things like that.
And I think Kemp, at the end of the day, would see going to the U.S. Senate as a step down from being governor of Georgia. Being Governor of Georgia is like being emperor in Japan in the 1930s. You are extremely powerful.
BR: We have one of the most constitutionally powerful governorships in America, a state with 11 million people and booming, the eighth largest state. So to go from having executive power, where you appoint literally thousands of people to being one of 100, where you don’t have any executive power, would be hard for him to adjust to.
That said, if he ran, he would be the Republicans’ best bet to take that seat. I mean, if he has the political capital in four years that he has now, which isn’t how this usually works, he would be, perhaps, an unstoppable force.
RG: Is he the kind of person who cares enough about the Republican Party to make that sacrifice? The New Hampshire Governor turned down — I’m sure you followed this — for the exact same reason. He’s like: I don’t want to come to Washington and just get told by Mitch McConnell what to do —
BR: Yeah. [Laughs.] Yeah.
RG: — and do culture war fights all the time. And so he’s like: No, I’m passing.
BR: Yeah. Look, here’s the thing: Brian Kemp is now a national figure. And it’s all because of things that weren’t necessarily in his control. The fight with Trump was thrust upon him, and he just did the right thing. At the end of the day, he said, I’m OK if I end my political career, I’m not going to abrogate our Constitution. And he was rewarded for that. Even though at the moment, it did not appear that he would be rewarded, in fact that he would be punished and his career would end.
So having taken that gamble and won, having been the person who also gambled on open the economy when the New York Times or The Washington Post are saying go ahead and build the mass graves in Georgia, because of this guy’s recklessness, he’s a murderer — and then he was proven right on that as well, Georgians overwhelmingly agree with his decision on that today — he is a national figure.
So he could be a VP candidate in ’24. He could be a cabinet secretary in a Republican administration, particularly if it’s a governor who wins. He’s got great relationships with his fellow governors. He could be the RGA Chairman coming up in a few years. I was down at RGA’s meeting in Orlando a couple of weeks ago, and the dude was a stinking celebrity at that group. I mean, everybody wanted to get a piece of him; everybody wanted a selfie with him, et cetera. He’s got some cache. And so there’s a lot of things that are open to him.
Again, going from being governor to being a cabinet secretary, it would be hard to give it up. But I think that’s all on the menu for him should he choose.
RG: And George, last question: What is the mood down among Democrats after this win?
GC: Oh, everybody’s doing — I think half of the state’s hungover right now. I think there’s some cautious optimism. The mechanics of running an election like this are educational; people sort of learn the right reflexes.
Here’s the thing: There’s some turnover that’s coming. There have been a lot of activists for whom this was their last — like, they’re done. My good friend, John Jackson, who’s the chairman of the DeKalb County Democrats left his post yesterday, or maybe last week. He took DeKalb County’s Democratic Party from the sort of moribund — it was just a mess. And now it’s been this machine that’s been fueled by national-level money, and it’s working right. And he’s like: I’m gonna get out of politics for a while, and find a beach, and go try to restart my actual career and be a human being again. And I’m sensing there are a lot of folks for whom they are looking at 2024 with some dread because Georgia being the center of the political universe gets old after a little while.
I think the one question right now is whether or not we get the Democratic National Convention in 2024, which I think is possible. I know that the mayor is pounding on that really hard in Atlanta — and that might change the dynamic there. It’s not that I think that things are going to fall apart, certainly not, because Republicans still run everything here. But there’s a sense that everybody’s going to settle in for a long siege, and nobody’s particularly thrilled about that.
RG: And Brian, what’s the mood among Republicans? Is there some relief that it was as close as it was with this terrible candidate? Or is it dread that now they’re locked out for at least the next four years of both Senate seats?
BR: Yeah, I’ll tell you: I mean, we hate to lose a Senate seat. We know that this has national implications. There’s a big difference between a 50-50 Senate and a 51-49 Senate, and we fell short, once again, when something very important was on the line for our country.
That said, we’re thrilled that we won the statewide elected officials up and down the ballot. So that, to me, is the most important thing as far as what touches our lives day in and day out. And we kept the General Assembly majorities very strong. So that’s what matters most to me and to, I would think, most other Republicans, because again, our Republican governor is so powerful in the state.
We’re hopeful! I think this cycle has shown that the demography as destiny story isn’t holding up here. The trend lines over the last 20 years have shown Dems picking up votes every cycle and closing the margin. So by 2020, we would be tied, and we were so you would think by 2022 we would be an organic Dem majority, and it didn’t happen.
So we’ve now changed the trend lines. And we’ve got to figure out how we keep doing that. And it is picking the best candidates because the comparison shoppers are going to pick the best candidates, whether there’s a D or an R behind their names in Georgia, for at least the immediate future.
RG: Well, Brian, thank you so much for joining me.
BR: Great to be here. Glad to be talking about Georgia.
RG: And George, thanks for joining me again.
GC: Anytime. Happy to help.
RG: That was Brian Robinson and George Chidi, and that’s our show.
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