Andy Kroll

Andy Kroll

Senior Reporter

Andy Kroll is Mother Jones' Dark Money reporter. He is based in the DC bureau. His work has also appeared at the Wall Street Journal, the Guardian, Men's Journal, the American Prospect, and TomDispatch.com, where he's an associate editor. Email him at akroll (at) motherjones (dot) com. He tweets at @AndyKroll.

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Obama to Donors: "I Might Be In a Very Strong Position" To Demand Constitutional Change on Money in Politics

| Tue Jun. 3, 2014 11:28 AM EDT

Ken Vogel knows what it is like to get tossed out of a good party. Among us campaign finance reporters, Vogel is known as a fearless crasher of political fundraisers and invite-only donor schmoozefests, from which he is usually—but thankfully not always—ejected. As the chief investigative reporter for Politico, the hyper-competitive town organ for Washington, DC, Vogel has for years chronicled the rapidly increasing flow of money into American politics and the eccentric, grouchy, madcap millionaires and billionaires who, in Vogel's telling, "are—in a very real and entirely legal way—hijacking American democracy."

Vogel's new book, Big Money: 2.5 Billion Dollars, One Suspicious Vehicle, and a Pimp—On The Trail of the Ultra-Rich Hijacking American Politics, propels us through the ever-changing world of what he calls "big-money politics." Here are four juicy tidbits from Big Money.

1) Bill Clinton told donors that a controversial new pro-Obama nonprofit group could be used to influence the 2014 midterms—despite the nonprofit's pledge to be issue-only

Vogel reports on a January 2013 private speech by Clinton to a group of Obama fundraisers on behalf of Organizing for Action (OFA), the rebooted version of Obama's 2012 campaign. Launched at the start of the president's second term, Obama officials said OFA would focus strictly on issues—gun control, immigration, raising the minimum wage. But that's not how Clinton saw it:

"This is a huge deal, this midterm election," said Clinton. "And I think even more important, this question is whether we can use the techniques that actually gave people the chance to debate health care, debate economic policy, understand what happened in the Recovery Act, all these things that were an issue last time, understand why the welfare reform act was wrong, and the Medicare Act was wrong. Can we use that to actually enact an agenda in the Congress and then go into the midterm and protect the people who voted for it?"

2) Josh Romney invited all of his dad's biggest rainmakers to a future Romney White House inauguration ceremony

On the eve of the 2012 Republican Party convention in Tampa, Vogel got inside a reception for major Romney donors and fundraisers (also known as bundlers). At one point in the shindig, Josh Romney, one of Mitt's sons, appeared to go a little overboard when thanking his dad's money-men:

"My dad will be the next president of the United States of America and you are all invited to the inauguration," [Romney] proclaimed to rousing cheers before backtracking sheepishly, as if wondering whether the complicated campaign and ethics rules forbade inviting big donors to the inauguration. "I don't think I'm really allowed to do that," he said, looking offstage to his right, perhaps for guidance from a campaign official familiar with the rules, before letting his exuberance and sense of kinship with the campaign's rich supporters takes over. "But it's a big place, so you all can come."

3) Romney's inner circle flirted with using a legally dicey big-money committee for his first presidential run

Top aides secretly hatched a plan to boost Romney's 2008 campaign by forming a so-called 527 committee, a big-spending precursor to super PACs. They called it Turnaround America and enlisted a well-connected fundraiser named Phil Musser to run the group. But the plan didn't get far:

Musser laid it all out in a PowerPoint presentation, and he spent a few months crisscrossing the country on his own dime, delivering it to Romney's richest backers. Several liked the plan and made tentative commitments. But most got cold feet after they checked with their lawyers, who explained that it could expose them to legal risk. The plan was too far ahead of its time, and Musser scrapped it before he ever filed the paperwork, leaving no trace that more than two years before the Citizens United decision Romney's allies had foreseen the power of what would become super PACs.

4) Obama privately suggested he'd push for a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United during his second term

Obama made waves during an August 2012 Reddit "Ask Me Anything" forum by voicing support for a constitutional amendment to roll back the effects of the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision. It turns out that such a radical move, favored by many activists on the left, had been on the president's mind for quite a while.

Vogel quotes the president stumping for an amendment during a February 2012 Q-and-A at a private Seattle fundraiser:

"Now, I taught constitutional law," Obama continued to [Bill] Gates et alia. "I don't tinker with the Constitution lightly. But I think this is important enough that citizens have to get mobilized around this issue, and this will probably be a multiyear effort. After my reelection, my sense is that I may be in a very strong position to do it."

Obama added that a reelection victory "may allow me to use the bully pulpit to argue forcefully for a constitutional amendment." So far, the president has done no such thing.

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Tim Geithner on Why Obama Passed Over Elizabeth Warren to Head the Consumer Protection Bureau

| Mon May 12, 2014 5:13 PM EDT

There is no love lost between Tim Geithner, the former US treasury secretary, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.). Geithner and Warren memorably clashed during hearings over the $700 billion bank bailout (Warren at the time chaired Congress' bailout watchdog panel), and many progressives believed that Geithner denied Warren her rightful place as the full-time director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

In his new book, Stress Test, Geithner denies blocking Warren and describes his relationship with the progressive favorite as "complicated." He praises her "smart and innovative" ideas about consumer protection, which, over dinner in Washington with Warren, he discovers are "more market-oriented, incentive-based, and practical than her detractors realized." In the same breath, though, Geithner jabs Warren for running her bailout oversight hearings "like made-for-YouTube inquisitions [rather] than serious inquiries." (Geithner's not the only one to point out Warren's embrace of the viral video clip: Listen to BuzzFeed reporter John Stanton's comments in this MSNBC roundtable.)

So why did the Obama administration pass over Warren to run the new bureau? Geithner writes, "There was a lot to be said for making Warren the first CFPB director, but one consideration trumped all others: The Senate leadership told the White House there was no chance she could be confirmed." Warren's eventual gig—a presidentially-appointed acting director charged with getting the new bureau up and running—was Geithner's idea, he says:

[Chief of staff] Mark Patterson and I thought about options, and after a few discussions with Rahm, I proposed that we make Warren the acting director, with responsibility for building the new bureau, while we continued to look for alternative candidates. This would give her a chance to be the public face of consumer protection, which she was exceptionally good at, and the ability to recruit a team of people to the new bureau right away, which she wouldn't have been allowed to do if she had been in confirmation limbo.

What stands out in Geithner's retelling is the depth of President Obama's admiration for Warren, and how much Obama agonized over what to do with Warren and the consumer bureau. The bureau was, after all, her idea. Here's what Geithner writes:

The President was torn. Progressives were turning Warren into another whose-side-are-you-on litmus test. The head of the National Organization for Women publicly accused me of blocking Warren, calling me a classic Wall Street sexist. Valerie Jarrett, the President's confidante from Chicago, was pushing hard for Warren, too, and she was worried I would stand in the way. At a meeting with Rahm and Valerie, I told the group that if the President wanted to appoint Warren to run the CFPB, I wouldn't try to talk him out of it, but everyone in the room knew she had no chance of being confirmed. The president, who almost never called me at home, made an exception on this issue. It was really eating away at him. He had a huge amount of respect for Warren, but he didn't want an endless confirmation fight, and he was hesitant to nominate someone so divisive that it would undermine the agency's ability to get up and running, as well as its ability to build broader legitimacy beyond the left.

As soon as Warren got to the CFPB, she began trying to lure away Geithner's own staffers. "She was unapologetic when my team finally confronted her about it," he writes, "and you had to respect her determination to get things done."

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