© 2024 WSHU
NPR News & Classical Music
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Mitch McConnell's Calculated Decision To Become Trump's 'Enabler-in Chief,' Explained


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. President Trump's enabler in chief is Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, according to a new article by my guest, Jane Mayer, in The New Yorker. She writes that McConnell's refusal to rein in Trump is looking riskier than ever for McConnell and has cost him the respect of some powerful people who have known him the longest.

McConnell has been Senate Majority Leader since 2015 and was minority leader from 2006 to 2014. He's now running for his seventh term. And the race appears to be very close. Jane Mayer is The New Yorker's chief Washington correspondent, covering politics, culture and national security. Her latest book is the 2016 bestseller "Dark Money: The Hidden History Of The Billionaires Behind The Rise Of The Radical Right." Her article, "Enabler-In-Chief," is in the April 20 issue of The New Yorker.

Jane Mayer, welcome back to FRESH AIR. You write that some critics say McConnell bears a singular responsibility for the predicament we're in now with the coronavirus because McConnell knew from the start that Trump was not equipped to lead in a crisis. And McConnell protected him anyways. Give us a couple of examples of how McConnell has protected Trump.

JANE MAYER: Well, I think the thing that people notice the most is that, during the impeachment hearing, during the trial in the Senate, McConnell was instrumental in making sure that there were no witnesses who could testify against President Trump. And that really saved him in many ways. So that's one of the main things. But I think if you stand back - one of the people I interviewed in this story who I think made a terrific point is Bill Kristol, the conservative who's now become an anti-Trump voice. And what he points out is that Trump is not managing to stay in power only because of his base.

He's there, in part, because of the moneyed interests that are keeping him there. He's there because big donors are supporting him. Many wealthy finance people are supporting him. The editorial page of The Wall Street Journal is supporting him. The Fox sort of empire of Rupert Murdoch is supporting him. There are elites, powerful elites, who are keeping Trump in power. And the connection between Trump and those elites is often the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, who has terrific sort of connections with the big donors and the big money in this country.

GROSS: What are some of the things McConnell could be doing to correct the president's falsehoods, misinformation, lies, contradictions that McConnell hasn't called out Trump for? What could he be doing to prevent those kinds of misstatements, misinformation from being constantly reiterated?

MAYER: Well, among other things, he could be speaking out. He could be, himself, a voice that corrects the president when the president is wrong. But also, under the Constitution, the Senate has a separate function. It's not there simply to enable the executive branch to hold power. It's there to be a check on the executive branch. So what the Senate is not doing is performing oversight. A simple example of that is there are so many positions, now, in the Trump administration that are being held by acting members of the administration who have not been subjected to confirmation by the Senate.

Instead of raising a stink about this and insisting on the Senate's right to confirm and consent to these appointments, McConnell is just rolling over and enabling the administration to keep all of these acting people in place without any kind of confirmation, which gives, then, the president tremendous power over these members of his administration because they don't have their jobs in full. They're just there at his behest. That's just one example. But there's all kinds of oversight that's not being performed.

I mean, there are many allegations of corruption in the Trump administration. Ordinarily, the Congress should be holding hearings on that and looking into it, demanding witnesses from the administration come and testify. The Senate is not doing any of that kind of role. And it's also not legislating for the most part. It is simply doing one thing that McConnell really cares about the most, which is confirming judges.

GROSS: President Trump has usurped some of Congress' power. He issues executive orders like the travel ban, tariffs. He declared a national emergency in order to transfer federal funds to the border wall. He's blocked congressional subpoenas. He didn't cooperate with the impeachment inquiry, as you pointed out. So he's decreasing the power of congressional oversight, as you pointed out. And I have been mystified about why Mitch McConnell has accepted that, why he hasn't opposed the limitations that Trump has basically put on Congress, the power Trump has taken away from the Senate.

So you mentioned that President Trump is appointing conservative judges. And that's going to be one of McConnell's chief legacies when he leaves office. That's been one of his goals is conservative judges. But are there other reasons why McConnell is allowing the president to limit his own power, to limit McConnell's own power as Senate majority leader?

MAYER: Well, two reasons, principally. One is that McConnell is, in many ways, getting everything for his donors that his donors want. You know, he represents the big money in the Republican Party. And the donors are getting tax breaks, as was evident in the 2017 tax bill where 80% of the largesse in that tax bill - all the goodies - went to the top 1% of earners in the United States. And there's also - if you take a look at the agencies, he's going along with all kinds of deregulatory moves that are good for the big money in the Republican Party.

So he's giving his donors what they want. The donors then provide money for him and his Senate allies to get reelected. So there's that sort of back-scratching system going on. And then the other factor is just that, like the other senators, McConnell is afraid of the Republican base. He's afraid to cross it because he's afraid that it will hurt his reelection chances. And if you look at Kentucky, President Trump is far more popular in Kentucky than Senator McConnell is.

And so when he takes on Trump, as he has once or twice in interesting ways over the years, particularly in the summer of 2017, you can see McConnell's own popularity ratings drop because the Republican voters in Kentucky want him to support Trump. And so he has a choice of saving his own skin or standing up on principle. And what you can see that he's doing is choosing his own - you know, his own political self-interest instead of standing up for the country and for democracy.

GROSS: Some people have told you, you know, that - people who've worked closely with him - that McConnell doesn't really like Trump and that he doesn't believe Trump is competent to hold office. But yet, he's supporting him. What are some of the things people have told you who know McConnell well about what McConnell really thinks of Trump?

MAYER: It was so interesting. I mean, what you find out if you, you know, report closely around in the circle that's right around McConnell - people who talk to him and people he confides in - is that behind Trump's back, he says he detests him, can't stand him. He thinks he's smarter than Trump. And he has said that Trump is nuts. And he also has likened Trump to a politician who McConnell loathes, and that's Roy Moore, the former chief judge in Alabama who ran for the Senate, and who, famously, is somebody who McConnell can't stand. He's a demagogue who has a very checkered sort of personal life. And McConnell has said of Trump, oh, he's just like Roy Moore.

So you can see his eyes are open. In a way, you know, it's damning in the sense that it shows that he knows better. But he's had to sort of create this public image that he's supporting Trump. And, in fact, he has formed a kind of an alliance with Trump just to keep both of them in power, basically. I don't know if you want to talk about this. But there were two political scientists who I interviewed who have been looking at this phenomenon as a sort of a political theory, which they call plutocratic populism.

GROSS: Yeah. Describe it.

MAYER: So the political scientists are Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson. And they've got a new book coming out that's called "Let Them Eat Tweets." And what it talks about is this phenomena that they call plutocratic populism. The idea is that the plutocrats in the country, the big money, have an agenda in the Republican Party - tax cuts for the super-rich and deregulations on polluting industries. And that sort of thing is just not broadly popular. And so to win elections, they've got to form an alliance that broadens the coalition to get voters.

And so what they've done is struck up a kind of an expedient pact with lower-educated white nationalists, who are attracted to the populist rhetoric that takes on the elites and says the system is rigged and that minorities are getting ahead of them. A lot of the rhetoric is sort of tinged with racism. And so you have this strange, bifurcated alliance going on, where you've got actual elites - some of the richest sort of corporate powers in the country have an alliance with the people who feel, themselves, left out and sort of stepped on.

That coalition is very much represented in these two people. Mitch McConnell represents the plutocrats. And Trump represents the populists. And so they have to work together to get reelected. Neither of them has got enough popularity on their own to win an election. But if they unite, they can win reelection even if they detest each other, these political scientists said. And it seems, in some ways, they do.

GROSS: McConnell is one of the wealthiest people in the Senate. And Kentucky is one of the poorest states in the country. There's a really interesting billboard that there's a photograph of in the magazine, in The New Yorker, in your piece. Do you want to describe that billboard?

MAYER: Yeah. It's a billboard with a big, blown-up picture of Mitch McConnell and his wife, Elaine Chao. And they're in their black-tie kind of, you know, going-out regalia. And underneath it, the sign says, we're rich. How y'all doing? And the obvious message is, Mitch McConnell and his wife are doing very, very well. But the state of Kentucky, which is extremely poor, is not doing well under McConnell's representation in all these years in the Senate for it. So it's a reflection, also, of the fact that McConnell has become one of the richer members of the Senate during these years.

He was not born rich. And he came from, actually, a pretty hardscrabble family, at least on his mother's side. He had a middle-class upbringing. But at one point in his life, he shed his first wife and announced to friends, who are quoted in the story by name, that he had a plan, which was he wanted to find a rich wife. He had a mentor who'd married rich. And he said he wanted to be like this man, John Sherman Cooper, who was also a senator from Kentucky.

So he was going to look for a rich wife. And the person who told me the story, remembering the dinner when McConnell announced this, said, and, boy, did he ever find one. And the woman that he found was Elaine Chao, who is an heiress to a very lucrative shipping - maritime shipping company that her father founded and built.

GROSS: And we'll get into that a little more later. Let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Jane Mayer, who's the chief Washington correspondent for The New Yorker. Her latest article is called "Enabler-In-Chief: Mitch McConnell's Refusal To Rein In Trump Is Looking Riskier Than Ever (ph)." We'll be right back after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Jane Mayer, The New Yorker's chief Washington correspondent. Her latest article is about Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader. And it's called "Enabler-In-Chief," as in, President Trump's enabler-in-chief.

So I want to get back to what McConnell is getting out of his relationship with Trump. McConnell's wife, Elaine Chao, is secretary of transportation. Is that one of the things McConnell is getting out of their relationship?

MAYER: Well, for sure.

GROSS: I mean, I don't mean to ask that in a sexist way - like, she's a woman, therefore, she wasn't hired for her own ability. But it is, you know...

MAYER: It's mighty handy for...

GROSS: (Laughter).

MAYER: ...Mitch McConnell to have a wife who is the secretary of transportation. Let's just face the facts here. The Transportation Department hands out tons and tons of grants to every state. That allow whoever's in office to say, I brought you this bridge. I fixed this road for you. It's a place where patronage takes place. And so it's very nice for Mitch McConnell to have that relationship. He's been accused by POLITICO of having set up a situation where his wife is favoring Kentucky, giving it more grants than other states. There's an internal investigation taking place within the Transportation Department of this.

Elaine Chao's people have denied it. Mitch McConnell, interestingly, didn't deny it. He made an ad boasting about it saying, you see? I bring you more stuff in Kentucky than anybody else has. And what I discovered when I was reporting was that Mitch McConnell was very important in getting Elaine Chao that job. As soon as Trump was elected, Mitch McConnell was on the phone reaching out to the people in the Trump administration saying, Elaine Chao would like to be the secretary of transportation. And, lo and behold, she got the job.

GROSS: You know, another thing about what McConnell is getting out of the relationship with Trump or why he is not standing up to Trump - some of McConnell's major donors are, reportedly, Fox News executives, including Rupert Murdoch and his son, Lachlan Murdoch. Does that mean that McConnell is reluctant to call out some of the things that Trump echo - that he hears on Fox News (ph).

MAYER: Well, it certainly is a very sticky relationship. In the most recent filing period at the FEC, which just - these numbers that just came out, they showed that four of Mitch McConnell's top five disclosed contributors are executives at Fox News, so there's a working relationship there. Certainly, Fox has all kinds of regulatory needs and issues that the government can help it with. And Mitch McConnell, of course, wants to keep the dollars flowing to himself. So it's a very close and financial relationship there - you can at least say that - and an interesting one.

GROSS: You write that McConnell is losing the support - and maybe even the respect - of some people who have been close to him a long time, some powerful people. And one of the people you single out here is David Jones, the late co-founder of Humana, the health care giant. And he backed all of McCain's Senate campaigns. And Jones and Humana gave $4.6 million to the McConnell Center at the University of Kentucky in Louisville. And three days before Jones died, he and his two sons sent the second of two letters - letters you describe as scorching letters - to McConnell. And they share those letters with you. Can you read us an excerpt of what was in those letters?

MAYER: Basically, David Jones Sr., the co-founder of Humana, who McConnell had actually called, without exaggeration, the single most influential friend and mentor I've had in my entire career after he died - so this is a man who McConnell has said he's tremendously close to - actually had written him two letters along with his sons in which he called on McConnell to do his job, basically, as the Senate. Stand up for the Senate; stop letting it be a bystander and to use his, quote-unquote, "constitutional authority to protect the nation from President Trump's incoherent and incomprehensible international actions."

The letter writers - the Jones family argued that the powers of the Senate to constrain an errant president are prodigious and it is your job to put them to use. They got an answer back to their first letter to Senator McConnell, who they'd known well personally; they're all from Louisville. And the letter back from McConnell basically sort of was the pat on the head saying, don't you worry; President Trump had one of the finest national security teams that he had ever had the honor to work with. A few months later, the same people - David Jones Sr., his son David Jones Jr. and David Jones Jr.'s brother Matthew Jones - sent another letter pointing out that half that national security team, by then, had either quit or been fired or, in some other way, sort of jettisoned - saying, are you still telling us that you have confidence in this president? And they then wrote an even more scorching letter back to McConnell saying, do something, basically; stand up to this president. What's the point, they asked, of confirming judges if the republic is crumbling around it? They did not get an answer to that letter from Senator McConnell. David Jones Sr. died right around the time it was sent, and McConnell's office has not responded to requests for comment about this.

But I think what you see in this that's, to me, so fascinating is that these people are not - they are not liberal Democrats. Dave Jones Sr. was, again, one of the strongest supporters of Mitch McConnell in his entire career. And he is astounded and disappointed in McConnell for not standing up for the constitutional role that the Senate should play and pushing back against a president that they see as kind of ruinous to the country.

GROSS: McConnell has also apparently lost the political support of his three daughters.

MAYER: Yeah. He has three grown daughters. And one of them in particular, Porter McConnell, the youngest one who has, I think, a graduate degree in political science, is actually - fascinatingly to me anyway - is a progressive activist. She works for an organization called Take on Wall Street. She runs a campaign there for Take on Wall Street. It's mostly labor unions who are pushing back hard against big money in American politics and against the sort of unfair role that they see as the power of the finance community in American politics.

And specifically, Take on Wall Street has gone after Blackstone, the gigantic private equity and hedge fund company - finance company on Wall Street which has been, interestingly, the biggest donors to her father's political campaigns and to groups that are allied with him. So she's really going straight at her father's funding in the kind of work that she's been doing.

GROSS: That's such an interesting contrast.

MAYER: I have to say that she did not grant me an interview, so I was just going from reading online and talking to people who have worked with her about the role that Take on Wall Street is playing. But it's hard to find a more sort of diametric bullseye hit against her father than some of the things that Take on Wall Street is writing.

GROSS: Let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Jane Mayer, chief Washington correspondent for The New Yorker. Her latest article is called "Enabler-In-Chief." It's about Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. We'll be right back after we take a short break.

I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Jane Mayer, The New Yorker's chief Washington correspondent. Her latest article is about Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. It's called "Enabler-In-Chief," and it's all about Mitch McConnell's career in politics and how he has been a chief enabler of President Trump. Jane Mayer is also the author of the 2016 bestseller "Dark Money: The Hidden History Of The Billionaires Behind The Rise Of The Radical Right."

You describe McConnell as the master of the Washington, D.C., money machine and that nobody has done more than he has to engineer the current campaign finance system in which billionaires and corporations have virtually no spending limits and self-dealing and influence peddling are common. How did he become the master of the D.C. money machine?

MAYER: Well, one of the things that was astonishing to me was he came into politics around the time of Watergate, when there was sort of a national outcry against corruption and against the role that big money was playing in American politics. There was big pushback going on. And in 1973, he was part of that pushback. He wrote an editorial saying that money is a cancer on politics and that there needed to be public funding of presidential campaigns. I mean, he sounded like a liberal Democrat for about two minutes.

But pretty soon he started running for office himself, and when he did, his tune changed completely. So that by the mid-'70s, he was teaching a class in Louisville - kind of a night class - on politics, and he told his class there were three things that you needed to succeed in politics, and he wrote them on blackboard and then walked away to show the three things, and the three things were the words money, money, money. And that pretty much has been the theme of his career.

When I interviewed a lot of people about McConnell's rise, what they said was you have a man here who's very smart and very ambitious, but he doesn't have much charisma. He's not a great public speaker. He's not especially, you know, handsome looking or dynamic seeming. He's a great schemer, great long-term planner, but he doesn't have a great public presence. And particularly in the South, you need to be something of a showman, and he is not that. So he needed money more than most people in politics to win. He was also running as a Republican in the South, which used to be pretty solidly Democratic. He sort of rode the wave of the Republican Party rising to power in the South, and that took money, too.

And so more than most people, he's really relied on big money to keep himself in power and to keep his party in power 'cause many of the policies that the Republican Party represents these days really are not, if you look at polls, popular across the board in the country. So it takes other things to kind of keep the party in power. It takes things like big money, and it takes things like gerrymandering and other kinds of advantages in the election system.

GROSS: You write that McConnell's former staffers run an array of ostensibly independent spending groups, many of which take tens of millions of dollars from undisclosed donors. Tell us more about that.

MAYER: So McConnell's been very involved in trying to destroy all the various kinds of campaign finance reforms that were passed since Watergate, all the limits on spending and the limits that try to disclose money so that the public can see where the money's coming from. It kind of led up to the Citizens United fight that the Supreme Court ruled on in 2010 that really was the beginning of striking down any kind of meaningful limits on controlling money. He's been involved in those fights in various organizations. He's in favor of more money in politics, and he's been pretty outspoken about that.

And his aides have gone from working with him in the Senate to running many of the outside groups that sort of vacuum up gigantic secret campaign contributions from the biggest businesses in the country. And, you know, you can see, for instance, that they are involved in groups like American Crossroads, Crossroads GPS and various funds that help Republican senators get reelected. It's a system that they've built, and it's a very powerful system that brings outside money and undisclosed money into getting the Republican candidates reelected.

GROSS: So it's money that gets Republican candidates reelected, and in return, the elected Republicans help pass legislation that favors big money.

MAYER: Yeah. I mean, it's - somebody's described it as a self-licking ice-cream cone. It's a kind of a little circular process in a way where you've got aides that work for McConnell who go off and become lobbyists. They represent the big industries that need favors from government. They give huge donations to get McConnell and other Republicans reelected. And then McConnell and other Republicans do the bidding of these companies in Congress. They hold up legislation, for instance, that might do something about climate change on behalf of energy companies that don't want to see America move away from fossil fuels. They hold up change on things like bringing down drug prices because they take a ton of money from big pharma companies.

They would say, on their behalf - just so we get in how they look at it - they would say they believe in these companies. They believe these companies are doing the right thing, and they're happy to help them. And they represent them because these are the people that they think are doing good things for America. But whatever your perspective on it, what you can see is that the companies get the legislation they need out of these representatives who have power in Congress.

GROSS: Part of the story surrounding Mitch McConnell is that he used to be more idealistic. You looked for evidence of that and didn't find any.

MAYER: I did. I spent months on this story. I interviewed - I finally counted - it was upwards of 110 people. And I kept looking and looking to try to understand Mitch McConnell. You know, what makes somebody like this tick? Why does he want to hold power? What is he trying to do with it? What larger purpose does he have? What kind of principles does he have?

And I kept talking to people to try to figure this out. And finally, one day - I was really kind of racking my brains. One day, I was interviewing someone who knows him very, very well. And unfortunately, I can't reveal who this is. But the person said to me - they could see I was struggling. And the person said, give up. You know, I wish I could tell you that there was some secret thing he believes in, but he doesn't. And it kind of made me realize there isn't more there, and that's what this person was saying. And this is someone who's known him terrifically well. It's all about winning for him. It's all about holding the power and keeping the power. And there were other people who said pretty much, essentially, the same thing, who've known him for a long time.

One of the people who was very forthcoming in this story was John Yarmuth, who is the Democratic congressman from Louisville, Ky., who has known Mitch McConnell for 50 years. And Yarmuth himself used to be a Republican back in the days when Republicans were more liberal, and he eventually switched parties and became a Democrat. But he had worked with McConnell on campaigns when they were both - I think one campaign when they were both Republicans. And what he said to me was - I said, well, was he ever idealistic? And Congressman Yarmuth said to me, nah, he never really was. I don't see any change in him. He said he always wanted to be someone, but he never wanted to do anything.

It's power for its own sake, is the picture that comes together when you look closely at McConnell. And that's what he's doing with Trump. I mean, he's holding the power. He's staying in power no matter what is going on over in the White House because that's how this alliance keeps both him in power and the president in power.

GROSS: Well, let's take another break here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Jane Mayer. She's The New Yorker's chief Washington correspondent. And her latest article is about Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, and it's called "President Trump's Enabler-In-Chief" (ph). We'll be right back after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Jane Mayer. She's the chief Washington correspondent for The New Yorker. Her latest article is about Mitch McConnell and his relationship with President Trump, and it's called "Enabler-In-Chief," meaning McConnell is Trump's enabler in chief.

Mitch McConnell married Elaine Chao in 1993. It was his second marriage. She's an heiress who is now Trump's secretary of transportation. That's the position she chose when she knew she would get a cabinet appointment. There are possible conflicts of interest there. What are they?

MAYER: Well, she would say there are not. But her family has a privately owned shipping company that does 70% of its business with China. It's a very lucrative company. It's based in New York. Her family are immigrants from China who've become American citizens. They're American, not Chinese, now. But they obviously have huge interests in the transportation arena, and she is the secretary of transportation. So there is the possibility of a conflict of interest there.

GROSS: And as you say, McConnell helped smear Joe Biden by allowing senators to insist that the real Ukraine scandal was the Biden family's enrichment for their connections with Ukraine's rulers. And you say any criticism of the Biden family could be made about the Chao family. Give us some examples of what you mean.

MAYER: Not only could it be made of the Chao family but what fascinated me was the same criticisms that have been made about the Biden family have been made about the Chao family and in the same book and by the same author who sort of blew up the whole Biden scandal. This is Peter Schweizer, who's written a book called "Secret Empires." And one chapter is about the Biden family's wheeling and dealings in Ukraine, and the next chapter is about the Chao family and Mitch McConnell's wheelings and dealings in China. And so anybody who wants to try to make an issue of this can see that they both have their problems.

What are the issues in the Chao family? It's very complicated. The New York Times has actually done a fantastic series on this subject. Mike Forsythe, who really understands sort of China in and out, has written it, and I recommend anybody take a look at that if they want to get all of the details. But in a simplistic form, Elaine Chao's sister Angela is now one of the people that runs the family company, and - she and her father both do.

At the same time they run this American shipping company that does so much of its business with China, they have been on the board of Bank of China, which is a state-run bank that's incredibly important in China, and Angela Chao and her father have also sat on the board of a holding company - it's a state-run holding company in China - that owns the company that builds Chinese warships. So it has a very strong connection with the Chinese military. And this is a really complicated and fraught kind of situation for the Senate majority leader in the U.S. Senate. He is not running that company, and Elaine Chao is not running the company; her sister is. But Mitch McConnell and Elaine Chao have inherited $25 million of the fortune made by that company. So there is a direct connection there, financially.

GROSS: And McConnell's sister-in-law Angela, who's CEO of the family business, is now married to a billionaire, Jim Breyer, who is a venture capitalist with huge financial interests in China. Has he supported McConnell campaigns?

MAYER: Yes, he has, indeed, very strongly. So you've got - Jim Breyer is now the brother-in-law of Mitch McConnell. Jim Breyer's well known in the business world. He's a terrifically important and successful venture capitalist. And he is on the board of Blackstone, the same huge Wall Street finance group that has poured money into McConnell's campaigns. So it manages something like a half-a-trillion dollars. So McConnell is very connected in to some of the most powerful business interests in the world, really, at this point.

GROSS: So you write about a position that McConnell took that, in retrospect, is very interesting now that we're in a crisis with the viral pandemic. When McConnell tried to repeal Obamacare, the Affordable Care Act, he introduced an amendment to eliminate the Prevention and Public Health Fund at the CDC. What does that fund do? And how is it related to the pandemic that we're experiencing now?

MAYER: So that fund is money that - it's about a 12th of the funding of the CDC. It's almost a billion dollars. And McConnell himself, as you said, introduced this amendment - it's unusual for the majority leader to introduce an amendment himself, but he did - to eliminate the funding for those programs. Those programs provide funds to the states all over the country, among other things, to detect outbreaks of epidemics and infectious diseases and to respond to them. So you can see that there was - you know, if he'd gotten his way, there would have been even less ability of the states to work against a pandemic like the coronavirus pandemic that we're dealing with. The Democrats eventually kept some of the funding in there. It's less than a billion dollars than it was. It's gone back and forth. Finally, the Democrats, in more recent years, were given a choice of either putting money into that fund or funding cancer research, and they went along with the cancer research. So that fund's been gutted a lot, and McConnell led the way.

GROSS: What was his purpose in doing that?

MAYER: He and Republicans have described that fund as a slush fund. They didn't like it. They made fun of it and said it was paying for preventive health measures they've really been against. They claimed that it was paying for things like Zumba classes and tobacco awareness. They really just didn't want to fund these kinds of preventive health programs, and they wanted to save money.

And in fact, one of the - there's an epidemiologist who is quoted in the story who, at the time, along with many, many health organizations, warned this was a disastrous move. If they'd succeeded in wiping out that fund completely, she was saying - her name's Judy Stone - you know, you will not be able to fight back against things like Zika and any kind of foreign epidemics. And she - what she was saying was, she felt it was unconscionable to take that kind of money and put it into tax cuts for the 2017 tax bill that went to the richest people in the country. And, you know, it's a question of priorities.

GROSS: So is that what happened? In order to do the cuts and taxes for the wealthy, you had to make cuts, including at the CDC?

MAYER: It's certainly true that the 2017 tax cuts resulted in hugely reduced money coming into the federal government. And if you have to make up for those cuts somewhere, you have to look across the board and see what you're going to cut. And the thing that Mitch McConnell suggested cutting was this fund at the CDC that was one-twelfth of its funding, that's money that goes to the states.

GROSS: McConnell is now running for his seventh term as a senator from Kentucky. He's running against Amy McGrath. And how is that election looking?

MAYER: Well, it's early. It's hard to tell. There have been some surprising things about it. Amy McGrath is a former Marine fighter pilot. She's not, politically, anywhere near as experienced, obviously, as McConnell is. But McConnell's forte is always raising money. And so his campaign announced that they'd raised just an unprecedented amount of money. I think it's something like $25 or $26 million already. And the next day, Amy McGrath's campaign announced that they had raised even more. So she's obviously raising a staggering amount of money.

How this will come out? It's hard to tell. The Cook Political Report, which is, you know, pretty much the gold standard in analyzing these races, gives the edge to McConnell. He's a very tough campaigner. He has a long history of artfully smearing any opponent to the point that nobody can stand to vote for them. So we will see. But right now she's holding her own in the funding.

GROSS: What's at stake in that election?

MAYER: Well, I mean, I think what's at stake nationally right now is who will have the majority of the Senate. It was taken for granted, maybe a half a year ago, that the Republicans would continue to hold the majority in the Senate. That's been changed. The Cook Political Report has downgraded the Republicans' chances of holding the Senate to a 50-50 toss-up. So it's possible that Republicans could lose the majority in the Senate. It could go to the Democrats. If that were to happen, it would be a new day in Congress because the Senate, as this story tries to explain, is very much enabling Donald Trump's presidency. If the Senate were to stand up to Donald Trump, if it were in Democratic hands, it would be a tremendous roadblock to Trump's rule.

GROSS: Well, Jane, I wish you good health and your family as well. Thank you, as always, for talking with us, and thank you for your reporting.

MAYER: Terry, so good to be with you. Thank you so much.

GROSS: Jane Mayer is chief Washington correspondent for The New Yorker. Her article about Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, titled "Enabler-In-Chief," is in the April 20 edition of The New Yorker.

After we take a short break, our TV critic David Bianculli will review this Sunday's series finale of "Homeland" and the return of the series "Penny Dreadful." This is FRESH AIR.


Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.