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Col. Larry Wilkerson and Center for Media and Democracy’s Brendan Fisher discuss the debate’s true elite audience and what was left unsaid

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JESSICA DESVARIEUX, PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to the Real News Network. I’m Jessica Desvarieux in Baltimore. On Thursday night the top ten candidates for the Republican presidential nomination took the stage in Cleveland in the first big league Republican presidential debate. Topics ranged from foreign policy to immigration. But beyond the horse race and the quote-unquote winners and losers, our guests today will provide more context into what was said and what was left unsaid in the debate. Now joining us from Falls Church, Virginia, is Larry Wilkerson. Larry is the former chief of staff for U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, and he’s currently an adjunct professor of government at the College of William and Mary. Also joining us is Brendan Fischer. He is general counsel with the Center for Media and Democracy, and he has worked extensively on the ALEC Exposed project. Thank you for joining us. LARRY WILKERSON, FMR. CHIEF OF STAFF TO COLIN POWELL: Thank you. BRENDAN FISCHER, CENTER FOR MEDIA AND DEMOCRACY: Thanks for having us. DESVARIEUX: So we all watched the debate last night. I found one of the most honest moments in the debate was when Donald Trump bragged about how he deliberately gave money to politicians so he could later get favors from them. Let’s take a listen.


DONALD TRUMP: I gave to many people before this, before two months ago I was a businessman. I give to everybody. When they call, I give. And you know what? When I need something from them two years later, three years later, I call them. They are there for me. So that’s a broken system. SPEAKER: So what’d you get? So what’d you get from Hillary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi? TRUMP: Well, I’ll tell you what. With Hillary Clinton I said be at my wedding, and she came to my wedding. You know why? She had no choice.


DESVARIEUX: So we just heard Trump say that he got Hillary Clinton to go to his wedding, which we fact checked, and in fact she did attend with former President Bill Clinton. But the bigger point is really that the Donald got the idea of how campaign cash has corrupted the system. So Brendan, I’m going to go to you first because you always follow the money. You followed the record of these potential candidates. Give us some specifics about how elite interests are dominating their agenda. FISCHER: Well, what Donald Trump said on Thursday night was really telling, and it was very honest. He described money in politics as a transaction, that Donald Trump as a businessman gave money to candidates. And after they were elected when he called and wanted something they complied because he gave them money. There’s been this increasing notion among Republicans in particular that money is speech. That businessmen like Donald Trump make large contributions as a form of speech, as a form of expressing themselves. But Donald Trump explained very clearly that really the reason why billionaires like Donald Trump or Sheldon Adelson or the Koch brothers give money to candidates is to buy policy [inaud.]. Buy [inaud.] curry favor with politicians who will then act on behalf of their interests. And we’ve certainly seen that with a lot of the candidates that were on the stage. Increasingly candidates have to rely on bigger and bigger checks in order to bankroll their campaigns. And over one-third of all the money that was raised in the election so far came from super PACs, these groups that can accept unlimited donations. Around half the money has come from donors writing checks of $100,000 or more, and Marco Rubio, Scott Walker, Ted Cruz, their super PACs were bankrolled by just a handful of donors. They’ve raised tens of millions of dollars from just a small handful of donors that are certainly giving to these candidates, including to their affiliate super PACs, not as a form of speech but as a form of influence-peddling, as a way to curry favor with candidates. And they’re going to expect something in return if those candidates are eventually elected. So I think Donald Trump really struck a chord. And I think the fact that his message resonates with people across the political spectrum shows that campaign finance reform and problems with money in politics is not a partisan issue, at least when you talk to average voters. But it has become that way, at least on the political stage. DESVARIEUX: Larry, you’re a Republican. How much of this primary debate is really an audition for party elites and big donors, and in whose interest is all of this political theater? WILKERSON: Let me just say initially that I agree with what Mr. Fischer just said. And I would correct one thing. I know he didn’t mean it this way. But they don’t have to get elected, because most of these people are already in positions of power. Marco Rubio, John Kasich, and so forth. So this money going to them for their political campaign might prove positive for the giver later on if they’re elected, but it definitely proves positive in the present, too, because a senator, a governor is going to do things for the person who gave him that money, whether it worked for the furtherance of that person or not. Basically to answer your question though, I had to quit watching at several points last night because I’d watch, I’d think, my party beginning the process of suicide. I’ve been saying this for so long, that if they didn’t get their act together they were going to commit political suicide. And I think that what I saw last night was something that I would ask this question about: who embarrassed themselves most? Megyn, Brett, and Chris? Fox News in general? Or those candidates up there, with the exceptions of possibly three, who I thought, though I might disagree with their policies, in many cases rather starkly disagree, I still thought they conducted themselves as people that I might contemplate as being of presidential timber. And that would be Jeb Bush, John Kasich, and Marco Rubio. My wife found Marco Rubio particularly engaging, and she has no real love for him because she knows I’ve been working on U.S.-Cuba relations for a long time and that Marco Rubio stands opposed to everything I’ve done. So that was particularly persuasive to me, with respect to his performance, because she thought that he was the standout in that debate. But my general appreciation was that the Republican party, Fox News, and all that they represent, some 20 percent of what I call the nuts in this country, are looking at a potential for political suicide. DESVARIEUX: Unpack that a little bit more. When you say political suicide, what do you mean exactly, Larry? WILKERSON: In the most recent presidential elections, in fact going all the way back to World War II with little exception, fewer than let’s say 30 percent of the registered voters in this country have actually elected the president. If you break it down, that’s what it looks like. Sometimes it’s fewer than a quarter have elected the president. In 2000 it surely was probably that. That means there’s a lot of disenchanted voters out there. Well, one way to get them angry and get them to start voting is to do the kinds of things that we saw last night. At least, that’s what I expect will happen. Either that or they won’t come at all and we’ll have an even more dismal performance in the presidential election. The other side of the coin is what the Democrats are offering, of course. And I’ve said many times I don’t think Hillary Clinton is electable. So this is going to be a really interesting–this is going to be like the election of 1896, which is probably one of the most seminal periods in our short history. It’s going to be a real disgusting performance for democracy, as it were, or it’s going to be an electric performance. And what we’re seeing from Donald Trump is some of that. It was interesting to note–and I’ll say this right now–that Fox News, Roger Ailes, whomever, had instructed all three of those interrogators, Megyn, Chris, and Bret, to try and ruin Donald Trump. It was so clear that even my wife noticed it. They were trying, by their questions, to trip him up and arrest his pole climb, if you will, so that other more, in their minds, viable candidates could shine in the debate. That was so clear that Fox News, in addition to having curtailed this debate in a way that was undemocratic even made itself more prominent in this undemocratic means than it had before. So I just don’t, I didn’t see too much positive coming out of the entire performance. DESVARIEUX: But I think people would also argue, Larry, and I’m going to get you in this conversation too, Brendan, that that is the role of the media in all of this. That they are trying to create this charade of democracy. They’re trying to essentially create this debate, ask these quote-unquote tough questions, but in reality it’s nothing more than rhetoric that comes out of most of these debates, that the population isn’t discussing policy. It was very rare to actually hear any of these candidates even talk of solutions. I know the word inequality didn’t even come up in this debate. So I’m going to first turn to you, Brendan. What were some of the issues that were not talked about? Let’s talk about some specifics. FISCHER: It was the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act. Voting rights never came up once. Climate change was never mentioned. A very, an important issue that is certainly going to–that certainly divides the two parties. I was surprised that there was a question about Black Lives Matter and the nonstop, seemingly nonstop police killings of unarmed African-American men. That was directed to Scott Walker, who gave a very, I think, unsatisfying answer. Wisconsin has been the site of some of these killings. Dontre Hamilton in Wisconsin, Tony Robinson in Madison. And during Scott Walker’s tenure he’s had a pretty horrible record on these issues. He pushed tough on crime laws as an ALEC member in the 1990s. Wisconsin now locks up a higher rate of African-American men than any other state in the country. One of Walker’s first acts as governor was to eliminate a program to track the racial [profiling] in stops. He eliminated that program. He’s [not] received a single [pardon] during [inaud.] governor. And I think there should have been a lot more questions asked not only to Walker but a lot of the candidates about this issue, about what really is the civil rights issue of our time. DESVARIEUX: But an issue that they did raise, of course, was ISIS and Iran. Larry, I want to get your take on that. When they brought up these questions about how do we fight ISIS, things of that nature. What was your perspective? WILKERSON: My perspective was I was hearing more of the same. I’ve been working, as you know, Jessica, this issue for five years. The last two years really, really hard. Been over in the Senate, over in the House. Been dogging people from the White House and elsewhere. And I’ve been more or less supportive of the diplomacy, the negotiations, and ultimately now of the deal. It might not be the best in the world, but there isn’t an alternative. Except doing nothing of course, and war. And I definitely want to prevent the latter. What I heard last night were the stock answers. I heard these answers that make no sense at all. They weren’t quite as idiotic as Tom Cotton, who says it’d be all over in a few days, reminding us of those who said they’d meet us in the streets with flowers in Iraq. After ten years and a trillion dollars I’m wondering where those flowers are. So all I heard was, we’ll defeat ISIS. We’ll do it. We’ll do it. We won’t dither like this current president is. We’ll defeat ISIS. Well, how are you going to do that? Tell me how you’re going to do that. Because I can tell you, there is no military solution to this phenomenon of terrorism. There is a military attenuation and management process in certain areas, but there’s no military solution to it. And I would say that as long as the maldistribution of wealth in the world remains as acutely off as it is now, we’re going to have more and more of this. Particularly when the world’s population is under 50. It’s just no prospect, no future, and so forth and so on. And radical religion, the Saudis, the Wahhabism, and so on exacerbates it, of course. But still, there’s a basic problem there. And when I hear my party saying of the president that his idea that you have to do something more than use military power is nonsense, I just write them off as nuts. And they didn’t demonstrate much to refute that last night with regard to these hard questions about national security. Ultimately the United States since the end of the Cold War has been at war roughly every decade 5.6 times, statistically speaking. Before the end of the Cold War, during it we were 2.8 times every decade. That’s a progression that is harmful to this republic. James Madison said it eloquently, the clearest way to tyranny is an interminable state of war. As for where we’re headed, the plutocracy wants that. That’s their purpose. They would love to keep this nation at war. There are more contractors in Iraq now than there were when we were fighting there. Billions of dollars of U.S. taxpayer money is going there, and look at what it’s doing. Virtually nothing except maintaining a stasis that is [inaud.] disaster, refugees, and so forth. So I didn’t hear anything from my party that tells me that they’re doing anything but speaking to the right [ball] ignorant, stupid base that constitutes that element of my party to which they have to speak to get elected. And that’s very discouraging. PERIES: All right. Larry Wilkerson, as well as Brendan Fischer. Thank you both so much for joining us. FISCHER: Thank you for having me. WILKERSON: Thanks for having us. DESVARIEUX: And thank you for having us on the Real News Network.


DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.

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Distinguished Adjunct Professor of Government and Public Policy

Lawrence Wilkerson's last positions in government were as Secretary of State Colin Powell's Chief of Staff (2002-05), Associate Director of the State Department's Policy Planning staff under the directorship of Ambassador Richard N. Haass, and member of that staff responsible for East Asia and the Pacific, political-military and legislative affairs (2001-02). Before serving at the State Department, Wilkerson served 31 years in the U.S. Army. During that time, he was a member of the faculty of the U.S. Naval War College (1987 to 1989), Special Assistant to General Powell when he was Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (1989-93), and Director and Deputy Director of the U.S. Marine Corps War College at Quantico, Virginia (1993-97). Wilkerson retired from active service in 1997 as a colonel, and began work as an advisor to General Powell. He has also taught national security affairs in the Honors Program at the George Washington University. He is currently working on a book about the first George W. Bush administration.