Dark Money Dynasty: Daniel Schulman on the Koch Brothers

Senior editor, Daniel Schulman

A senior editor in Mother Jones’ Washington bureau, Daniel Schulman helped launch MoJo‘s DC investigative efforts in 2007 alongside bureau chief David Corn. Since then he has covered a range of hot-button issues from bioterrorism to federal whistleblowers, alongside his daily editing duties leading a cadre of reporters. 

Last month Schulman’s book Sons of Wichita, the first in-depth biography on the lives and legacies of the Koch dynasty, debuted to near-instant acclaim. In its first week, it landed on the New York Times’ and Los Angeles Times’ bestseller lists, and it garnered praise from outlets ranging from the Wall Street Journal, to the New York Times Book Review, and Vanity Fair. Reason editor-in-chief Nick Gillespie called it an "explosive, provocative, and absolutely must read book." More from Dan on what went into his acclaimed biography and what it’s like in the belly of the Beltway.

Mother Jones: Your recently published book, Sons of Wichita, pulls back the curtain on one of America’s most powerful and secretive families, what compelled you to pursue a book about them?

Daniel Schulman: I view the Kochs as one of the most important corporate and political dynasties of the modern era, one of those rare families, akin to the Rockefellers or Carnegies, who have shaped America in ways seen and unseen—and whose impact will be felt long into the future. Love them or hate them, but everyone should know who they are and the role they have played in influencing the world around us. It didn’t hurt that their saga had all the makings of cinematic narrative—power, money, political and corporate intrigue, a family melodrama, and much more.

MJ: How did writing this book compare to the daily reporting or even long-form journalism you are used to, and how were you able to get access to sources close to the Koch brothers to be able to pull together such a thorough biography?

DS: Most of the same rules applied. Partly, it was a process of building relationships with people and earning their trust. I can tell you that I’ve never made so many cold calls in my life. In some cases, I’d make 10 calls just to get to one person who would talk. These conversations would often lead me to others. As sources got to know me they would sometimes vouch for me with other people close to the family. In terms of the writing process, someone once told me that writing each chapter is more or less like writing a magazine feature. I found that to be more or less the case. It helps to think of it in that way, otherwise the process can feel pretty overwhelming.

MJ: How hard is it to follow the money? How much of what the Kochs spend can we see, and how much of it do you think we have no idea about? 

DS: One misconception about the Kochs is that they are spending a lot of their own money on politics. The genius of their political operation is that they’ve brought together a few hundred high net-worth individuals who contribute to the political and ideological causes the Kochs hold dear. Some of Charles and David Koch’s spending is quite easy to track. For instance, by reviewing the 990s of various Koch-controlled foundations, you can see various think tanks and advocacy organizations the Kochs have funded. But the spending of the Koch network in general is incredibly opaque. In the last election, they used a daisy chain of trusts, LLCs, and nonprofits to obscure the source of funding to various entities. It’s impossible to tell how much the Kochs themselves kicked in or who exactly the members of their donor network are. There is a lot we don’t know about the political spending of the Kochs and their allies—what we do know, in some cases, is just what they want to leak or reveal.

MJ: What sort of response did you receive from the Koch family?

DS: Nothing directly, but I’ve heard from close friends of Charles and David’s that they viewed the book as fair.

MJ: You started at Mother Jones as a writing fellow back in 2006 and are now the senior editor of the Washington DC bureau. How has your time at Mother Jones helped you grow as a journalist and an author?  What was it like starting the bureau with David Corn?

DS: In journalism, as in most professions, you learn by doing. MoJo gave me a tremendous amount of opportunity in all facets of the editorial process and I’ve had some stellar mentors along the way, namely Clara, Monika, and David. It’s been amazing to see how the DC bureau has evolved, and I’m incredibly proud of the impact we’ve had along the way.

MJ: Investigative journalist, bestselling author…what is one thing folks would be surprised to learn about you?

DS: After graduating from college, I wrote a play that was set entirely in a men’s room. It was produced off-off-Broadway—in a venue attendees had to enter through a porno/peep show store.