Interviews & Profiles

Trump hasn’t drained the swamp. Can Congress?

A new HBO documentary follows three GOP House members fighting money in politics.

Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida was one of three Republican representatives followed in the HBO documentary "The Swamp."

Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida was one of three Republican representatives followed in the HBO documentary "The Swamp." Graeme Jennings/POOL/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

President Donald Trump campaigned on a promise to “drain the swamp” during the 2016 election, vowing to take on the special interests, lobbyists and big-dollar donors that permeate much of Washington lawmaking. 

Near the end of his first term, it would seem that Trump has not made much headway in following through on his pledge. He counts nearly 300 ex-lobbyists as members of his administration, with some cabinet members brought on who used to lobby for the very industries they are now tasked with regulating. The swamp, it seems, is still teeming with life. 

But corruption and the influence of special interests far predate Trump, and will likely far outlive him too. Documentary filmmakers Daniel DiMauro and Morgan Pehme – City & State’s former editor-in-chief – wade through the muck to explore what is broken in Congress in their new documentary “The Swamp.” The self-proclaimed liberals followed three Republicans – Reps. Matt Gaetz, Ken Buck and Thomas Massie – who are seeking bipartisan solutions to reduce the power of special interests and money in politics. The two filmmakers spoke with City & State about their new film, which premieres on HBO on Aug. 4. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What inspired you to make this documentary?

DiMauro: Our producer Matt Whitworth had this idea that he had access to these Republican congressmen and we should talk to them. So we did and we were kind of surprised, frankly, that we had a lot of agreement with them on a lot of the issues that were facing the Congress, mainly that there’s too much money, that the corporations and the lobbyists control the agenda, the leadership controls the agenda. And it’s just kind of corrupt and dysfunctional. So we kind of thought it would be an interesting thing to try to do a film behind closed doors in Congress, try to understand how it’s really broken from this nonpartisan, kind of good government point of view.

Pehme: You know, covering politics, how what is conveyed is through politicians’ public statements, to the media, that they weave, it’s so disparate from the ways they talk behind closed doors, the grays that they acknowledge in a system they try to promulgate to the public as black and white. And the fact that these three members of Congress were willing to say on camera things that politicians usually shy away from, said the parts that you're supposed to whisper out loud, we thought was so intriguing.

Why specifically these three Republicans: Reps. Matt Gaetz, Ken Buck and Thomas Massie?

DiMauro: First and foremost, these Republicans are kind of willing to be whistleblowers about the corruption they see in Congress. And despite that they’re Republicans, they do kind of think they are the more independent members who want to buck the establishment and expose the corrupt ways of the way Congress functions. But just as importantly, we as liberal filmmakers wanted to make this film primarily through speaking with Republicans so we could actually have some Republicans view this film. So it's was definitely a conscious decision on our part to approach it, talking across the political spectrum to both sides of the aisle and to present the somewhat hopeful view that there is consensus around this very important issue, which is the corruption of our core democratic institutions

In making the film, how much consensus did you actually see? The landmark ethics and campaign finance bill HR1, which you focus on, still ultimately failed along party lines, with Democrats in support and Republicans opposing.

Pehme: There is more consensus than you think about the understanding that the system is corrupt, and that the members are trapped in this labyrinth of systemic corruption that is meant to marginalize the rank-and-file members, and aggregate everything in the hands of the leadership. And there's widespread frustration about the inability of Congress to accomplish anything among the members of Congress themselves. It was important for us to bring (Reps.) Ro Khanna and Katie Hill and John Sarbanes into the conversation as a way of showing that these Republicans, they're not just griping about sour grapes, but that there is agreement – surprising agreement just like there is surprising agreement on ending the perpetual wars – among contingents of Republicans with Democrats, that this is a real problem of corruption. And so is there a kumbaya around this issue? No. And in fact, a lot of the Democrats that we spoke to were a lot less willing to be candid about it, because now they're in the majority. And they were worried about offending the leadership and their place in the totem pole. And this system of the carrot and the stick that I think we go into in the film silences a lot of folks, at least in terms of what they're willing to say publicly about the corruption of the system.

President Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign promise to “drain the swamp” is a recurring theme throughout the documentary. What if any meaningful progress has he made to remove monied interests from Washington and make it less swampy?

Pehme: Look, Donald Trump is right that we need to drain the swamp. He just, as we demonstrate in our movie, never was serious about actually doing so. And once he became president, he became arguably the swampiest president in American history. There really isn't anything that you can point to concretely that he is done to drain the swamp. You know, there is this idea that he's changed the culture. I mean, that's absolute gibberish. What he has done is he's changed the definition of the swamp throughout his presidency. So during the campaign, he had identified it as the super PACs and the lobbyists and special interests. Then it became this idea of the “deep state,” which is essentially these operatives or these career bureaucrats and governments who were not loyal to the president. And now it effectively just means who's on the president's enemies list. And so he's bastardized the definition of the swamp in a way that is very hurtful to the aim of draining the swamp. But everybody who voted for Donald Trump because they want it to and the corruption that he articulated during the campaign was right. He had the mandate from his voters to drain the swamp. And of course, he did nothing.

Your three subjects, especially Gaetz who you focus on more heavily, are supporters of the president. Is there a way to square supporting someone you call “the swampiest president in American history” with the reform ideals they’re espousing?

Pehme: It is impossible to, in good faith, square this reform agenda with the way that the president has not only failed to pursue reform, but acted counter to reform. And I think that’s something we point out very clearly in the movie. But that doesn't mean that the three Republican members aren't right about the need for reform. And the fact is the Trump presidency, whether it's over in a few months or is over in four years and a few months, will be just another chapter in our history. But the scourge of corruption that has infected the Congress and that has infected the federal government will live on no matter who is in the White House.

In making the documentary, what was the most surprising thing you learned about the inner workings of the capital?

DiMauro: I think one thing specifically was the structure of the committees in Congress and how they're ranked based on their ability to fundraise from lobbyists, and that the members of Congress actually have to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to rent their committee seats every cycle. This is just like one layer deeper than when you go into Congress, and you can see this corruption in action. There's an inherent conflict of interest if you sit on a committee that is supposed to discuss and make laws about a certain sector or industry, and the people who fund your ability to get on that committee are the people with a vested interest in the work product of that committee. It's just an inherently corrupt system within Congress that no one really talks about. 

Pehme: What’s surprising is how intricately set up the system is to corrupt members. I was talking to an incoming member of the New York congressional delegation and (they were) saying, “Oh, well, you know, I didn't raise money from, you know, that people will compromise me,” but we don't think about the fact that it's not just the the corrupting influence of money in our elections, but this whole internal rigmarole that you get drawn into that is meant to corrupt you. Just like we know about the “big ugly” budget bill up in Albany once a year, but all of the bills in Congress essentially are these omnibus bills that are meant to trap you into taking bad votes against your principles. I think that another thing that we learned that was really striking is that there is now an opportunity for Congress to have a different power dynamic. And that's one that's really illustrated powerfully by (Rep.) Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. She's refused to pay this money for her committee seat, because she has a source of her own power, which is that she has more than two million Twitter followers more than Nancy Pelosi. So she can command or she can channel the strength of her public support to change this top-down hierarchy that leadership has created in order to maintain the corrupt status quo.

In pulling back the curtain on what’s happening in Washington, what do you hope the impact will be in state and local governments across the country, like the infamously corrupt Albany, that perhaps don’t get the same amount of attention?

Pehme: So many of the reforms that we've talked about that need to be brought about on the federal level need to occur on a state level, like in New York state. And we've heard of a promise of public funding of elections for as long as I've been covering New York politics. And yet we've only seen the most halfhearted attempt to actually implement that. And the governor has been really the No. 1 obstacle to that occurring. But this is more important than ever, for state governments to take an interest in pushing the federal government to clean up its corrupt ways. Because with state governments in the worst economic state that they have been in generations and municipalities and the state depending upon the federal government to bail them out and to drive policy to bring about what will need to be an enormous revival of the economy, this is when our state leaders need to agitate for the system to change because the states are going to be dangling in the wind. Part of the opposition we’ve seen to state and local aid does come from the entrenched interests in Washington.

In the documentary, you explore how Gaetz cultivates a controversial public persona thanks in part to social media and cable news appearances that gets him grassroots support by riling up his base, something Harvard Professor Lawerence Lessig referred to as “the politics of hate” in the film. How does that compare to how Ocasio-Cortez has leveraged her own celebrity?

Pehme: Perhaps this is showing a partisan bias, but I don't think that it's a fair characterization to say that AOC has weaponized the politics of hate to raise money. And to be fair, she raises far more money than Matt Gaetz does. Because I don't think that her aim at its core is to bring about conflict for attention. I think that her aim is to mobilize the grassroots to action. And I realize that that may be splitting hairs. But I think that you can't have a conversation with members of Congress practically in D.C. these days without AOC’s name coming up. Her name always comes up because she has really been a game changer for the system, and she has upset the apple cart of the status quo. And folks begrudgingly respect that, or they resent the fact that she was able to do this across the political spectrum. And I think that she is a model for how the system can be changed in a positive way. 

But is this something that ultimately has to be bipartisan because monied interests are represented in both parties?

My old boss, former New York City Parks Commissioner Henry Stern, used to say, “There are only two parties, the ins and the outs. The ins want to stay in, and the outs want to get in.” The dynamic in Congress between the leadership of both parties is to maintain the status quo. Changing the system would disempower them, if not put them completely out of power, so they have no vested interest in changing the system, as corrupt as it is. There’s not any one villain. It’s a system that is set up to corrupt people so that the special interests and the lobbyists and the big money donors, no matter who wins the elections, they’re always the winner.