April 24, 2018

Time to Wake Up: Web of Deceit

Mr. WHITEHOUSE. Mr. President, I thank Senator Durbin, who is a leader in our caucus, but also a very important leader on these issues.  We are here this evening because a group of us now 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 is swamping the interests of everyday Americans. I will not 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 is an extremist subset trying to quietly remake America to their ideology, and they are behind the web of deceit.  When an issue affects some hyper wealthy interest group, the 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 phenomenon. Two speeches ago, I had a stack of books about this high here on the desk with authors who had written about it. There is also excellent academic research by Robert Brulle, Riley Dunlap, Nancy MacLean, David Rosner, Gerald Markowitz, Michael Mann, and many others who deserve credit for shining light into these front groups.  The graphic behind us is actually a diagram from the work of Professor Brulle.

To the uninitiated, it might appear that these are all actual, different groups and that they might actually represent–who knows–thousands, maybe even millions of real people across America. That is the scheme. These front groups are designed to provide a simulacrum, a manufactured, artificial appearance of public support for ideologies and policies that actually just benefit the richest of the 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 is the billionaires and big corporations that actually 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, OK, maybe it is, but we don’t really know how human activity is the cause; or, OK, maybe it is, but who knows how bad it will really get. OK, really bad, but it is 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 couldn’t care less. They just have to keep their fake scientists talking, make it seem like there may be a real question about the science–in essence, pollute the public’s mind. 

While these phony front groups are out working their PR magic, connected lobbyists 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 of deceit has infected the Republican Party with climate denial, all to help polluters pollute for free. That is part of the creepy billionaire ideology behind the web of deceit. 

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 have 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, what wonderful 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.  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 the EPA; massive raises to cronies from Oklahoma through a loophole in, of all things, 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 at taxpayer expense.  Talk about lights and sirens. This guy is a lights-and-sirens affront to any concept of decency in government service.

As scandal after scandal piled up, pressure mounted to fire the scoundrel. 

Never fear, the web of deceit is here. Nearly two dozen phony industry front groups rode to the rescue, urging the President to keep Pruitt on. Here is 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 his getting rid of independent scientists and putting industry insiders on EPA advisory committees. 

It is actually the reporting of Pruitt’s scandals, they write, that is the conspiracy. “This whole ordeal is nothing more than an orchestrated political campaign,” they write–“an orchestrated political campaign”–so says the polluters’ orchestrated political campaign to save Pruitt’s political hide. If you want to see something about orchestrated political campaigns, this is it. 

The web also 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 with Republican complicity by calling on Pruitt to resign. 

Another tool of this web is a front group called the Media Research Center. They are also on this letter. The Media Research Center’s job, when 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 and Environment Legal Institute, the American Energy Alliance, and the Conservative Partnership Institute. “Orchestrated political campaign,” indeed. 

When I saw this orchestrated “protect Pruitt” letter, it reminded me of this one, which 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 brothers’ network, with lengthy records of climate change denial, objected to being called out as Koch-linked climate change deniers. To challenge our assertion that they were an orchestrated bunch of front groups, they responded with this orchestrated letter from all the front groups. They went on to say it was “tyranny” that we would call out who actually pays them and what interests they actually front for.

I can’t wait to hear the caterwauling from them now. 

Why are these polluter-funded front groups so desperate to protect Pruitt? That question sort of answers itself, doesn’t it?

They do a good job of 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, rightwing Mercer family, from the Koch brothers’ empire, from ExxonMobil, from whomever–even a Russian oligarch. We get only occasional glimpses into these dark-money channels of influence in our political system, often through leaks or mistaken filings or extraordinary, painstaking research. It is not easy.

 For the 22 front groups that signed this recent letter, we have figured out one common denominator: the Koch brothers’ empire. Let’s go down the list.  We will start with the 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 DonorsTrust.

But what is DonorsTrust? It has no business purpose. It is an identity-concealing device whose entire purpose is to launder donations to front groups so that you will not know their real backers. Journalists have learned, however, that the Koch brothers are among the largest, if not the largest, contributors to DonorsTrust. 

Back to our 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, there is a good name. Who could possibly be against a constructive tomorrow? Certainly not the Kochs, whose foundations gave it at least $45,000. That will 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. This is interesting because 60 Plus is actually a front group that supposedly advocates for senior citizens. So its presence on this Pruitt letter is weird and telling. 

Idaho Freedom Foundation: It received at least $570,000 from the Koch-backed DonorsTrust.

That Media Research Center I talked about received at least $1 million from DonorsTrust. 

Independence Institute: Koch-connected foundations gave the so-called Independence Institute more than $140,000 while Koch-backed DonorsTrust provided the group more than $2.5 million. 

Conservative Partnership Institute: This is a relatively new group, and we don’t yet know who is funding it, but we do know it is staffed by folks from other Koch-backed groups. This web of deceit shares not only common funding but common personnel. 

American Commitment received at least $21 million from Koch-affiliated organizations.  The

Center for Security Policy received at least $1.9 million from Koch-backed DonorsTrust. Like 60 Plus, this Center for Security Policy doesn’t usually work on environment or energy issues. It lists its research areas as “Shariah, Defense, Homeland Security, Israel & the Middle East, Sovereignty, and National Security & New Media.” Its presence on the Pruitt letter is also weird and telling. 

The Institute for Liberty received at least $1.8 million from Koch-affiliated organizations. 

Americans for Limited Government received 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 Freedom Works. We are getting into front groups within front groups here, folks, and Freedom Works received at least $12 million from Koch-affiliated foundations. 

Mountain States Legal Foundation received at least $90,000 from Koch-backed Donors Trust. 

Energy & Environment Legal Institute received at least $16,000 from Koch-affiliated foundations and at least $500,000 from Koch-backed DonorsTrust. This, by the way–Energy & Environmental Legal Institute–is a particularly creepy group whose function–hold your breath–is actually to harass legitimate scientists. That is what they do.

Georgia Public Policy Foundation received at least $125,000 from Koch-backed DonorsTrust. 

Mississippi Center for Public Policy received at least $500,000 from Koch-backed DonorsTrust. 

Carbon Sense Coalition: We don’t know yet 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 of an organization has been identified as an anti-LGBTQ hate group–hate group–by the Southern Poverty Law Center. But here it is, signing a letter boosting Trump’s EPA Administrator. Weird, again–but 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.  If you do the math, that is actually a grand total of at least $87,281,000 received by these 22 front groups from Koch-affiliated organizations, and that is only the part that has leaked out through the screens of secrecy. Who knows how much dark money remains hidden behind those screens?  Here is the point.

This is a scam–so much money and so many front group tentacles. Once you see what is 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 in all of this–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 in lobbying the Federal Government. One of Koch Industries’ biggest targets has been the EPA’s clean water rule–6.6 million pounds of toxic pollution into our waterways, millions in lobbying to target the clean water rule. Since the clean water rule protects our rivers and streams–sources of drinking water for millions of Americans–when Pruitt promised to repeal the clean water rule, that could mean big bucks for polluters like 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 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 may be good for the American people, but these things are not good for polluters. So queue 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 is just a couple of billionaires and oil companies and coal barons who are defending Pruitt, the jig would be up–Americans could see the special interest motive. Yet add on this web of phony front groups and hide-the-special-interest funding in dark money channels, and it is 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 is who they are. 

Americans need to get a good look at these phony front groups, so we will explain who these groups are, where they get their money, and how they have installed operatives throughout the Trump administration.  Once upon a time, Donald Trump said he didn’t want Koch money or anything else from them. 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. 

As we spotlight this web of deceit, keep in mind this 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’s expense. It is the enemy of our vision of America as a shining city on a hill. 

We face 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.  History is watching.

I yield the floor.