UNIDENTIFIED VOICES: From the Center for Public Integrity, this is The Heist.
(SOUNDBITE OF DONALD TRUMP’S 2016 ELECTION NIGHT SPEECH)
SALLY HERSHIPS, HOST: It’s Election Night, 2016. We’re at Trump headquarters — the Hilton Hotel in Midtown Manhattan. Donald Trump walks out onto the stage.
About this podcast
The Heist is the story of a huge political swindle, how it happened, and how power works in a Donald Trump presidency. Reporters spent months behind the scenes: we get to know a big Republican donor, a senator who caves to political pressure, and the enigmatic Secretary of the Treasury, Stephen Mnuchin, who led the charge for these laws.
DONALD TRUMP: Thank you. Thank you very much, everybody.
HERSHIPS: And the place is packed. The audience is holding up their phones, filming the moment.
TRUMP: Sorry to keep you waiting. Complicated business. Complicated.
(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD CHEERING)
HERSHIPS: Melania is there, Ivanka, Jared Kushner. Mike Pence is there with his family. Pence looks thrilled. Trump kisses the Pence women, he shakes hands with the men. They’re all standing in front of huge American flags — lined up like soldiers.
(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD CHEERING)
HERSHIPS: You wouldn’t have seen it on camera, but there is one man watching carefully from about 20 yards away.
DOUG DEASON: Oh it was incredible. Absolutely incredible. Absolutely incredible.
HERSHIPS: This man had given a lot of money to help Donald Trump get elected.
TRUMP: I’ve just received a call from Secretary Clinton.
(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD CHEERING)
DEASON: It was just amazing to see. If there was anyone who didn’t believe he was going to win, I don’t know who they were.
HERSHIPS: This guy isn’t famous. But he is rich. He’s from Dallas and his name is Doug Deason. And he’s a political donor, the kind with big money. The kind of guy who can help make or break candidates. And that night he was feeling great. Because he was sure President Trump was going to deliver on his promises. He’d made three big ones during his campaign. He was going to build a wall.
TRUMP: So we’re going to build it. Who’s going to pay for the wall?
TRUMP: A hundred percent, a hundred percent.
HERSHIPS: He was going to reform taxes.
TRUMP: I am proposing an across the board income tax reduction, especially for middle income Americans. This will lead to millions of new and really good paying jobs.
HERSHIPS: And he was going to repeal the Affordable Care Act, Obamacare.
TRUMP: Repealing and replacing the disaster known as Obamacare.
(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD CHEERING)
HERSHIPS: Deason didn’t care about the wall. But he did care about the other two promises — tax reform and repealing Obamacare. And on election night, Doug Deason really believed he was going to get what he wanted. There was a Republican president. Republicans had the House and the Senate. It should have been a done deal, right? Well, it was — and, it wasn’t.
Welcome to “The Heist” — a new investigative podcast from the Center for Public Integrity where we look at how power and influence work in Donald Trump’s America and at how money that’s supposed to be for all Americans somehow keeps ending up in the pockets of the rich. In our first episode we’re going to go behind the scenes. We’re going to look at a specific kind of power broker, a rich political donor, who knows how to get what he wants.
Those tax cuts that Doug Deason was so interested in, the ones that Donald Trump was promising, they were important. So the new administration got to work on them fast. Here’s Steven Mnuchin, the Secretary of the Treasury.
STEVEN MNUCHIN: Thank you, Gary.
HERSHIPS: Officially presenting the administration’s plan to the public for the first time. It was April 26, 2017.
MNUCHIN: So as Gary said, we’ve been working on this plan for a very considerable period of time. And our objective is to make U.S. businesses the most competitive in the world.
HERSHIPS: The way they were going to do that was by massively cutting the corporate tax rate. And the plan also included some smaller cuts to individual tax rates — and there were perks for the rich. For example, families could now pass on up to $22 million dollars to their heirs tax-free.
Think about taxes for a minute. We love to hate them, but they are how the country functions. We’re taxed and the government uses that money to build roads, to pay for Social Security for seniors, to fund the military. Figuring out the best way to tax us and how to spend our money is probably the single most important job politicians have. And the way that Mnuchin described it, those tax cuts that Doug Deason wanted, sounded like a win-win for everybody. I mean, who doesn’t want to pay less in taxes? And all of this is why what Mnuchin said on the stage that day about the plan was so important.
MNUCHIN: This will pay for itself with growth and with reduced reduction of different deductions and closing loopholes.
(SOUNDBITE OF REPORTER QUESTIONS)
HERSHIPS: He said “this will pay for itself.” Most economists said Mnuchin was wrong — even conservative ones. He also made other promises that seemed questionable. Like that the plan would create more jobs and raise pay. But he kept saying the same thing over and over again for months.
MNUCHIN: We have no intention of doing something that would add trillions of dollars to the debt.
MNUCHIN: Our plan is not going to add five trillion dollars.
MNUCHIN: The objective of the president is that rich people don’t get tax cuts.
MNUCHIN: What this is about is creating middle income tax cuts.
MNUCHIN: We should call this the 2017 tax reform for economic growth and jobs to make America great again.
UNIDENTIFIED VOICE: Mmhmm.
MNUCHIN: I just named that.
UNIDENTIFIED VOICE: That’s good. That’s good.
HERSHIPS: The Congressional Budget Office is nonpartisan. On the “about” page of its website it uses the words: “independent,” “objective,” “strictly,” “solely,” “impartial,” “professional.”
Part of the CBO’s job is to analyze Congress’ plans, like the tax bill. So it did. It issued reports and what they said, pretty clearly, is that the tax bill would not pay for itself. Not even close. CBO said that over the next decade Trump’s tax bill would add more than $1.5 trillion dollars to the debt. But in spite of that, this is the bill that Republicans in Congress, and rich donors like Doug Deason, desperately wanted to become law.
After the election, Doug Deason was waiting. But once Trump took power, nothing happened. No Obamacare repeal. No tax reform. Weeks passed, then months. Doug Deason was watching from the sidelines. And he was getting increasingly frustrated. So he decided to do something about it. He sent an email — to other, big Republican donors — the kind who write big checks, the ones with a lot of zeroes.
DEASON: I said hey, I don’t see any movement on ACA or tax reform. We’re gonna hold back any money. We’re canceling fundraisers that we’re doing for some of these politicians, and I’d ask that you’d consider joining us on that. And I think out of the 20 something emails I sent out I got 12 or so people to agree.
SARAH KLEINER: Yeah, he didn’t just send an email. He followed through. This wasn’t just a passive suggestion.
HERSHIPS: I’m going to bring in Sarah Kleiner here. She covers politics for the Center for Public Integrity. And she’s the one who brought us the story of Doug Deason.
KLEINER: He actually made sure that his rich, connected friends stopped giving money to Republican politicians.
DEASON: It was kind of funny because they would literally agree and then a week or two later, I would get an invitation to their house for you know a politician from North Carolina, or from Nevada or whatever. And I would call them, I’d say, what are you doing? I thought you’re gonna do this. You know what, you’re right, I’m gonna cancel that. And they’d cancel it.
KLEINER: And what did the politicians say back to you about that?
DEASON: Well, they understood, they agreed.
It’s not like I was calling people up threatening them. It was just when people would call and hey, would you host a fundraiser for me? You know, normally, I would have said, well sure. I would say no. I’m not. Not until you guys get this done. Do what you said you’re gonna do.
KLEINER: He’s got his fingers in all sorts of legislation across the country. He’s friends with Doug Ducey, the governor of Arizona. With Florida’s governor Ron DeSantis. You know, he’s worked out a disagreement with Greg Abbott, the governor of Texas around the dining room table in Austin at the governor’s mansion.
HERSHIPS: So this is a story about money and politics. Big money — the kind that Doug Deason uses to get the attention of politicians. It’s the kind of money that politicians love to give angry speeches about.
BARACK OBAMA: I don’t think American elections should be bankrolled by America’s most powerful interests.
BERNIE SANDERS: There is a reason why the middle class is disappearing, why poverty is increasing, and why the people on top are making out like bandits.
OBAMA: Last week the Supreme Court reversed a century of law that I believe will open the floodgates for special interests
Including foreign corporations to spend without limit in our elections.
HERSHIPS: We want to be clear that both Republicans and Democrats take big donations. So it’s nothing new for rich donors to influence politics, but as you probably know, the amount of money flooding into politics just keeps getting bigger. And for rich donors like Doug Deason, well, there are multiple ways they can get money to politicians. Sarah, walk us through this.
KLEINER: Sure. So the first way is to give directly to candidate’s campaign committees. And that money is capped — there’s a limit. You can only give $2,800 per candidate, per election. And you can give to as many candidates as you want. Doug Deason and his family have given hundreds of thousands of dollars to mostly Republican candidates, in this way. There’s another way that you can donate. And that’s to give to political action committees and Super PACs, which can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money. Doug Deason and his family have given millions of dollars to these kinds of groups too.
HERSHIPS: But there’s a third way. And this really gets some politicians like Elizabeth Warren fired up.
ELIZABETH WARREN: One of the principal tools rich and powerful people use is dark money. They have created an evasive enemy that slithers out of sight with only a glimpse here or there. But make no mistake — this dark money has helped shape the anti-teacher, anti-worker agenda.
HERSHIPS: OK, Sarah, take it away. What is dark money?
KLEINER: That’s money that goes to 501c(4), nonprofit organizations that can spend unlimited amounts of money on advertisements. Republicans have benefitted from dark money for years. And Democrats have started to use it too. But publicly, Democrats have railed against dark money in recent years, because we don’t who is paying for this ad against this candidate, or in support of that candidate.
HERSHIPS: And we don’t know because 501c(4)s are not required to disclose their donors. So, someone like Doug Deason can give millions of dollars, which can buy a lot of influence, and we would never find out. We asked Doug Deason if he makes dark money contributions. And he said…
HERSHIPS: He does. He says some of the money goes to criminal justice reform. Like one organization that helps young men who’ve just gotten out of prison.
DEASON: Very few people go to prison, come out of prison fired up about going back out and committing crimes. Unfortunately what they do is they come out and there’s no opportunity for them. They don’t have driver’s license, they don’t have money, they don’t have anywhere to stay, they don’t have a place to live or a place to go.
KLEINER: How much do you give to those kinds of organizations?
DEASON: Probably all in every year, three to five million.
KLEINER: That’s just on these nonprofit organizations or is that on politics across the board?
DEASON: That’s all in. That includes everything Super PACs, and it kind of varies because, you know, one year…(fades out)
HERSHIPS: Doug Deason is part of the Koch Brothers Network which is well known for feeding the political machine using dark money. Members have funneled hundreds of millions of dollars to conservative Republican candidates and causes. Like, for example, slashing the corporate tax rate.
KLEINER: Which is something Doug Deason really cares about. Aside from criminal justice reform, he falls in line with the boilerplate Republican conservative agenda. He likes smaller government. He wants fewer regulations, and he talked about wanting to see lower taxes in Trump’s new tax bill.
DEASON: And when I meant a tax bill, I meant a tax bill that you know dropped our corporate income rates
to put us on par with other countries in the developed world, Western countries, to make us competitive and then to drop taxes on the middle class and the poor.
KLEINER: He actually considers Charles Koch one of his mentors and he talks about having Charles Koch’s cell phone number in his cell phone.
HERSHIPS: So the Koch network has conferences a couple of times a year, where they talk about politics and policies. Which brings us back to 2017, when Trump’s presidency had just begun and Doug Deason was headed to one of those conferences.
KLEINER: And Doug Deason has only missed one of these since 2012. A few weeks after he sent the email to his wealthy friends, about cutting off Republican donations, he attended one of these Koch Brothers seminars. At the conference, he did something that was very unusual. He actually said publicly, what he had said to his wealthy donor friends in the email. And that is that they were going to stop contributions until Republicans passed the two bills that he really cared about.
KLEINER: What were you telling politicians?
DEASON: Well, I mean, obviously this is well-documented, which is probably why we’re on this call that you know, I made it very clear to politicians in both the House and the Senate that Dallas is the piggy bank of the Republican Party. North Texas. Let me rephrase that — North Texas. Dallas, Fort Worth and surrounding areas. That more money comes out of here for Republicans than anywhere else in the country. Nobody runs for office, national office, and doesn’t come through Dallas, Fort Worth at some point.
KLEINER: If you imagine campaign contributions like a faucet, Doug Deason had essentially just turned it off. The year before he had given tens of thousands of dollars to Republicans in Congress like representatives Mike Conaway, Pat Toomey, Will Hurd, Richard Burr.
HERSHIPS: And sure enough, Sarah says that this actually did play out. That there was a drop off in campaign contributions to Republicans during this time period. I wanted to find out how unusual that was — for a donor to publicly announce that he was cutting off his funds. So I called up this guy.
ERIC SHICKLER: I think to me, the most surprising aspect of it, is that, you know, essentially the quiet part got said out loud.
HERSHIPS: Eric Shickler teaches American Politics at Berkeley.
SHICKLER: And I think that does reflect Trump’s America to some extent. You know, Republican politicians themselves making statements, we need to do this or our donors are going to be really angry at us. And then some of the donors saying, I’m not giving anything more if you don’t deliver. And that’s just not something that’s usually done. And here it is at least to some extent being done right in front of us.
HERSHIPS: Back to Doug Deason again. He’s frustrated there’s been no action on the Obamacare repeal or on tax reform. He’s gotten his wealthy friends to turn off the money spigot. So, when the Obamacare repeal finally comes up for a vote on July 28, 2017, Doug Deason is watching carefully.
(SOUNDBITE OF SENATE VOTING)
HERSHIPS: Republicans were freaking out. GOP Senators had run on repealing Obamacare. They’d promised their voters — and donors — like Doug Deason that they would get this done. Speeches had been going on for hours and by now it was a little after 1:30 in the morning. Two Republicans had already bailed – they’d crossed party lines to vote against the repeal. It was a real nail biter. If they lost just one more Republican, repealing Obamacare would fail.
(SOUNDBITE OF SENATE VOTING)
KLEINER: That night was so tense on the Senate floor. And it all came down to John McCain’s vote.
HERSHIPS: That’s Senator John McCain, the late Republican from Arizona. McCain was a bit of a wild card. He was sick. He had brain cancer. He wasn’t expected to live very long and no one knew which way he was going to vote.
(SOUNDBITE OF SENATE VOTING)
KLEINER: And he’s getting phone calls from the President himself.
HERSHIPS: This is while he’s on the Senate floor?
KLEINER: While he’s on the Senate floor. He goes and he takes the call, comes back in, rounds the corner, sticks his arm out, fingers splayed, and he holds it there for several seconds. And then he puts his thumb down.
(SOUNDBITE OF SENATE REACTIONS AND VOTING)
KLEINER: And that was that. And there were gasps on the Senate floor because everyone was shocked.
HERSHIPS: If you watch the C-Span footage over and over again, like we have, you may notice Elizabeth Warren. She’s in an aqua blue suit. She’s standing up, kind of leaning around to watch John McCain vote. And when she sees his thumbs down she is so excited she claps her hands. Doug Deason, on the other hand, had a very different reaction.
DEASON: When I saw him put his thumb down and wink at Schumer, it was one of the most, you know, disgusting things I’ve ever witnessed.
HERSHIPS: And why was he so upset with John McCain? Why was he so disgusted?
KLEINER: Deason had hosted a fundraiser for John McCain. And in his eyes John McCain broke a personal promise to him.
DEASON: I literally stood with John by myself for probably eight to ten minutes and I just quizzed him about, you know, you’ve been running on repealing ACA, I’ve seen some passionate speeches you’ve given on repealing ACA and on a tax bill. Are you going to support ACA and a tax bill? And I was just so discouraged and disappointed that he just lied.
KLEINER: How were donors feeling at that time?
DEASON: I mean, really frustrated.
HERSHIPS: This episode is about rich, frustrated donors like Doug Deason. And one thing we want to make clear is that donors like these do not typically make themselves available to talk to reporters like us about their political donations. But Deason was happy to talk.
DEASON: Alright, I’m now recording.
KLEINER: And it turns out he’s a really nice guy.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOUG DEASON RECORDING ON IPHONE)
KLEINER: During coronavirus I wasn’t able to go down and interview him in person, so he actually recorded himself on his iPhone while we were talking and then sent me the recording.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOUG DEASON RECORDING ON IPHONE)
KLEINER: We talked for more than two hours.
DEASON: And then what are we, I forgot, I’m sorry, but I forgot what we were talking about.
HERSHIPS: So Sarah has spent all this time reporting on Doug Deason, but most Americans have not heard of this guy. In Texas though, he’s a known quantity in political circles. Back in May he was on the cover of a local lifestyle magazine for Dallas, so Sarah and I took a look at it.
KLEINER: He’s a very clean cut guy. He’s got this affable smile, a warm smile with smile wrinkles in the corners of his eyes. He’s got a salt and pepper beard. He looks very friendly, very clean cut.
HERSHIPS: Imagine American politics is like a Rube Goldberg machine — there are Doug Deasons throughout the system. We don’t vote for them, oftentimes we’re not even aware that they’re there, but by giving so much money they’ve created a system that’s dependent on them. So what makes people like Deason tick? What is it like to be Doug Deason? And how does he see his own role in politics?
KLEINER: Doug Deason lives in a very expensive neighborhood in Dallas. His neighbors include George W. Bush and Don Henley of The Eagles. He’s married, has two kids. He attends an evangelical megachurch. Non-denominational.
HERSHIPS: Well, here’s the thing that surprised me about Doug Deason — He is not a self-made rich person.
KLEINER: That’s right. His money comes from his father. His dad is Darwin Deason, a billionaire who made his fortune by selling his data company to Xerox in 2010. His dad is a flamboyant character. He’s got a huge yacht, private planes, and he’s been married at least six times.
HERSHIPS: So Sarah, one thing we haven’t talked about yet, what does Doug Deason do for a living? What’s his job?
KLEINER: He manages his family’s money, his father’s money. The money that they got from selling his company to Xerox. These are very large investments. He’s got interest in oil and gas companies, in a media company, in financial services. They have a very big portfolio.
HERSHIPS: So one Dallas journalist described Doug Deason as an average rich guy. Which is kind of odd, because he’s not. He gives millions of dollars to politicians like Donald Trump and what he thinks and has to say ends up influencing American politics on a national scale.
KLEINER: Exactly. When I talked to Doug Deason everything came back to politics. It’s more than a hobby for him.
So you got involved, basically to make change. That’s why you’re a donor, to change the country.
DEASON: You can make change in a lot of ways. The way to make change at a scale that really makes a difference is through legislation and through politics, getting the right people nominated and elected. We wanted to make change. And we’re conservatives. But we’re not conservatives that believe that we should go back to the 50’s or that things should stay static. I mean we believe in progress. We’re really classic liberals. You can always improve and make things better.
KLEINER: I found this tape of Doug Deason on a local Dallas conservative talk radio show. And it turns out the host Jacki Pick, is actually now his wife. I want to play this for you. Here he is talking about why he didn’t accept an ambassadorship that Trump offered. He wouldn’t tell us where he was going to go. But this is a classic reward for big time donors like Doug Deason.
DEASON: You know after turning down the ambassadorship, which didn’t surprise them because they knew that you know I’m on a mission.
PICK: You’ve got work to do, you don’t have time to go hang out in some chalet in the Alps.
DEASON: And I can’t do it from another city, another country on the government’s payroll.
DEASON:So. I just told them that’s what I wanted to do and so they set me up with Jared and my friend Tommy Hicks, who is a great friend of Don Jr. and the Trump family set me up with Jared and his team.
HERSHIPS: Just to be clear here, he’s talking about Jared Kushner. So basically Doug Deason turned down an ambassadorship so that he could stay at home and keep working on getting politicians to do what he thinks needs to be done. It’s obvious that he spends a lot of money getting politics to happen. Does Deason think of himself as a powerful person? I mean some might call this system pay to play — is that how he sees it?
KLEINER: Doug Deason sees it as expecting members of Congress to do what they’ve said they’re going to do and the promises they’ve made on the campaign trail. And the promises that they’ve made to him in private conversations when he’s giving them campaign contributions. I asked him about this.
KLEINER: Do you think that contributing money to these lawmakers gets you access that other people don’t have?
DEASON: Of course.
KLEINER: Do you think that’s fair?
DEASON: You know, I’ve never really thought about whether that’s fair or not.
KLEINER: I don’t talk to a lot of high dollar donors, but this really surprised me. Doug Deason has leverage that 99 percent of Americans don’t have. And it was very surprising that he hadn’t really thought much about this. So we talked again a couple of months later.
You hear a lot from people like Obama or Elizabeth Warren, who critique big donors, who say they have an outsize ability to influence change.
KLEINER: Through campaign contributions.
DEASON: Well that’s absolutely 100% true. I mean, that’s why we do it. Because it gives us access to you know, I’ve never we don’t give a dime without getting, I mean I have 25 easily 25, 30 senators’ cell phones, you know, I have countless, not countless but many, many, many congressmen and women cell phone numbers, you know and numbers to their right hand people. Their chiefs of staff and all that.
HERSHIPS: So he said it out loud. He gives money for access
KLEINER: He did. And I really pushed him on this.
KLEINER: I mean but let’s get back to what you were saying, though, with the critique from, from people about how big donors are taking advantage of their situation, that they have access and they have money. And what you think about that?
DEASON: Well, I don’t think it’s taking advantage. It is what it is. I mean, it’s obviously you sort of buy access. It’s no secret there. You know I have a lot of really good relationships some of my best, closest friends are you know, the Attorney General of Texas you know I mean, I’ve got really good friends throughout state and federal government and they’re good friends. We do we fish together, we do things together and all that. How did I build that relationship is, you know, one, I’m not in this for myself, and they know that. So, you know, I’ve never ever, ever been accused by anybody of being, you know, in politics to benefit me. Or dad or our businesses. Because we don’t have any businesses, you know, we just invest, you know. There’s nothing that they can do for us other than create a safe country to live in. Or a safe, safe state and safe city. You know and then just help other people.
HERSHIPS: So in Doug Deason’s book this is not pay to play. He doesn’t see himself as giving money for specific favors.
KLEINER: Exactly. He’s giving money and getting access to advance his political interests. He sees it as a kind of public service.
HERSHIPS: It’s pretty remarkable that he said this openly, though.
KLEINER: Yeah, yeah. It is. It is.
HERSHIPS: So, here’s what we’ve learned — we’re headed for an election and there’s this whole, formal, incredibly public process that takes place. But at the same time, behind the scenes, donors like Doug Deason are also incredibly powerful. They have a lot of influence over our political process.
KLEINER: Exactly. And Doug Deason has to know he has a lot of influence. Because after he and other wealthy donors cut off funding, they got what they wanted. Republicans very quickly made tax reform their top priority. And that’s when Doug Deason started writing checks again.
HERSHIPS: The Dallas Piggy Bank was open?
KLEINER: The Dallas Piggy Bank was open.
HERSHIPS: And once again Doug Deason was watching from the sidelines. He was waiting for Trump’s next big promise — tax cuts. So now, all eyes were turned to someone else.
MARC DANN: I think Steve Mnuchin is kind of the poster child for the Green Party, and not the kind of green that that’s gonna, you know, stop climate change, but the kind of green that’s only about how to make money.
HERSHIPS: Next time on The Heist — Mnuchin’s World. We get to know Steven Mnuchin, Secretary of the Treasury, the salesman of the 2017 tax cuts.
Your support is crucial!
Our newsroom needs to raise $121,000 by end of the year so we can hold the power accountable and strengthen our democracy in 2024. Public Integrity doesn’t have paywalls and doesn’t accept advertising. We depend on individuals like you to sustain quality journalism.