Is President Donald Trump a symptom of corrupt system, or is he the cause? The nation’s highest office is embroiled in scandal, some so brazen and shameless that it’s almost easy to grow numb to the onslaught of headlines. But corruption is a uniquely poisonous threat to the country, a danger the founding fathers became obsessed with trying to prevent.
So how did we reach this particularly low point, and what can be done to clean it up? Zephyr Teachout is in a unique position to talk about this, as she is the author of the book “Corruption in America” and she also happens to be running New York Attorney General, a race the president should be paying close attention to.
CHRIS HAYES: This crown prince of Saudi Arabia sweeps into New York, and where does he stay? He stays at the Plaza, which is owned, has a huge Saudi interest owning it. But the rest of his retinue stays where? Where in New York do they stay? They stay at the Trump Hotel and the general manager writes a letter to the investors in the Trump Hotel saying we're headed for loss in this quarter and then who shows up and spends a shit load of money but the Saudis.
ZEPHYR TEACHOUT: Absolutely and we just happen to have this letter, good reporting by the Washington Post. But what about the other letters?
CHRIS HAYES: I said this on-air, I said, the Qataris could go book 50 rooms and keep them empty for two weeks in a Trump property and no one would know.
ZEPHYR TEACHOUT: And no one would know.
CHRIS HAYES: No one would know.
ZEPHYR TEACHOUT: And we have to know that.
CHRIS HAYES: Hello and welcome to "Why is this Happening?" with me your host, Chris Hayes. So the competition for the top five, top ten, top whatever craziest, most unbelievable stories of the Trump era is fierce. I mean, it is the nature of the era we live in and the President and his behavior and his administration's behavior that you're constantly encountering stories that you cannot believe are happening. You can't believe that this is what I'm reading, this is what's happening. And sometimes they're just silly or trivial like, the EPA administrator forcing his security detail to drive him from Ritz Carlton to Ritz Carlton looking to purchase a specific type of Ritz Carlton lotion he likes, which was an actual story.
And sometimes they're much bigger and more significant and in my top five, top ten list is a story from a little while ago from ProPublica, which was about three members of the Mar-a-Lago club who have been effectively running the Veteran's Administration for a year and a half. One of them is Ike Perlmutter, who is the head of Marvel Entertainment and notoriously reclusive and is a Mar-a-Lago member. Another was a Palm Beach kind of celebrity doctor to the rich and the other was a lawyer from Baltimore who also I guess, has a place in Florida. And they're all Mar-A-Lago member and at a certain point, Donald Trump was like, "Go to town on that V.A. Whip it into shape." And then just this ProPublica reporting is just gob-smackingly insane in which everyone in the V.A. is scrambling to meet the demands and jump to the snapped fingers of this troika of Mar-a-Lago club members who are telling them like, how to run the V.A. and where you should privatize care and what your priorities should be.
This is the health system for nine million people. Nine million of the most sort of cherished, important members of American society, people who have served in the armed forces and through that service have been enrolled in this system that we have created and set aside specifically to address their needs. And none of these people have any expertise. It's an astounding story. But what it is more than anything when you read is, my first thought is this is amazingly corrupt. And I thought about that word, this is corrupt. What do I mean by that? Because at some level, it's not even clear what they're getting out of it. There some reporting in the story that one of them tried to shoehorn his son's app into some V.A. program. They're trying to do some deal things, like, "My son's got an app. Check out my son's app. Any way you can get that app in there."
There's another part of the story where they put together some publicity event for a veteran's charity, where they ring opening bell or closing bell of the stock market but there's a bunch of Marvel people there, including Captain America and Spiderman 'cause Ike Perlmutter got involved. Again, what's the quid pro quo here? I think these people just like running the V.A. They think they're doing some service but people paying the president hundreds of thousands a year to be members of his private club and because they do that getting to run the health care service for nine million American veterans is an astounding, astounding abuse of the public trust. It is an astounding betrayal of a basic set of social contracts we have about how we self-govern. We all get together, we vote for elected representatives, they then hire people to run a bureaucracy staffed by civil servants who administer programs that we all collectively agree to.
We don't just say like, "Hey, rich dude, do you want to run the V.A. because you're paying the president $200,000 a year or you met him on the golf course?" And yet, everywhere you look in this era, you see corruption. You see corruption everywhere you look in the Trump administration. And not just in the Trump administration, in the way politics works. I mean, there's $25-26 million was spent on the Neil Gorsuch confirmation in ads buy a dark money group, who's donors we don't know. Where'd the money come from? What did they think they were getting out of it? There's dark money flowing through the American political system like it hasn't in probably 100 years, since the Gilded Age. And it's not just corruption in politics, it's broader than that. I mean, when you look at the behavior of entities in the private sector, what brought on the financial crisis.
We are living in astoundingly corrupt age and Donald Trump seems to be the apotheosis of that age. I mean, no one better embodies the venality, almost the pettiness of corruption like the sitting President of the United States. There's a person who you may have heard of, who has been thinking and writing and banging the drum about corruption for awhile. And she's currently running for office and her name is Zephyr Teachout. She's a really interesting person. I've known her for awhile, she's been on the show. She worked on the Howard Dean campaign, she's also a lawyer and a law professor. She teaches law at Fordham University School of Law. And years back she kind of threw her hat in the ring to get a primary challenge to Andrew Cuomo, kind of from the left. Surprised a lot of people, did much better than anyone anticipated. Then she ran for Congress in 2016 in the Hudson Valley. She lost to a Republican there and this year she's running for Attorney General of New York.
Attorney General of New York, a position recently occupied by Eric Schneiderman who it was revealed through incredible reporting in the New Yorker by Ronan Farrow and Jane Meyer is accused of being a violent, sadistic, horrible creep to a series of women in his life. He resigned, I think within 24 hours of the publication of that article, leaving the position occupied by a woman named Barbara Underwood, who was the solicitor general who became the Attorney General but she is not going to run to be the permanent Attorney General which means there's this wide open race for Attorney General that's happening in New York and Zephyr Teachout's running. And there's a very interesting item the other day in the paper that said that Donald Trump is paying particular attention to the race for Attorney General in New York, which makes a lot of sense.
Because the Attorney General in New York is kind of the chief corruption cop in the state of New York and the jurisdiction that Donald Trump's businesses reside in is New York. And so it would make a lot of sense that a president who has never divested from his businesses, who's entangled in God knows what kind of improper dependencies and favors and promises and debts would be worried about who is going to be the chief corruption officer in the state of New York, where his business is located. And it was for that reason that I thought the best person to talk about corruption in the Trump era, from the emoluments clause and lawsuit to Trump Org., to what we are seeing happen at the agencies in Washington D.C. was Zephyr Teachout.
Zephyr actually wrote a book called, "Corruption in America," in which she goes all the way back, you're gonna hear, all the way to the founders and what she discovers is that corruption is one of the, if not the, central problems that the founders were obsessed with. How to identify it, how to stop it from happening, how to put structures in place that make it impossible for the government to rot from the inside from corruption. One has to wonder, what the founders would make of where we are now.
You wrote a book which has a great title, it's like the set up for a joke, the title is "Corruption in America" which is like how many shelves does it take up or how many volumes-
ZEPHYR TEACHOUT: Exactly.
CHRIS HAYES: "Corruption in America." And I thought maybe the best place to start the conversation is just this really kind of elemental question which is: what is corruption, how do we define it?
ZEPHYR TEACHOUT: Yeah. Corruption is when people in public office use that public office for private or selfish ends. This is one of the most central debates in the last 40 years in law, what is corruption. This is what we've seen in the Supreme Court is a fundamental struggle over the definitions. So the definition I just gave you, using public office for private ends, is a definition that goes back thousands of years. Was certainly the way that the founders of our country understood corruption and they took it very seriously. In the last few decades, there's been a rising alternate definition of corruption, one that I radically disagree with.
But has been advocated by now a majority of the Supreme Court, although it used to be the minority of the Supreme Court. Which is that corruption is essentially when there is some kind of explicit quid pro quo exchange between someone in public office and someone else saying, "I will divert this train 'cause you're giving me 50 bucks."
CHRIS HAYES: Right, so the narrower definition, which comes out of the Supreme Court's ruling about the conviction of Bob McDonnell, who's the Virginia governor-
ZEPHYR TEACHOUT: Yeah.
CHRIS HAYES: That depends on explicit ... It's basically like selling a pair of socks.
ZEPHYR TEACHOUT: Yeah.
CHRIS HAYES: You have to sell your office like you sell a pair of socks in order to pass the bar the Supreme Court set in that case.
ZEPHYR TEACHOUT: Yeah, I mean, the deep flaw here is that what you start to see, you see this in the majority in opinion in Citizens United. You also see it, the seeds of it in Justice Roberts and the decision in 2007 which is the decision that really sparked me on this path, like, oh, there's this amazing important debate about the meaning of corruption that will have real consequences in our law. Unfortunately the consequences have come to pass. What they said is, anything else is too fuzzy, corruption is just quid pro quo corruption. Latin words, Latin phrases make it sound like it's really precise. You're relying on this ancient language that-
CHRIS HAYES: As our forefathers the Romans declared-
ZEPHYR TEACHOUT: But the truth is, it's not always clear when there's quid pro quo corruption either. So there's false sense of —
CHRIS HAYES: Yeah, that's a good point.
ZEPHYR TEACHOUT: So there's a false sense of certainty around the modern definition. A sense of, oh we're gonna be fine if we just narrow it in this way. And anything else is too difficult. But the truth is, even when you're selling socks with winks and nods, there have been real questions and these are real questions in criminal trials around corruption, around even quid pro quo corruption. Even bribery trials, where well, was that wink a yes or not.
CHRIS HAYES: Okay so that's interesting. What I'm saying, so what you're saying is, this desire to get away from this fuzziness, self-described desire on the part of the thinkers and the judges who are moving towards this narrower definition-
ZEPHYR TEACHOUT: Yeah.
CHRIS HAYES: Is that we want something hard and concrete-
ZEPHYR TEACHOUT: Yes.
CHRIS HAYES: And I said, hard and concrete like selling a pair of socks and you're saying, there is no getting rid of the definitional problem, there's going to be fuzziness. It's like my wife has this joke about, it's not her joke, I think it's with her law students about how do you get rid of the close calls at first base, move first base a little closer.
ZEPHYR TEACHOUT: Right!
CHRIS HAYES: Well, it's like, no that's not the way it works, wherever it's gonna be, there's going to be a close call at first base. And your point is, what I'm hearing from you, is you can't define a way some of the fuzziness ambiguity in these questions.
ZEPHYR TEACHOUT: Yeah and so instead we should go the real core meanings and the core purposes. Like what are these laws about. And the reason this really matters is there's been this shell game in the Supreme Court. There's two kinds of corruption cases. Some cases like the McDonnell cases are interpreting bribery laws.
CHRIS HAYES: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
ZEPHYR TEACHOUT: And some cases are interpreting campaign finance laws.
CHRIS HAYES: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
ZEPHYR TEACHOUT: I think of it as one set of rules or these bright line rules, like speed limit rules, campaign finance rules say you just can't take over $5,400 in a cycle. And then bribery laws are really saying, was there something deeply wrong in this particular transaction. And what the court has done is narrow the definition of corruption in each arena. But what they'll do is they'll say, when we're dealing with campaign finance, they'll say, oh, don't worry that we're narrowing it here, we'll deal with the corruption problem with aggressive prosecutions.
CHRIS HAYES: Right, so like, "No, I hear you, that stuff's nasty, we're gonna go after that stuff but-"
ZEPHYR TEACHOUT: But not here.
CHRIS HAYES: But not here.
ZEPHYR TEACHOUT: But not here, right, yeah. And then in McDonnell itself, narrowing the statutory understanding of a bribery, the court says, don't worry, there are other ways we can deal with problem like those bright line ethics rules. So in each case, the court is shifting responsibility and so there's a double erosion in both areas of law and the result is, one, we have far fewer constraints against corruption in the bright line law area which is something I care a lot about. And we have fewer tools for prosecutors.
CHRIS HAYES: Right. So the McDonnell case is interesting 'cause I wanna just, if people were following this conversation and don't remember the facts, I'll just lay them out briefly. He's the governor of Virginia, he's getting all kinds of gifts from this sort of rich benefactor-
ZEPHYR TEACHOUT: Rolex watch…
CHRIS HAYES: Yeah, it's a real kind of like Paul Manafort kind of feel to the whole thing.
ZEPHYR TEACHOUT: Well, this is pre-Trump.
CHRIS HAYES: Right.
ZEPHYR TEACHOUT: This is pre-Trump and now it's routine to see this kind of grotesque… like you're really doing something that obvious.
CHRIS HAYES: Yeah, he's getting Rolex watches.
ZEPHYR TEACHOUT: But at the time it was like-
CHRIS HAYES: Shocking.
ZEPHYR TEACHOUT: It was shocking.
CHRIS HAYES: Shocking.
ZEPHYR TEACHOUT: You're getting Rolex watches for…
CHRIS HAYES: And in exchange this guy's peddling essentially snake oil, some vitamin supplement. And the governor is leaning on people in state agencies to basically take meetings with him.
ZEPHYR TEACHOUT: Exactly.
CHRIS HAYES: That's essentially the facts. The Supreme Court basically says, taking a meeting can't be the quo in the quid pro quo.
ZEPHYR TEACHOUT: Yeah. So it came down to and when you think of the sort of basic structure of bribery laws, there is a thing given in exchange for a thing done.
CHRIS HAYES: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
ZEPHYR TEACHOUT: And so different cases are about one of those three questions. Was there a thing given?
CHRIS HAYES: It this case, that clears, we know, we got pictures, it entered into evidence in trial of the watch.
ZEPHYR TEACHOUT: Right, so sometimes there's questions, well is it enough of a thing if it's like getting your niece's friend into college. There are those kind of-
CHRIS HAYES: Well, that's interesting.
ZEPHYR TEACHOUT: Right, so is it a thing given? Is it an exchange? And so that's where a lot of the explicitness comes in. Is there some kind of conversation or something that a jury can make a reasonable inference that it was an exchange, it wasn't just you happen to give this thing in exchange for that. And the third is what was the official act? So this McDonnell case is about the official act. What does the official act have to be in order for it to be considered a violation? The court says, it is not an official act to just set up meetings. And that goes against about 500 hundred years of precedent.
CHRIS HAYES: I'm glad you said 500 years of precedent. Because one of the things I like about ... I read parts of "Corruption in America," and it's like the joke about sex work, the world's second oldest profession, it's like from the moment there's governance, there's corruption. And people write about it, they joke about it, there's like vulgar cracks about it.
ZEPHYR TEACHOUT: Yeah.
CHRIS HAYES: Everyone knows people are on the take. It's just like essential fundamental problem.
ZEPHYR TEACHOUT: It is the central fundamental problem. And we'll go back in history for a second but when I was trying to figure out why the court was going this way, why there had been this big shift. And by the way, it wasn't just the Supreme Court and it wasn't just conservatives on the court, there was this move after the '70s away from the language of corruption in elite academic circles as well. That corruption was sort of too morally laden a term. Corruption requires looking into someone's soul and making judgments about their intent. We can deal with things in a much more practical way. There was in short, I think a genuine sense, a crazy one, that this eternal question had been largely solved. And we could see ... I mean this is really post-wall coming down, especially the triumphalism of-
CHRIS HAYES: Totally.
ZEPHYR TEACHOUT: The triumphalism of the early '90s.
CHRIS HAYES: Francis Fukuyama's, "End of History" gets published right around then to basically say, look the world has now achieved a consensus about liberal democracy is the fundamental order.
ZEPHYR TEACHOUT: Right. And we got the basics right.
CHRIS HAYES: Yeah.
ZEPHYR TEACHOUT: And so we'll fiddle around the edges but this old fundamental thing isn't a problem and you see some of this language in Supreme Court opinions where there is, yeah, corruption's a problem but so is stealing pipes from people's houses. Like that it is this minor problem, not what the founders thought, which is basically the most fundamental existential threat that will never go away and that you constantly have to fight against and you have to do everything
So Hamilton in "The Federalist Papers," describes the Constitutional Convention saying, we did everything we could to erect every practicable obstacle to corruption. Because that's the threat, we're not gonna have self-government if we don't protect against corruption. Or as somebody else said, if we don't protect against corruption we will soon be at an end. It's like this looming sense. And corruption is "rupt" comes from the Latin, I'm not a Latin scholar so this is ... I'm relying on other experts here. “Ruptore," the idea of breaking and "co," is within oneself. So it's internal breaking.
So one of the things that you see in the founding era is something that I think we're returning to right now, which is that the sense that the greatest threat to democracy is internal breaking of itself. Not the external warriors who might come in and invade.
CHRIS HAYES: Right. We rot from within.
ZEPHYR TEACHOUT: We rot from within, yeah.
CHRIS HAYES: And corruption in that sense, right, 'cause there's an interesting ... We use the term in different venues. To me, I think about corruption in a broader sense than just this specific legal corruption vis-a-vis the law and public office.
ZEPHYR TEACHOUT: Yeah.
CHRIS HAYES: I was a fellow at the Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard with Lawrence Lessig in his lab on institutional corruption. There's a sort of look at corruption in non-governmental spheres, right? So Enron-
ZEPHYR TEACHOUT: Absolutely.
CHRIS HAYES: Mortgage brokers. And there's where you get that sense of moral rot.
ZEPHYR TEACHOUT: Yeah.
CHRIS HAYES: People start to cut corners, they start to say ... You look at the emails that are floating around from mortgage brokers during the boom and it's like, who cares at what the fucking value this thing is-
ZEPHYR TEACHOUT: Yes.
CHRIS HAYES: We're just gonna ship it out. You got Enron transcripts of them being like, "Shut down that power plant, jack up the prices, granny's going to pay through the nose." And that's moral rot, that's rot.
ZEPHYR TEACHOUT: Yeah, yeah.
CHRIS HAYES: That's what's happening in those institutions, whether it's a market, a company, anything.
ZEPHYR TEACHOUT: One of the things that is so important, critical I think, in reading not just the founders but thousands of years as you put it, that discussion about corruption, is that you can't talk about the problem of corruption without talking about human nature. Whether you're talking about private or public corruption. When you read the notes from the Constitutional Convention, one of the things that comes up over and over is temptation. And they're really concerned about temptation because they start with, okay we gotta prevent corruption. So we understand what humans are. We have to actually in order to prevent corruption, we gotta talk about what a human being is and what the incentives are.
And people can't bear that much temptation. So the job of building structures, building a constitutional structure, is not just to punish those who behave badly but actually to protect people from their own temptations. And this real investigation into human nature also relates to your discussion about Enron. That once you're in a culture where everybody's law breaking, it's just human nature to start saying, well everybody else is doing it, so I will too. And if we're really gonna take corruption threat seriously, you can't do it as this hyper technical just looking at people's widgets, you actually have to get into people's like deep incentives and motives and the human spirit.
CHRIS HAYES: Human spirit, human motivation, cultures, institutional settings, the way people relate to each other. It's almost religious language but like moral rot like people falling into sin is the way I think about it because they are tempted and temptation is eternal.
ZEPHYR TEACHOUT: Yeah. And then you can see why in the last 30-40 years even liberal academics got kind of nervous around this language like moral rot, poison, disease, there's often language of disease around corruption the way that it infects one person and then infects others because you see somebody at the top of an organization have a spirit of cutting corners that does infect people below. But that doesn't fit with the hyper economics trend within social sciences to try to put everything in the widget box.
CHRIS HAYES: Right. The founders are worried about this, they think about it a lot.
ZEPHYR TEACHOUT: That's an understatement. I mean yeah they're kind of obsessed, right? They talk about it almost every day and there's almost like a corruption discussion machine every part of the constitution had to go through. So there's a discussion "How big should the districts be?" And then there's a necessary discussion. Well "Do big or small districts lead to more or less corruption?" So with every topic, every structural topic, there's a corruption talk. Like "Should we have the presidential electors all vote on the same day?" That went through the corruption conversation and the theory was well if they all vote on the same day, they're less likely to be corrupted because that coordination cost would be too great to get to the electors all around this vast country given our roads. So I just use that as one example. There's like you propose something and then it's like "How does it do on the corruption scale?"
Then there are some clauses which are particular anti-corruption clauses and the Emoluments Clause is then one of the original explicitly anti-corruption provisions.
CHRIS HAYES: So they think a lot about corruption. They erect a republic. They do a pretty good job of writing a constitution. Let me just say I'm not of the sort of founders fetishist. It's great. There's lots of good stuff, lots of bad stuff, it's all a big complicated thing. I think as I get older I do like appreciate the endurance of some parts of it more and more. I'm less sort of filled with youthful zeal or youthful judgment about the things they got wrong because they got a lot of things wrong pretty obviously.
ZEPHYR TEACHOUT: Yes they got a lot pretty wrong. I mean slavery in the Constitution.
CHRIS HAYES: Yeah right. Like some of the worst crimes against humanity ever committed by a civilization or republic are enshrined in the document. All of that to say, they write the document and then they have a government that goes up based on this and there's a lot of corruption. I have to say I recently read the Grant Chernow book and it's really funny, that period particularly like post, this was just a real kind of heyday of corruption in American life, post-Civil War through like Gilded Age, it is unbelievable. The entire federal government is being run like the Chicago machine. It's just totally corrupt. Grant's got like wealthy benefactors buying him houses left and right, all the time they're just buying him houses. "You want a house here? You want a house here?" They all have business before the federal government, they're handing out jobs left and right in the post office so that you know "You vote for me, your uncle gets a job." It's astoundingly corrupt.
ZEPHYR TEACHOUT: Oh absolutely and I also just want to say I don't start at all with the assumption that we should just take their word, I'm not an originalist. I'm not even close to an originalist. The investigation did make me change my approach and appreciate some of the wisdom. But it started with a little bit of anger to be frank is that if the Supreme Court was going to pretend to be originalist and not talk about corruption then it was just being wildly dishonest. And that's what had been happening for a few decades. And so at least if you're going to pretend to be originalists you'd better go back. But then I was struck by some of the profundity of the genuine challenge of how do you have representative government that isn't just bought and sold.
CHRIS HAYES: And yet they use this document to erect a republic that once it gets up on its feet is pretty damn corrupt.
ZEPHYR TEACHOUT: Well you could almost think of it like whack-a-mole. The era you're talking about is incredibly corrupt but there's moments that are more and less corrupt at time and we're certainly living through a moment that is if not peak corruption pretty close. It's a high peak corruption and I think that's important because I think there's two tendencies sometimes. One is very dangerous frankly you know white nationalist tendency to say "Oh wouldn't it be great if we went back to the 1930s." Without explicitly being sentimental about segregation. Longing for this perfect time that did not exist. But there is another danger too which is to say it's always been terrible and it's always been equally terrible. And there really have been times of greater and lesser corruption in American history. And so the whack-a-mole part is you can't ever stop being vigilant and the threats are going to come in different ways at different times.
In the 1880s there's just really explicit for instance vote buying. Fancy people in town their votes were worth more, middle class people their votes were worth less. And the way they did vote buying is you'd say you promised to vote for so-and-so and I'll pay you the equivalent of 250 bucks because you're a fancy guy in town and then pass them a ballot and the ballots had different colors. In fact they had some ballots with like bright flaming pink borders. So then you'd have watchers watch you walk to the ballot booth with your bright flaming pink ballot and they'd know that you had fulfilled your part of the bargain.
CHRIS HAYES: That is amazing. The first thought as you talked about vote buying in my head I'm like "Well how do you get the receipt?"
ZEPHYR TEACHOUT: Exactly.
CHRIS HAYES: You'd be like "Yeah dude, totally, yeah." And then you go to his opponent and you're like "Yeah totally, I'll vote for you." And then you've got 500 dollars and nobody knows.
ZEPHYR TEACHOUT: And nobody knows, right.
CHRIS HAYES: But they thought of that.
ZEPHYR TEACHOUT: Right. So secret ballot, the secret ballot is one of the biggest anti-corruption tools. It swept the country in about a decade.
CHRIS HAYES: Wait, so before that there was not a secret ballot.
ZEPHYR TEACHOUT: No.
CHRIS HAYES: I never thought, now I'm going to sound like an idiot. I never thought of like ... To me it was always a privacy thing or a kind of First Amendment protection thing. Like no one gets to see who I vote for because that is mine and mine alone. And also we don't want to create any kind of regime that discriminates against people based on their political preferences. That's part of liberty and freedom. It literally never occurred to me that the origin is to make-
ZEPHYR TEACHOUT: Is an anti-corruption law. Yeah. It takes over the country. It's called the Australian ballot and the state-
CHRIS HAYES: A wonder from down under coming to you.
ZEPHYR TEACHOUT: Anyway there is these series of threats and when there's a truly engaged public, there's a possibility of responding to the whack-a-mole. The error of the last 30 years is the sense that we didn't even need to be engaged in the whack-a-mole at all and a series of creeping changes including changing the way we really fund elections that have led us back to a pretty dangerous moment in terms of corruption.
CHRIS HAYES: So my way of thinking about American history is that the kind of Gilded Age period, particularly sort of 1890s through I guess the teens is kind of like peak American corruption. Would you say the same or are we beating it now?
ZEPHYR TEACHOUT: Oh I think we're pretty close but it's both peak American corruption and just a horrific time. I always think if I ever need motivation for action I always think "What would it be like to live in 1899?" We fought a civil war and African-Americans over the last few decades have lost substantial economic and political rights across the board.
CHRIS HAYES: That they had.
ZEPHYR TEACHOUT: That they had.
CHRIS HAYES: Bled and died for.
ZEPHYR TEACHOUT: Yeah exactly. The suffragists have been out in force, no right to vote for women. The anti-monopolists have been protesting just a handful of companies run the country. I do think of that as pretty bleak times. Pre-1865 worse, but in terms of corruption the Gilded Age is pretty bad but we are reaching levels of inequality that are similar to that. So if you look at the corruption access on its own I don't think you can untangle all these things. You see a lot of parallels. So the Gilded Age the phrase, this comes from a lot of different things but also Mark Twain's book. In Twain's book he talks about, well he doesn't talk about because he's a great writer so it's just novelistically shows this bizarre split in language. Elites don't think the same things are corrupt that non-elites think are corrupt and elites have just convinced themselves that this is the way things work. And I think you see the same thing now. I think people on the street know that lobbying leads to a lot of corruption. They don't need like a lot of convincing that money in politics is the root issue. That's not a complicated question. And then when you talk to political elites they're like "But this is the way we do things."
CHRIS HAYES: Dude, I was at a dinner once with a bunch of I think it was Larry Lessig came and gave a talk to a bunch of us, I was in D.C. and it was like a bunch of political scientists and like thinkers and think tank types were just making the point that like Congress is fundamentally structurally corrupt because of the way it raises money which is like yes obviously.
ZEPHYR TEACHOUT: Yes, that's obvious. That's obvious.
CHRIS HAYES: It's obviously the case and it was just like the level of skepticism and outright hostility to this obvious basic idea that any person who spends any time going around the system sees was astounding to me and it really was. Everyone had created this sort of reverse engineered set of Rube Goldberg conceptual machinery to erase what was happening in front of your face.
ZEPHYR TEACHOUT: Right but the most common sense thing if you are dependent on the wealthiest one percent to get elected you will serve their interests. This is like…
CHRIS HAYES: Now let me say this. There are actual academics who study this of course and there is a huge literature on it and there is lots of interesting and surprising political science findings that look for the kinds of corruption you would think, sort of input and output and don't find it. And I don't want to be like "Oh that entire literature is worthless", like I'm not saying that. It seems to me like there's like missing the forest for the trees a little bit that's happening in this discourse.
ZEPHYR TEACHOUT: Yeah. We can go deep into that but basically it's imagining votes is the way that power is expressed. It actually goes back to the initial conversation about McDonnell. It's imagining that like something that looks and feels like very official action is the way that power is expressed.
CHRIS HAYES: Right. And that's how they measure the output. So they say "Well here are the donors here and here are the votes the congressperson took and actually we don't see a huge correlation between X and Y."
ZEPHYR TEACHOUT: Where in fact-
CHRIS HAYES: That's not the way it works.
ZEPHYR TEACHOUT: No, it isn't even close to the way it works. Prioritization is everything.
CHRIS HAYES: Yeah, Lessig's got this great example where it's like if you come to Congress and like you care about like two things and only two things, you care about like reforming capital gains taxes and infant mortality for poor women and you care about both those things like guess what, there's going to be a lot of people to help you.
ZEPHYR TEACHOUT: Yes, exactly.
CHRIS HAYES: With your obsession with capital gains taxes.
ZEPHYR TEACHOUT: Capital gains.
CHRIS HAYES: And you're going to spend more and more time and get a lot further doing that than with your infant mortality for children who are poor or whatever.
ZEPHYR TEACHOUT: Yeah. And one of the things that I think we are seeing now is that, just to be clear I think there's all kinds of problems with the phrase "gateway drug" but I'm about to use it. Legal campaign contributions then become a gateway drug to illegal activity.
CHRIS HAYES: See it's funny you say that and that you had to apologize to it because you just very neatly acted out precisely the sort of self-tension around the discourse around corruption you were describing earlier. Which is that it's inherently moralistic. Like you gotta have some sense of right and wrong, some sense of righteousness and gateway drug the reason you're using that metaphor is because the gateway drug is about temptation and corruption, you get a little bit of taste and then you want more.
ZEPHYR TEACHOUT: You want more and you can't even see it. So we can talk about the federal government in New York State. There's a lot of corruption. And what you see without looking into anybody's heart but getting as close as you can is these elected officials get so used to the kind of transactional interaction with donors that it's hard to believe that the transactional interaction with somebody who's giving them something personally is any different. It just feels the same. So if you're used to the kind of transaction like "Hey I'll give you” — campaign limits in New York State or for statewide office at $65,000 — "So I'll give you $65,000, oh and by the way what I really care about and I don't like supporting people who don't care about the things I care about. What I really care about is making sure that we don't have too many bike lanes." So like who doesn't hear that conversation and know exactly what is going on.
CHRIS HAYES: Right.
ZEPHYR TEACHOUT: But then you have that conversation and then a few years later you're talking to somebody who's like "Hey why don't you just come for a great trip with me because we're going to go visit the Bahamas. And by the way what I really care about is no more bike lanes. And then the third step is I want to just give you some cash and deal with the bike lanes issue."
CHRIS HAYES: Can we just like stop all of this pretending. "I'm just going to give you some money and get rid of the god damn bike lanes." For the love of God.
ZEPHYR TEACHOUT: So morally you're in a sycophant position for somebody running for office becomes a beggar. It's kind of disgusting.
CHRIS HAYES: It's gross.
ZEPHYR TEACHOUT: It's disgusting that kind of like polite begging of the wealthiest people in the world and getting used to that moral orientation that they are especially worthy of having policy ideas.
CHRIS HAYES: And it reminds me like I've seen it and I guess I've been in a position of raising money for a theater company once before. It was very different because I believe in it and the people you're asking don't really have sway over you but there's something servile.
ZEPHYR TEACHOUT: It is, yeah.
CHRIS HAYES: And people in America in the labor force that is more a more service sector force like it's a thing ... I waited tables like you grin and grimace through bad jokes, you indulge all sorts of things. There's an incredibly messed up gendered component of this of course in service work where women have to deal with incredible levels of harassment and quote unquote flirtations.
ZEPHYR TEACHOUT: Yes, I was a waitress.
CHRIS HAYES: Yeah, right. But that thing, it's like the people that run our country are constantly around rich people like indulging their kooky ideas, listening to long monologues about "You know what I saw the other day…" Like that's how they spend their time.
ZEPHYR TEACHOUT: And campaigns and the whole campaign apparatus just accepts that this has to be the way things are and encourages this servility. There's also a lot of illegality right now too.
CHRIS HAYES: So I want to get to Donald Trump and I want to ask this question, symptom or cause?
ZEPHYR TEACHOUT: Yes. Both. No I mean really seriously both. Look he comes out of New York City real estate. Donald Trump himself has openly bragged about campaign contributions and the transactional way in which he's used campaign contributions.
CHRIS HAYES: It was an incredibly effective shtick of his stump speech which was "I have bribed people I know all these people are being bribed because I've bribed them. Vote for me because I'm not taking bribes."
ZEPHYR TEACHOUT: Yeah. So there's the person who's the candidate, his own background. There's also, we're not going to do a full autopsy on that election right now. But at least one part of it is radical disgust. I mean there's a lot of sexism, a lot of racism and then also some radical disgust with the current system and a desire just to change it. Something has to happen, something has to change. I certainly saw that, this deep sense that everything had gotten corrupt. Now it's much worse.
CHRIS HAYES: I mean that's the irony is that he ran on "They're all corrupt. Clinton cash, corruption, corruption, corruption. She's corrupt, she's part of the system. I bribe these people. I'm not. I'm going to drain the swamp. I'm an anti-corruption candidate." And has come in and has put into place the most cartoonish version of corruption that you might have imagined.
ZEPHYR TEACHOUT: It's tragic and horrific to see what he's brought in, so this is cause. So yes there's an element of symptom and that's one of the reasons why I think moving forward we actually have to deal with root issues and Donald Trump and you can't deal with just Donald Trump. Although I take the threat of Donald Trump as a democratic crisis deadly seriously. Like he is a genuine serious absolute threat to self-government in multiple ways. And to democracy in multiple ways. And so he brings in this just open self-serving lawless anti-law presidency. You know openly dismissive of the judiciary. The perversity when he talks about rule of law is what he means is arbitrary power which is the opposite of rule of law. So he'll use this phrase but he'll mean I get to decide.
CHRIS HAYES: I mean we talked about corruption going back the beginning of civilization. It's one of the oldest ethical codes that exist in human life which is "If you're with me you're on the right side of law and if you're not you're on the wrong side of the law." It's just pure mafia ethic. Absolutely "you are with us or you aren't." And that's what matters. There's no standard, there's no like thing out in the world. It's like "You're working for me. You're a good guy. I don't care if you put a vase through the face of your ex-wife." And "You there who is a thug” or “you there that's a mom from Ecuador you're breaking the law."
ZEPHYR TEACHOUT: I mean to me that is a perversion of even the word law. Not that law ever achieves this perfectly but the aspiration is this really radical idea which is the opposite of that which is that whoever you are you have the same speed limit. Whoever you are you have the same judge and that it is not like what protector you have that defines what the rules are.
CHRIS HAYES: It's that elemental civilizational battle. It's the elemental civilizational battle between an ethic on one side that says "There is nothing else but our struggle for power.”
ZEPHYR TEACHOUT: For power. Power is law.
CHRIS HAYES: Yes. And an idea that like there's some objective standard and some equality before that objective standard and we're going to live under those rules, that's it. That's the fight.
ZEPHYR TEACHOUT: That is the fight. And that is the fight we are in right now. He may not have a lot of consistency on policy but he has a total consistency on this vision of power is everything, connections are everything, you can do what you want if you have power. And this idea of law as, a really beautiful idea that people are equal in the face of government is something that is actually incoherent to him.
CHRIS HAYES: Yeah. That's so true. It's not that he opposes that idea. He is incapable of conceiving of it as a real thing.
ZEPHYR TEACHOUT: Yeah I think that's right.
CHRIS HAYES: I think that he thinks that anyone that runs around like Zephyr Teachout espousing it is trying to play other people for a sucker.
ZEPHYR TEACHOUT: That may be right.
CHRIS HAYES: I think his cynicism is so deep and so pernicious and this is part of the reason I think that like corruption is so dangerous, that it embeds itself is that like the cynicism and corruption that go together in this way where you start mentally projecting onto everyone else your own view of things.
ZEPHYR TEACHOUT: And part of arbitrary power is like the idea of corruption then doesn't make any sense. What would corruption be. You use your advantage.
CHRIS HAYES: That's exactly right.
ZEPHYR TEACHOUT: That's like what you're supposed to do.
CHRIS HAYES: That's exactly right. If you don't actually have the conception of the standard above and beyond power you actually can't even conceptualize what corruption is.
ZEPHYR TEACHOUT: It's just a gobbledygook.
CHRIS HAYES: That's right.
ZEPHYR TEACHOUT: It's just gobbledygook. And so then there's these like random-
CHRIS HAYES: Yeah, like I helped my son out because I'm-
ZEPHYR TEACHOUT: Yeah, that's what people do.
CHRIS HAYES: Obviously the family, we go to my properties because like I'm the president. We're going to go to my properties so that we make more money for my properties. Like that's what you do.
ZEPHYR TEACHOUT: Yeah. And then there's these laws or ethics rules which seem to him just wrong and arbitrary, just some referee stepping in because it's so incoherent in his vision of the world. But it's dangerous because he's the president. It's dangerous because-
CHRIS HAYES: It's really dangerous.
ZEPHYR TEACHOUT: It's really dangerous because he's trying to infect, this is my language of disease and rot, the entire country with this approach. With the team approach, maximize whatever you can. Laws are just fun painting on top of what's clearly just self-interest. And it's why I believe, you know there are other aspects of Trump, like that he lies. And so the way to counter lying is not not lying, but it's actually truth telling. And the way to counter arbitrary power and this vision of arbitrary power actually has to be a kind of radical recommitment to the best ideas of law.
And so law is really important in taking on Trump. And not just as an instrumental tool, but as actually showing what law can be and showing that law can treat the taxi driver and the president the same way. That in itself is an important task in this moment.
CHRIS HAYES: You're running for attorney general in the state of New York and there's a very notable item, I forget where, the other day that said, "The president is paying attention to a lot of races. One race he's paying particular attention to is the race for attorney general of New York."
ZEPHYR TEACHOUT: Well he should be. The New York state attorney general has authority and responsibility to maintain the integrity of businesses in New York state. This is the center of Donald Trump's business empire. The attorney general in New York state may easily be in a position, if Donald Trump either pardons somebody or tries to get rid of Mueller, to be the prosecutor or working with local prosecutors of last resort, bringing criminal charges against somebody in his associate circle. So it matters as a criminal law matter, it matters because the attorney general of New York can look into his businesses. There's currently a lawsuit that Barbara Underwood brought, just a blockbuster lawsuit, seeking to dissolve the Trump Foundation. There is a provision in New York law that gives the attorney general the authority to dissolve corporations or non-profits that are so deeply riddled with fraud that they lack all integrity.
So Donald Trump, the source of his power is his business empire. I mean, he's using the presidency to get rich. And sadly, this is not an original effort. People throughout world history have used power to get rich. It's illegal in this country, but you mentioned the Mafia earlier. When you go after the Mafia, you've gotta go after the money. You've gotta actually follow the trail of the business transactions. So he should care a lot. Because the New York attorney general matters in terms of potential prosecutions, but also in terms of investigations into the businesses.
CHRIS HAYES: One big area where people tend to use constitution law to rein in corruption is the Emoluments Clause. Federal judge recently said, "This emolument lawsuit which is by the attorney general of Maryland, DC can go forward," and for the first time kind of defined, "What is an emolument?" What counts? What do you think of the status of that case?
ZEPHYR TEACHOUT: I mean, this is a major, major victory. So I just want to step back a little bit. Three years ago, there were two of us who were talking about emoluments. And if I asked somebody, they'd be like, "It sounds like a French lotion or something." And I was interested in it because it is this original commitment on the part of our country and a commitment that basically broke with all of European tradition. In Europe, there was lots of foreign money flowing to different officers. And in our constitution, we say, "We don't want that culture because that culture looks corrupt to us. So we're not gonna allow foreign money to go to federal officers and we're gonna put it in this bright line, even if it might hurt our diplomatic efforts," because diplomats were kind of used to getting money from foreign governments-
CHRIS HAYES: That's a big part of your diplomatic posting back in the day.
ZEPHYR TEACHOUT: Yes, exactly.
CHRIS HAYES: Some sweet, foreign bribes.
ZEPHYR TEACHOUT: Exactly. And so our constitution is kind of radical on this. And because of corruption concerns, it's like, "If we allow this, it's just gonna end up corrupting our country so we're not gonna do that." Anyway, Trump gets elected. Seven days later I write an article for the New York Times about how it looks like he's on the verge of violating this central anti-corruption provision of our constitution. Almost immediately, I start working with Norm Eisen from CREW and other lawyers, and we build a legal team. And we have been, and I have been pushing this legal strategy since Donald Trump's election. In fact, we filed a lawsuit three days after he took office saying, "He's got to divest his business interests."
So to be clear, there are two emoluments clauses of the constitution. One prohibits foreign governments from giving federal officers emoluments, benefits, gains, advantages. The second prohibits the president in particular from getting benefits from states and local governments. So they can't play favorites with states.
CHRIS HAYES: Fascinating.
ZEPHYR TEACHOUT: And given his business empire, the only way that he can not be violating these emoluments clauses is he has to divest his businesses. I think this is something that needs a little emphasis because people might here about the litigation that's like, "yet another lawsuit." This is not, "yet another lawsuit." This is a lawsuit that should force Donald Trump to have to choose between the presidency and his businesses. That's a major, major blow to the kleptocratic presidency. And it's constitutionally required, it's obviously ethically required. Like, talk about no brainer things. Clearly, you should not be making money off the presidency. That's-
CHRIS HAYES: I think we agree on that, yeah. I think it's bad that that's happening.
ZEPHYR TEACHOUT: So I think sometimes people expect things to happen overnight, but our first case was brought representing people like restaurant professionals who are competing against the president for people coming to their restaurant. And they're saying, "Hey, he's violating the constitution. It's hurting me." I urged then-attorney Eric Schneiderman, and I know others did as well, to engage in this lawsuit. And the New York attorney general really has to be the leader on this, because this is where the businesses are.
So the lawsuit with Maryland and DC is really important, one, because it established federal courts saying, "State AGs are the right people to bring this," and second, this is the big news from last month, that this legal question which had never been decided before about what an emolument is was decided in this federal court. Trump's lawyers said, "Well, what this provision really prohibits is the president agreeing to exchange official services," we're back at quid pro quo.
CHRIS HAYES: Right, totally. It's the same argument.
ZEPHYR TEACHOUT: It's the same argument.
CHRIS HAYES: They're trying to say, like, "Yes ..." The only thing is, if Macron shows up with a check, or Mohammad Bin Salman shows up and he's like, "Here's a million dollars, you do us for that," that's barred.
ZEPHYR TEACHOUT: That's barred.
CHRIS HAYES: Obviously.
ZEPHYR TEACHOUT: Right. And so that's what the president's lawyers are arguing, which is clearly absurd.
CHRIS HAYES: The president's lawyers, by the way, they're Department of Justice lawyers.
ZEPHYR TEACHOUT: Yes.
CHRIS HAYES: Just to be clear. This is our lawyers, the government, our, US citizens' lawyers who are arguing this.
ZEPHYR TEACHOUT: We're arguing this, yes. So the judge, and I'm very proud of this, the judge actually extensively cited my previous scholarship in the opinion, saying, "This clause comes out of a history, it comes out of a context."
CHRIS HAYES: That's awesome.
ZEPHYR TEACHOUT: Yeah, it was a major victory.
CHRIS HAYES: Were you fist pumping?
ZEPHYR TEACHOUT: I absolutely was.
CHRIS HAYES: Somebody read it.
ZEPHYR TEACHOUT: And more importantly, he's gonna have to divest. He's gonna get rid of his hotel. I mean, look, the…
CHRIS HAYES: You really think so?
ZEPHYR TEACHOUT: We know Trump is gonna appeal, Trump's lawyers, the DOJ is gonna appeal. But this is an absurd reading of the clause. And yes, facts need to be found, and there's a lot we do not know. Like, two weeks ago, no, last week, we learned the crowned prince of Saudi Arabia is funneling cash to Donald Trump.
CHRIS HAYES: This crowned prince of Saudi Arabia sweeps into New York, and where does he stay? He stays at the Plaza which is owned by, has a huge Saudi interest owning it, and the Plaza's got the resplendent suites necessary for a crowned prince of Saudi Arabia. But the rest of his retinue stays where? Where in New York did they stay? They stay at the Trump Hotel. And the general manager writes a letter to the investors in the Trump Hotel saying, "We were headed for a loss in this quarter” and then who shows up and spends a shitload of money, but the Saudis.
ZEPHYR TEACHOUT: Absolutely. And we just happen to have this letter, good reporting by the Washington Post. But what about the other letters?
CHRIS HAYES: I said this on air, I said, the Qataris could go book 50 rooms and keep them empty for two weeks in a Trump property and no one would know.
ZEPHYR TEACHOUT: No one would know.
CHRIS HAYES: Literally no one would know.
ZEPHYR TEACHOUT: And we have to know that. This is basically ... First of all, going back to human nature, what country in the world doesn't care about American trade policy right now? What country doesn't care about military policy? And Donald Trump is putting up a big sign saying, "If you want to influence me, if you want to make money, if you want to make me richer, want to make me in a better mood, here's the way to do it." It is outrageous that we don't know. But we already know enough to know there's constitutional violations. And the reason I mention that he's gonna have to divest the Trump Hotel in DC is that we have to find some more facts, but on its face, this decision says, "You don't get to use businesses to transfer money from foreign governments to the president." You just don't get to do that. So we already have enough facts to know that there's a constitutional violation. And yes, so that naturally leads to divestment.
And as disheartened as you may be by the courts, the Trump argument about what an emolument is just does not make sense. So I am confident he's gonna have to divest the hotel. But what about all the properties in New York? And this is why it's critical that the New York attorney general be involved in this lawsuit because he's gotta divest not just the Trump Hotel in DC, but the Trump properties in New York, the Trump Tower at the UN where Saudis are paying monthly fees. The government of Qatar is paying a monthly fee, India is paying a monthly fee, Afghanistan-
CHRIS HAYES: Just on the face, we know that.
ZEPHYR TEACHOUT: We know that because of reporting. We don't know who's living in all the other floors. We don't know who's renting all the other floors. So a lot to know, but divestment is the goal. And this is not just another lawsuit. This is a major, major deal.
CHRIS HAYES: So you're running for attorney general and this is your third race?
ZEPHYR TEACHOUT: That's right.
CHRIS HAYES: So you ran against Governor Cuomo as a primary challenger.
ZEPHYR TEACHOUT: Yes.
CHRIS HAYES: And you shocked a lot of people. People had not heard of you in the political world when you ran. I think you did way better than anyone thought that you would do in that race. You ran unsuccessfully in a very tough year in 2016 in New York 19 which is now represented by John Faso, which is in the Hudson Valley-
ZEPHYR TEACHOUT: Yep.
CHRIS HAYES: You're running this race. I wanna close, you are also pregnant.
ZEPHYR TEACHOUT: I am.
CHRIS HAYES: Congratulations.
ZEPHYR TEACHOUT: Thank you.
CHRIS HAYES: It's your first child?
ZEPHYR TEACHOUT: Yes.
CHRIS HAYES: And you're due?
ZEPHYR TEACHOUT: Mid-October.
CHRIS HAYES: That's awesome.
ZEPHYR TEACHOUT: Yeah, so I'm just hitting seven months.
CHRIS HAYES: So you're campaigning pregnant.
ZEPHYR TEACHOUT: I am.
CHRIS HAYES: That's amazing.
ZEPHYR TEACHOUT: Well thank you.
CHRIS HAYES: That's really amazing.
ZEPHYR TEACHOUT: Thank you. You know, look, Eric Schneiderman's resignation was kind of a shock, not just kind of, 100 percent shock.
CHRIS HAYES: It was 100 percent shocking.
ZEPHYR TEACHOUT: And I have been deeply involved in the Trump litigation, in anti-corruption work. It was a real natural for me to seek this office given my expertise. But it's true that when I was looking around, I was like, "Well, women must run for office pregnant all the time, right?" It turns out there are, I think, two women who have run statewide, maybe I'm missing somebody, for statewide office while pregnant. And it is really exciting because there's so many new women running for office. There's women breastfeeding running for office. It is so exciting to be part of that wave. By the way, men run for office when their partners are pregnant all the time.
CHRIS HAYES: Absolutely, yep. They soldier on.
ZEPHYR TEACHOUT: It's not like being about to have a baby is something unusual while you're running for office.
CHRIS HAYES: It's a great point. I should note, just for the sake of fairness here because this interview is not an endorsement, it's a crowded field, there's four people running. There's Tish James who's the public advocate for New York City, there's Sean Patrick Maloney who's a congressman here in New York, and Leecia Eve who's a lawyer in the state. So just to be clear to anyone listening in New York, there's a full group of candidates. You should go check them all out. But my final question to you is this, you've run for office three times, I want you to think for a second and tell me something that you thought before you ran for office, and you've changed your mind about, something you've learned or changed your mind about through the experience of running for office.
ZEPHYR TEACHOUT: Oh my gosh, that's a great question. Well I'll tell you two things. One is, on the money and politics front, it's worse than you think, that you kind of know that this is bad, but when you actually see how much, talk to people who've worked on a lot of campaigns, I'm lucky, because I have a huge grassroots base, but once you're inside politics and see how much money infects things, it's not a minor infection. It's like a deep, deep, deep disease. It affects so many conversations, like these conversations about donors. So one is, that's worse than you think.
And then the other part, it's just more strange and interesting than I expected. I remember being at a great event in Queens where I'm after the local beauty queen and before the comic, and the comic was hilarious, but the whole evening was just more eccentric and interesting and wonderful. And the thing that I guess I didn't expect is how human it is. It's just, every interaction, there's so many surprising interactions. There's kind of a real privilege with being able to just knock on a door or talk to somebody and say, "What are you thinking?" And all these words come out, and all of these hidden thoughts about politics or their own lives or what happened yesterday. And it's a deeply, deeply human thing. I get a lot of joy out of that.
CHRIS HAYES: People are fascinating and weird which is part of why I love being a reporter. I'll never forget the first person I ever covered on a campaign trail, I was 23 or 24, I was in the Chicago Reader, she was running in a primary against Rahm Emanuel on the North side, her name was Nancy Kasak, and I went to meet her and the first thing we do was go to a bingo hall on the Northwest side where she went around and there are these, largely women, old women, sitting playing bingo on a weekday and she's going around to shake their hands. And they could hardly be bothered to get away from bingo. And I'm like, "This is not glamorous." This is, wow, like, pulling at the sleeve of someone to be like, "Hey, how are you? I'm running for congress." Like, "Yeah, I'm trying to hear my bingo numbers."
But the other thought I had was, "It should be humbling." These are your bosses and this is what self government is and they have a thing that you need and not the other way around. You should feel that way, in deference to the citizen.
ZEPHYR TEACHOUT: Absolutely. And it's a great story because so often in commercials, you'll see somebody go knock on a middle class home where everything looks perfect and they look so excited to see the politician. And the real interactions are so much more interesting and weird and either more welcoming or far less welcoming than that. And you're charging across fields or you're all alone with two people at an event or suddenly an event, learning how to dance. Everything happens in a campaign. It's kind of inspiring. I like that humility. That's key.
CHRIS HAYES: Zephyr Teachout is a professor at Fordham University School of Law, and she is a candidate for attorney general here in the state of New York. It was great to have you.
ZEPHYR TEACHOUT: Great to be on.
CHRIS HAYES: My thanks again to Zephyr Teachout for coming in and talking to me about corruption and about the role the attorney general of the state of New York might play in that. I want to be clear: she is in a competitive democratic primary, I am not endorsing her. I got her on the program because she wrote this book about corruption and she’s sort of in this unique position. She has been endorsed by the New York Times. She is running against Tish James who is the public advocate for the city of New York, Leecia Eve who is a lawyer with a lot of experience both in public practice and in private practice, and Congressman Sean Patrick Maloney of upstate New York. So they’re all in that primary. If you live in New York, it’s a closed primary and it’s set for September 13th, so you should vote in it. You should go and check out the other candidates. It is a really really important position with, as we noted, profound national implications.
As always, we love to hear from you here at "Why is This Happening." There's two great ways to get in touch with us. You can tweet. And if you tweet at us, you should tweet with the hashtag #WITHPod. That stands for, "Why Is This Happening," pod. And pod stands for, "Podcast." The pod is from a thing called an iPod and an iPod is a weird ancient relic that Tiffany Champion has probably never seen in her life. So you should definitely tweet us the hashtag WITHPod.
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We also take emails. You can email us at WITHPod@gmail.com. We got an email from Thomas about the Nancy Northup discussion about Roe v. Wade. And he said, "There has for many years been overwhelming support for abortion rights among Americans. When you conduct polls, about 70 percent, I think, but not among members of congress. Why the difference?" And I think there's two answers to that. One is that the polling on abortion is all over the place depending on how you ask the question. So, I don't think it's accurate to say 70 percent support abortion rights. It is true that you can find polls that have big numbers of people, say, supporting Roe v. Wade, supporting a right to an abortion.
But if you start getting more specific, for instance, if you say, "Do you support second trimester abortions? Do you support abortions after 20 weeks," which is absolutely protected by Roe, those numbers go down. In fact, people have a bunch of conflicted intuitions, I think, about abortion. So I think the polling can be kind of unstable. I do think it is the case, it is absolutely a majority position in this country, that Roe should not be overturned. I think that's absolutely true.
As to why I think there might be a gap between public opinion and Congress, it really just has to do with organizing. The anti-abortion movement, the, Pro life movement, as it calls itself, is just one of the best organized movements in America. And unlike other things like the banking lobby, it's not big business. It's not some big oligarchic interest. It's not a product of American inequality or corruption. It's just a bunch of people who genuinely feel really, really powerfully about the issue, and have organized around it. And they're aided by, I think, a lot of the social capital in churches and church structures and religious life in America. But that's the answer. I mean, often, organizing is more important than public opinion in shaping what politicians do.
Today, a special treat if you've listened all the way to the end of this episode. We're gonna have the final tag be read by a very special guest. You wanna read that?
Ryan Shaw Hayes: "Why Is This Happening" is presented by MSNBC and NBC News, produced by the "All In" team and music by Eddie Cooper. You can see more of our work, including links to things we mentioned here by going to NBCNews.com/WhyIsThisHappening.
CHRIS HAYES: Ryan Shaw Hayes doing the final note, crushing it. We'll see you next week.