Washington, DC – Today, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) kicked off a series of speeches on the Senate floor to shine a light on the Koch brothers’ network of front groups pushing policies in Washington to enrich special interests and sowing doubt in the public debate on issues vital to the American people. Throughout the week, Whitehouse and Democratic colleagues are outlining how this #WebofDeceit has infiltrated the Trump administration and is swamping the interests of everyday Americans.
In his remarks, Whitehouse reviewed how Koch front groups have reacted to the spate of scandals surrounding EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, coming to Pruitt’s defense with a coordinated media and behind-the-scenes influence campaign designed to dissuade President Trump from firing him.
“You may have seen the steady stream of news about Pruitt’s ethical lapses: huge bills for taxpayers for first-class flights and 24/7 security, even on family trips; a $43,000 Maxwell Smart secret phone booth; a jaunt to Morocco for the natural gas industry; a condo deal from a lobbyist with business before EPA; massive raises to cronies from Oklahoma through a loophole in the Safe Drinking Water Act,” said Whitehouse “He even was caught firing or reassigning people who told him he could not sign up for perks like a private jet service. . . . But never fear! The Web is here! Nearly two dozen phony industry front groups rode to the rescue, urging the president to keep Pruitt on.”
In July 2015, two weeks after he kicked off his campaign for president, Donald Trump tweeted, “I really like the Koch Brothers (members of my [Palm Beach] Club), but I don’t want their money or anything else from them. Cannot influence Trump!”
Now, less than a year and a half into his presidency, it appears that the Kochs and their allies are calling many of the shots in the Trump administration – indeed, it may be that the Kochs actually call more shots in the Trump administration than the Trumps. The president has staffed the White House and federal agencies with dozens of officials closely tied to the Kochs, who are executing on the Koch network’s policy agenda. According to a Koch brothers report, which was the subject of letters Senate Democrats sent to the administration last week, Trump has enabled the Kochs and their front groups to capture regulatory agencies and the judiciary, undermine democratic institutions and processes, and weaken regulations at the expense of public health, a fair economy, and the environment.
Front groups are a main tool in the Koch’s disinformation arsenal. “There are plenty of billionaires these days, and a bunch of them do pretty good stuff, but there’s an extremist subset trying to quietly remake America to their ideology, and they use this Web of Deceit,” Whitehouse said. “This web of front groups represents this creepy extremist billionaire point of view in Washington — when there’s an issue of interest to some hyper-wealthy special interest group, this web will be activated to flood the field. In the halls of Congress, on cable news, in opinion pages, on social media—the front groups will be everywhere, with fake news, bogus studies and phony science.”
Full text of Whitehouse’s as-prepared remarks is below.
This evening a group of us embark on a series of speeches on the Senate floor to shine some light into a network of phony front groups; a Web of Deceit conceived and bankrolled by the Koch brothers and other self-interested billionaires to advocate for very selfish and unpatriotic policies. This Web of Deceit has infiltrated and populated the Trump administration; and it’s swamping the interests of everyday Americans. I won’t dwell on its policies; the billionaires having to hide behind these front groups tells you all you need to know about their policies.
There are plenty of billionaires these days, and a bunch of them do pretty good stuff, but there’s an extremist subset trying to quietly remake America to their ideology, and they are behind this Web of Deceit. When an issue affects some hyper-wealthy special interest group, this web activates. In the halls of Congress, on cable news, in opinion pages, on social media—the front groups will be everywhere, with fake news, bogus studies and phony science.
This is a well-studied political phenomenon. Two speeches ago, I had a stack of books about it here on the desk, including excellent academic research by Robert Brulle and Riley Dunlap, Nancy MacLean, and David Rosner and Gerald Markowitz. Michael Mann deserves credit, too, for shining light into these front groups.
To the uninitiated, it might appear that these are all actual, different groups; and that they might represent thousands, even millions, of real people across America. That’s the scheme. These front groups are designed to provide a simulacrum, a manufactured artificial appearance, of public support for policies and ideologies that actually benefit just the richest of rich, or the pollutingest of the polluters.
Got a tax scam to sell? Call in the front groups who will parrot, falsely, that the middle class will benefit—when it’s the billionaires and big corporations that make out like bandits.
Want to block action on climate change and let fossil fuel companies keep polluting for no charge? Quick, activate those front groups to spread climate denial, the original fake news: Climate change isn’t happening. Or okay, maybe it is, but we don’t really know how much human activity is the cause; or okay, maybe it is, but who knows how bad it will really get; or okay, really bad, but it’s too hard so let’s leave it to some other generation.
Never mind what the real scientists have to say. The Web of Deceit has fake scientists, and it doesn’t matter to the Web if their phony scientists are right or wrong. They just have to keep them talking, make it seem there may be a real question about the science—in essence, pollute the public’s mind.
While these phony front groups are working their PR magic, connected lobbyist and electioneering groups stalk the halls of Congress, ready to kneecap Republicans who might (like Bob Inglis did) have the temerity to think about acting on climate. More generally, this Web has infected the Republican Party with climate denial, to help polluters pollute for free. That’s part of the creepy billionaire ideology behind the Web.
Of course a Web like this has its stooges and quislings, and in the Trump administration, they can get to high places. Imagine if you’ve been building this Web of Deceit for decades, and one day you get to plant your phony minions into real, high-level, government positions. Oh, the legitimacy!
And what would you not then do to defend your stooges?
We just saw this Web of Deceit spring into action to defend fossil fuel stooge Scott Pruitt, our ethically-challenged Environmental Protection Agency administrator. Mr./Madam President, you may have seen the steady stream of news about Pruitt’s ethical lapses: huge bills for taxpayers for first-class flights and 24/7 security, even on family trips; a $43,000 Maxwell Smart secret phone booth; a jaunt to Morocco for the natural gas industry; a condo deal from a lobbyist with business before EPA; massive raises to cronies from Oklahoma through a loophole in the Safe Drinking Water Act. He even was caught firing or reassigning people who told him he could not sign up for perks like a private jet service. Talk about lights and sirens, this guy is a lights-and-sirens-on affront to any concept of decency in government service.
As scandal after scandal piled up, pressure mounted to fire the scoundrel.
But never fear! The Web is here! Nearly two dozen phony industry front groups rode to the rescue, urging the president to keep Pruitt on. Here’s the letter. As you can see, all these groups’ logos are on it.
They praise Pruitt for his work to help fossil fuel polluters pollute; they rejoice that his rollback of fuel economy standards will raise drivers fuel costs; they applaud him getting rid of independent scientists and putting industry insiders on EPA advisory committees.
It’s actually the reporting of Pruitt’s scandals, they write, that is a conspiracy. “This whole ordeal is nothing more than an orchestrated political campaign,” says the polluters’ orchestrated political campaign to save Pruitt’s political hide.
The Web went to war in the press and on social media for Pruitt. The so-called Heartland Institute defended Pruitt as “the single most effective appointment of the president of the United States,” and went after Republican Representative Carlos Curbelo on Twitter for breaking Republican complicity by calling on Pruitt to resign.
Another tool of this Web is a front group called the Media Research Center (which also signed this letter). Its job, when the stooges are caught stooging, is to go on the attack, and accuse the journalists of bias. This Media Research Center has a website called “Newsbusters” devoted to attacking honest reporting that it doesn’t like. In articles and on Twitter, it attacked ABC News and other networks for reporting on Pruitt’s expensive first class travel.
Other groups on this letter also took to Twitter to defend their boy Pruitt, including the Energy & Environmental Legal Institute, the American Energy Alliance, and the Conservative Partnership Institute.
“Orchestrated political campaign” indeed!
When I saw the orchestrated “Protect Pruitt” letter, it reminded me of this one I received in the summer of 2016. Back then, a group of us delivered speeches exposing this Web of Deceit’s role in blocking action on climate change. We called it the Web of Denial, because climate denial is the Web’s recipe for delay and inaction on carbon pollution.
More than 20 organizations in the Koch network, with lengthy records of climate change denial, objected to being called out as Koch-linked climate deniers. To challenge our assertion that they were an orchestrated bunch of front groups, they responded with an orchestrated letter by all the front groups. They actually called it “tyranny” that we would call out who pays them, and what interests they front for.
I can’t wait to hear the caterwauling from the Web now!
Why are these polluter-funded front groups so desperate to protect Pruitt? Well, that question answers itself.
But they do a good job hiding. Unfortunately, our laws allow wealthy donors to funnel money through opaque brokers and anonymous shell companies. The dark money could be from the ultra-wealthy, right-wing Mercer family, from the Koch brothers’ empire, from ExxonMobil, from whomever—even a Russian oligarch. We only get occasional glimpses into these dark-money channels of influence in our political system, often through leaks, or mistaken filings, or extraordinary, painstaking research. It’s not easy.
For the 22 front groups that signed this letter, we have figured out one common denominator: the Koch brothers empire.
So let’s go down the list.
Heartland Institute: We know that Heartland received at least $100,000 from foundations connected to the Koch brothers. And it received at least $7 million from Donors Trust.
Ah, but what’s Donors Trust? It has no business purpose. It is an identity-concealing device, whose entire purpose is to launder donations to front groups so you won’t know their real backers. Journalists have learned, however, that the Koch brothers are among the largest, if not the largest, contributors to Donors Trust. So, back to the list:
ALEC: Koch-connected foundations gave ALEC at least $600,000. Koch Industries is also a donor, but we don’t know how much it has given. More secrecy.
Committee For A Constructive Tomorrow: Wow, what a name! Who could possibly be against a constructive tomorrow? Certainly not the Kochs, whose foundations gave it at least $45,000. That’ll buy a signature on a letter, for sure.
American Energy Alliance: Koch-connected organizations gave the American Energy Alliance at least $1.7 million.
60 Plus: Koch-backed organizations have given 60 Plus more than $42 million. And as a side note, 60 Plus is a front group that supposedly advocates for senior citizens. So its presence on this Pruitt letter is telling.
Idaho Freedom Foundation: It received at least $570,000 from the Koch-backed Donors Trust.
That Media Research Center: At least $1 million from Donors Trust.
Independence Institute: Koch-connected foundations gave the Independence Institute more than $140,000 while Koch-backed Donors Trust provided the group more than $2.5 million.
Conservative Partnership Institute: This is a relatively new group and we don’t yet know who’s funding it, but we do know it’s staffed by folks from other Koch-backed groups. The Web of Deceit shares not only common funding, but common personnel.
American Commitment: At least $21 million from Koch-affiliated organizations.
Center for Security Policy: Received at least $1.9 million from Koch-backed Donors Trust. Like 60 Plus, the Center for Security Policy doesn’t usually work on environmental or energy issues. It lists its research areas as “Shariah, Defense, Homeland Security, Israel & the Middle East, Africa, Latin America, Sovereignty, and National Security & New Media.” Its presence on this letter is also telling.
Institute for Liberty: At least $1.8 million from Koch-affiliated organizations.
Americans for Limited Government: At least $5.6 million from Koch groups.
Tea Party Patriots Citizens Fund: We don’t know how much money this group received directly from Koch-affiliated organizations, but we do know that Tea Party Patriots was created by yet another front group called FreedomWorks. We’re getting into front groups within front groups here, folks, and FreedomWorks received at least $12 million from Koch-affiliated foundations.
Mountain States Legal Foundation: At least $90,000 from Koch-backed Donors Trust.
Energy & Environmental Legal Institute: At least $16,000 from Koch-affiliated foundations and at least $500,000 from Koch-backed Donors Trust. This, by the way, is a particularly creepy group whose function is actually to harass legitimate scientists.
Georgia Public Policy Foundation: At least $125,000 from Koch-backed Donors Trust.
Mississippi Center for Public Policy: At least $500,000 from Koch-backed Donors Trust.
Carbon Sense Coalition: We don’t yet know how much money this group received from Koch affiliated organizations, but we do know that it works in close concert with many of the other front groups in the Koch-funded Web of Deceit.
American Family Association: Received at least $50,000 from Koch-affiliated organizations. This beauty has been identified as an anti-LGBTQ hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. But here it is signing onto a letter boosting Trump’s EPA administrator. Again, telling.
ConservativeHQ.com: We don’t know how much money this website received from Koch-affiliated organizations, but its job is to provide favorable online coverage of the Kochs and the web of front groups.
Climate Science Coalition of America: Its parent organization received at least $45,000 from Koch-affiliated organizations.
Mr./Madam President, that’s a grand total of at $87,281,000 received by these 22 front groups from Koch-affiliated organizations. And that’s only the part that’s leaked out through the screens of secrecy. Who knows how much dark money remains hidden behind those screens.
Here’s the point: this is a scam. So much money, and so many front-group tentacles. Once you see what’s going on, you realize these front groups are just tentacles—of the creepy billionaires, of giant polluting corporations, and of the other special interests that fund them. The tentacles don’t represent America. They represent a bunch of polluters and billionaires.
The pollution angle keeps rearing its ugly head. And guess what, Koch Industries is a very big polluter.
In 2014, Koch Industries dumped more than 6.6 million pounds of toxic pollution into our waterways. That same year, Koch Industries spent almost $14 million lobbying the federal government. One of Koch Industries’ biggest targets has been the EPA’s Clean Water Rule. The Clean Water Rule protects our rivers and streams, sources of drinking water for millions of Americans. So when Pruitt promised to repeal the Clean Water Rule, that could mean big bucks for Koch Industries.
Koch Industries has major holdings in the energy industry refining gasoline and other petroleum products, operating pipelines, and manufacturing petrochemicals. So when Pruitt’s promised to repeal the Clean Power Plan and undo fuel economy standards, that could mean big bucks for Koch Industries.
Protecting clean water, reducing carbon emissions, and saving consumers money at the pump may be good for the planet and the American people, but these things are not good for polluters. So, cue the Web of Deceit for Scott Pruitt, to write letters and bombard social media and the press with front-group disinformation.
If the public could see it’s just a couple of billionaires and oil companies and coal barons defending Pruitt, the jig is up; Americans could see the special interest motive. But add on this web of phony front groups, and hide the special-interest funding in dark-money channels, and it’s money well spent if Koch Industries and companies like it can go right on polluting. Polluted water, polluted air, climate change unchecked—some victory. But that’s who they are.
Americans need to get a good look at these phony front groups. So we’ll explain who these groups are, where they get their money, and how they’ve installed operatives throughout the Trump administration. Remember how Donald Trump once said he didn’t want Koch money or anything else from them? Well, it turns out dozens of Koch apparatchiks are running the Trump administration. The Kochs probably have more control in this administration than the Trumps. They are making the Trumps their chumps.
Keep in mind, as we spotlight this Web of Deceit, one simple truth: this is not democracy. This is the corruption of democracy. It is the corruption of democracy to benefit narrow special interests at everyone else’ expense. It is the enemy of our vision of America as a shining city on a hill.
We have a choice now in this country: to reclaim our destiny as that shining city on a hill that John Winthrop and Ronald Reagan spoke of; or to sink into the corrupting ooze of special interest dark money, hidden influence, phony front groups, and fake news.
I yield the floor.