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TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. The nation's attention is riveted on the drama unfolding in Washington, where House investigators are assembling evidence for their impeachment inquiry, and President Trump is refusing to cooperate. Our guest, Bloomberg Businessweek columnist Joshua Green, says that, ironically, Trump's impeachment peril is the unintended result of an effort to help him.
Last spring, a book came out called "Secret Empires: How The American Political Class Hides Corruption And Enriches Family And Friends." Its author was Peter Schweizer, the head of the Government Accountability Institute, a think tank founded by Schweizer and Steve Bannon. The book includes information about Hunter Biden, the son of Joe Biden and his activities in Ukraine when his father was the vice president.
The book raises questions about possible ethical violations and corruption related to Hunter Biden's activities in Ukraine. The book received a lot of attention on Fox News, where it came to the attention of President Trump and led Trump to send Rudy Giuliani to Ukraine to pressure the new government there to investigate the claims in Schweizer's book.
Joshua Green notes in a new article how this echoes the playbook that Schweizer and Bannon successfully used with their 2015 book "Clinton Cash," which raised questions about the propriety of Hillary Clinton's financial dealings and those of the Clinton Foundation. It led to investigations by the mainstream media. Joshua Green writes about politics for Bloomberg Businessweek and is the author of a book about Steve Bannon called "Devil's Bargain." He spoke with FRESH AIR's Dave Davies.
DAVE DAVIES, BYLINE: Joshua Green, welcome back to FRESH AIR. You write that the allegations of corruption involving Joe Biden and his son Hunter in Ukraine were first aired in a book published last year by something called the Government Accountability Institute. What is the Government Accountability Institute?
JOSHUA GREEN: Well, the Government Accountability Institute is registered as a nonpartisan research organization. It was founded in 2012 by Steve Bannon, Donald Trump's former chief strategist, and Peter Schweizer, who, I believe, is now the president and still works there. And it bills itself as an investigatory outfit that investigates money and politics, corruption and that sort of thing.
DAVIES: Right. Who funds it?
GREEN: Well, we don't know all the funders, but one of its chief funders is Rebekah Mercer, who is part of the Mercer family, headed by Robert Mercer, the former co-chair of Renaissance Technologies, the big hedge fund. The Mercer family was and still is a major right-wing donor to various different causes, big Trump supporters, and a family that has come into the spotlight since Trump's election - also involved in Cambridge Analytica and some of the outfits that became famous and even notorious after the 2016 election.
DAVIES: The funding certainly comes from partisan sources. You know, the co-founder was Steve Bannon. What's interesting, as you write, is that the work - the research that it produced and the books that it produced weren't intended particularly to reach the conservative media or core Republican voters. What was the purpose?
GREEN: Well, the purpose of GAI originally was to, you know, investigate politicians. But given the conservative band of people like Bannon and Schweizer and their funders, the focus often tended to be Democrats. And in my book, I write about how Schweizer and Bannon resolved to go after Hillary Clinton a couple of years before the 2016 election, knowing that she was likely to emerge as the Democratic nominee.
So through GAI and its investigators, its forensic data scientists, you know, they pored over public records, corporate filings, dark Web scrapings to compile, you know, a damning book about Bill and Hillary Clinton in their work through their nonprofit, the Clinton Foundation, that was published about a month before Hillary launched her presidential campaign. And that book, "Clinton Cash," became an instant New York Times bestseller and really tarnished Hillary Clinton's image just as she was entering the presidential fray.
DAVIES: And the interesting thing is that, you know, Bannon was not interested in just generating material for the conservative media. It was important that mainstream media draw on this research and, you know, give it their imprimatur tour too.
GREEN: That's exactly right. You know, Bannon's critique of how Republicans deal with the media goes back to the 1990s and Bill Clinton's impeachment, when he thought that Republicans really just wound up talking to themselves in an echo chamber and they chased wild rumors and conspiracy theories and really put off ordinary voters. The media didn't listen to them. Voters didn't listen to them.
So with "Clinton Cash," he resolved to compile factual information that he wanted the mainstream media to pick up and amplify. And so he explicitly was not looking to reach a conservative audience, which is already going to be predisposed to dislike the Clintons, and was aiming to affect the votes in the views of independents and Democrats and the type of people that Hillary Clinton was counting on. It was important to Bannon that GAI's work be picked up and taken seriously by mainstream media outlets like The New York Times, The Washington Post, Bloomberg News.
DAVIES: And did those mainstream media organizations publish stories based on the research?
GREEN: Yeah, they did. I mean, famously, there was a New York Times story based on Schweizer's reporting. And it revealed this in the story, looking at a Clinton Foundation deal in a Russian-backed company called Uranium One that really took off and, I think, poisoned the public views of Clinton and the Clinton Foundation. And, as Bannon intended, a whiff of corruption attached itself to Hillary Clinton. Of course, that expanded as the media focused on her missing emails and Republicans pushed these ideas. But the book really succeeded in what Bannon had set out to do. And that was to raise doubts about the ethics and morals and fitness for the presidency of Hillary Clinton.
DAVIES: Right. And we should just note that there is nothing at all unusual about credible reporters getting tips and leads and information from partisan sources. They have to, of course, independently verify the information and assess its credibility. Were the books that the Government Accountability Institute writes generally accurate?
GREEN: Well, they were based on facts. And what these investigators did was go out and turn out examples of foreign donors that hadn't been disclosed and examples of behavior by former President Bill Clinton that seemed to be conducted on behalf of donors to the Clinton Foundation. You know, Schweizer's style is not to fabricate or allege illegality. Instead, he uses his reporting to lay out a suggestive timeline that leads readers to a conclusion that, hey, something is dirty here. This reeks of influence peddling. Something is not right. And it raises doubts about the subjects.
DAVIES: So the new book from Peter Schweizer and the Government Accountability Institute is called "Secret Empires: How The American Political Class Hides Corruption And Enriches Family And Friends." And it identified Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden as a target for some of the material. What did it find about Joe and Hunter Biden?
GREEN: Well, what it found was that Hunter Biden, the vice president's son, had become a highly paid director at a Ukrainian natural gas company called Burisma, a position that he didn't have any obvious qualifications for. But he did have a very famous last name, and the owner of the company was interested, I think, in building credibility. Schweizer also took a look at a private equity fund that Hunter Biden became involved in that drew a lot of money from Chinese investors at the same time that Hunter was flying to China on Air Force Two with his father, the vice president.
So in Schweizer's reporting, you know, this is made to look very fishy and possibly illegal and raise doubts about the ethics of Joe Biden and whether or not, you know, the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination really belongs in that position or, you know, is in some way corrupt because of his son's business dealings.
DAVIES: No direct evidence that Joe Biden did anything to assist his son in either of those ventures, right? But there's an association.
GREEN: No. No, there isn't. And Bloomberg News, my employer, has done a lot of reporting and has turned up no wrongdoing. Other outlets have taken a look. I mean, what is going on and what Schweizer is good at finding are situations like this where, you know, I think any objective reader would come to the conclusion that, you know, but for Hunter's last name, he would not be in this position. You and I would not be offered a $50,000 a month board seat at a Ukrainian gas company because our father isn't vice president.
So it's the sort of - it's what, you know, Schweizer calls corruption by proxy. There's nothing explicitly illegal, but it's sort of morally corrupt and an indictment of our system in a way that populist Republicans and Democrats like to criticize.
DAVIES: The Clinton book got a ton of mainstream media attention and had an impact on the Clintons themselves. This book, did it get a lot of mainstream attention? Did it hurt harm the Bidens?
GREEN: You know, it really didn't. It came out in 2018, and it kind of came and went. It - you know, it didn't attach itself to Biden. It didn't become - it didn't drive the political news cycle in the way that "Clinton Cash" drove the 2015-2016 presidential news cycle. It got a decent amount of attention in conservative media, but it never really broke out into the mainstream.
You know, and I speculated in my Businessweek piece, a couple of reasons for this - one, Joe Biden wasn't yet a candidate, and so there wasn't that kind of urgency to look into his past. There might have been had the book come out later on. It also didn't focus only on the Biden's; it focused on John Kerry, Barack Obama, the Republican Senate Leader Mitch McConnell. So I think that influenced how it was received. And of course, unlike "Clinton Cash," it wasn't focused on an actual Democratic presidential candidate; it was mainly focused on his son. And so there - it was sort of one degree removed from the primary actors.
I think all these things together help explain why the book didn't really break out until, that is, Donald Trump and his lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, became infatuated with it, started trying to investigate these things themselves and now has kicked off what has become an entire impeachment proceeding and put the book and the Bidens and Schweizer himself very much in the center of the 2020 presidential news cycle.
DAVIES: So when this book was launched with these stories, what were the ambitions of Peter Schweizer and the Government Accountability Institute?
GREEN: Well, I think the ambition was a reprise of what they'd seen with "Clinton Cash," that the mainstream media would look into this stuff and amplify it in the way that they had with the Clinton charges. You know, Steve Bannon, who kind of pioneered this model, has a phrase he likes to use - anchor left, pivot right. And what that means is you want to anchor this reporting on the left and the mainstream media - what Bannon considers the left - get them writing about it and then use the right-wing media to amplify what it is the mainstream media is saying and to kind of dominate the entire mediasphere.
So I think Schweizer and GAI were hoping that "Secret Empires," the Biden reporting, would be anchored in the mainstream media, and the whole process would repeat itself, but that never really happened with the second book.
DAVIES: So what did happen? Why do we know about it now?
GREEN: Well, we know about it now - it got a decent amount of attention in the right-wing media, on Fox News, in the New York Post. And of course, some of - you know, one of the most loyal consumers of right-wing media is the president, Donald Trump, who according to reporting watches hours and hours of Fox News every day. So he was exposed to this reporting, exposed to the charges and the insinuations that Schweizer made. He's tweeted about the book. He's tweeted about Schweizer.
And, you know, based on everything we've heard from the whistleblower report, from the White House call transcript that was released at the end of September, Trump and Giuliani took it upon themselves to pick up the phone and try and advance Schweizer's reporting into the Bidens. I mean, essentially, calling the president of Ukraine and saying, hey, I know about this Biden stuff. I want you to look into this. I want you to investigate my political opponent. And, you know, if you don't, we're going to withhold this military aid - setting off all the alarm bells that have now led to the impeachment inquiry.
DAVIES: So it really was the president and Giuliani that took this and ran with it.
GREEN: It really was. I mean, the remarkable thing - a lot of people watch Fox News, watch right-wing media, get upset about the Clintons and the Bidens, but only one of them had the power to pick up the telephone, call the president of the Ukraine and put pressure on him to investigate the Bidens in hopes that they could turn up more damning information about Joe and Hunter Biden, knowing that Joe Biden was very likely to be his Democratic opponent in 2020.
DAVIES: Joshua Green is a columnist for Bloomberg Businessweek. We'll continue our conversation after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we're speaking with Bloomberg Businessweek columnist Joshua Green about the origins of the story about Joe Biden and his son Hunter in Ukraine, which drew interest from President Trump and has now led to an impeachment inquiry. Green is the author of a book about Steve Bannon called "Devil's Bargain."
So President Trump has said that Joe Biden, when he was vice president - I guess in 2016 - sought to get the Ukrainian prosecutor fired, who was, at that time, investigating the company associated with Hunter Biden, his son - in effect, kind of scotching an investigation into his son by getting the prosecutor fired. What's the truth of this?
GREEN: Well, it is true what Trump says, but it is wildly misleading. Vice President Biden played a central role in overseeing U.S. policy in the Ukraine. But Biden, the Obama administration, Republicans in the Senate, the International Monetary Fund, the European Union were all putting pressure on the Ukrainian government to root out corruption and, particularly, to fire the chief prosecutor at the time, Viktor Shokin, who was not - who was essentially beholden to the oligarchs, was not doing the kind of corruption investigations they wanted.
So Biden threatened to withhold up to a billion dollars in aid from Ukraine if Shokin wasn't fired because he was so deeply corrupt. So Biden and the Obama administration were putting pressure on the Ukraine government to do more investigating of corruption not less, as Trump and his allies are insinuating.
And it's also - I mean, just to be clear, they weren't in - Ukrainian prosecutors were never investigating Hunter Biden. They were investigating an oligarch who owned - who is the co-founder of Burisma, the gas company, on whose board Hunter Biden served.
DAVIES: Right. And is it clear whether, at the time that he was fired, this prosecutor, Victor Shokin, was actually investigating the company?
GREEN: You know, it isn't clear. There have been conflicting reports on this. There does seem to have been an investigation into Burisma. But, you know, they paid a fine. That went away. At no point was Hunter Biden ever implicated in any kind of corruption. And part of what, I think, Trump and Giuliani were trying to do was to reopen this investigation and steer it toward Hunter Biden in hopes that they could find or maybe create damaging material around the Bidens.
DAVIES: There is a new chief prosecutor in Ukraine and was quoted as saying that he had opened an audit of a bunch of old investigations, including one into Burisma Holdings, the company that Hunter Biden was associated with. What does this portend?
GREEN: Well, it's not clear. I mean, one of the things, I think, a lot of people don't understand about the whole Ukraine situation is that Hunter Biden was never investigated by Ukrainian prosecutors. What happened was that they were investigating an oligarch named Mykola Zlochevsky, who co-founded Burisma. And so reopening investigations would be investigations into Burisma Holdings. But they - from what we know, that wouldn't affect or have anything specifically to do with Hunter Biden or his situation there.
One of the things that Trump and Giuliani are pushing for in these text messages and these - in these meetings and phone calls is for Ukrainian prosecutors to go further and specifically investigate the Bidens in hope that they can turn up dirt that can be used in the 2020 presidential campaign.
And as far as we know, there's no basis for investigating anything. There is no evidence that I'm aware of or that anybody has reported that would suggest that there was wrongdoing there. And Schweizer himself, in fact, in the New York Times today, has an op-ed saying that, you know, what transpired actually wasn't illegal under U.S. law. It was unseemly. It might have been unethical - the idea of putting a politician's son on a board as a way of maybe trying to influence the political process - but there was nothing illegal here. And that's very much Schweizer's style is not to allege illegality but to insinuate that there is something corrupt going on there.
And, I think, part of the way that this entire story went sideways and went crashing into this impeachment inquiry is that Trump is very much susceptible to the insinuation that there is something, you know, perfidious going on here and took it upon himself to, you know, push and amplify and even threaten people in hopes of advancing the story.
DAVIES: You mentioned that Peter Schweizer, the author of this book that was funded by the Government Accountability Institute, has an op-ed in The Times. He's arguing that there's a Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, which makes it illegal for an American company operating in a foreign country to engage in, you know, bribery or nepotism to secure favor from governments in which they operate but that there's a big hole in the law in that there's nothing to prevent a foreign government from hiring the family of U.S. officials or creating relationships in order to, you know, create an appearance which helps their business. Does he have a point?
GREEN: I think he's got a perfectly good point. And that's exactly what seems to be going on with Hunter Biden. He had no traditional, professional qualification for the job that he held with Burisma, you know, and that in itself doesn't seem right. I think that is what Schweizer is pointing to.
Now, Trump and Republicans have taken it a lot further, twisting a lot of the facts about what was investigated, what the Obama administration and Biden were pressuring the Ukrainian government to do in 2016. But the basic fact that Hunter Biden was on this board and was probably there for political reasons, because there weren't really any other good reasons for him to be on the board - what Scheizer has pointed out here and what he says in his New York Times op-ed is that what Hunter Biden did was perfectly legal, but that, in itself, is a problem.
GROSS: Joshua Green is a columnist for Bloomberg Businessweek. After a break, he'll talk with Dave Davies about how the controversy is affecting the Biden campaign and how Trump and his allies are fighting back with counter narratives that paint the president as the victim of Democratic attacks.
Also, Maureen Corrigan will review a memoir by Saeed Jones about growing up gay and black in Texas, and jazz critic Kevin Whitehead will review a new album he describes as serious fun. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to the interview FRESH AIR's Dave Davies recorded with Bloomberg Businessweek columnist Joshua Green. In a recent column, Green argues that President Trump's impeachment worries are actually the unintended result of an effort to help him. He says Trump picked up on research about Joe Biden developed by a conservative think tank and included in a book last year.
The material was intended to harm Biden's presidential campaign. But when Trump saw the story on conservative media and began urging Ukraine to investigate Biden, he created far bigger problems for himself. Trump is now the subject of an impeachment inquiry into whether he abused the authority of his office. When we left off, Green was talking about an op-ed published in The New York Times by Peter Schweizer, the author of the book with the allegations against Biden.
DAVIES: Are you surprised that The New York Times would publish an op-ed by Peter Schweizer, you know, who got funding from, you know, the Mercers and have a very strong political point of view?
GREEN: Yeah. You know, a little bit, given the controversy it kicked up in 2016 when Schweizer's reporting appeared on the front page - in other words, in the news pages. This piece today is in the opinion section, which I think is a little bit more appropriate for the author and the subject and the claims that he's making.
DAVIES: Right. And just going back to 2016, my understanding is that, you know, the author of the Times' reporting on the Clinton Foundations and the Uranium One story is reporting that they stand by, that they independently investigated all of this and found it credible and newsworthy. Do you disagree?
GREEN: No. I don't disagree with that at all. I mean, part of what made the GAI project so effective is that they didn't do what some conservative authors do, which is to, you know, fabricate or publish rumors. I mean, they're - all of this is based in fact. They certainly put their own spin on those facts. They insinuated that there was maybe more going on than was actually going on. But they really did turn up evidence of unreported donations, of relationships that just didn't seem right that, you know, any legitimate investigative reporter, were he or she to come across this information, would want to look into further. And that's exactly what happened.
So the fact that there is a grain of truth in a lot of what is written is one of the things that makes it so effective and that Bannon and Schweizer understood from the outset would get the mainstream media to pay attention and amplify these charges. I think what happened in 2016 that upsets liberals so much is that, you know, as this stuff was being published in the mainstream media, it was also being amplified and distorted in the right-wing media. And that was having a real effect on Hillary Clinton as a presidential candidate.
Her reputation was unquestionably tarnished. She was dogged by these charges and allegations. You add in the amplifying voice of Donald Trump as a presidential candidate calling her crooked Hillary and corrupt and I don't think there's any question - but that - it affected voters' views of her in a way that ultimately proved disastrous for Clinton's own candidacy and for Democrats.
DAVIES: One of the things that I think adds to the political potency is that the facts of a lot of these stories are so complicated, that it's really hard for an average reader to sort out what it all means. Was there subsequent reporting on the Uranium One story which cast the Clintons' actions in a different light?
GREEN: Nothing knocked it down. You know, the subsequent reporting - I mean, I think what a lot of Democrats objected to was the fact that this, frankly, partisan outfit and author and right-wing money had produced this information that had made its way onto the front page of The New York Times. And I spoke to the liberal activist David Brock at the time about Schweizer and Bannon. And he shook his head. And he aid, you know, looking at it from their point of view, the Times is the perfect host body for the virus - meaning, you know, the intention all along from these guys was to poison the public image of Hillary Clinton. And by getting these charges onto the front pages of The New York Times, they essentially accomplished that mission. I think everything that happened subsequently with Trump's attacks and Clinton's loss in the 2016 election back that up. And this time around, with Joe and Hunter Biden, they were looking to do the same thing.
DAVIES: In the op-ed, the Times doesn't mention Peter Schweizer's association with the Government Accountability Institute or its funders, you know, the Mercers. What do you think of that?
GREEN: You know, if I were running the op-ed page, I think that's something I would've disclosed based on, you know, his background, the political lineage and what we saw in the 2016 presidential cycle.
DAVIES: So is all of this affecting the Biden campaign?
GREEN: You know, it's not clear that it is. I mean, Biden had been on a bit of a downward trajectory before Trump and the Ukraine charges really came into the news cycle. But, you know, he is - he's starting to slip now. I mean, in the latest averages of polls, Elizabeth Warren has nudged ahead of him. So, you know, it's not clear that this is a deadly development for Joe Biden's candidacy, but it certainly isn't helping.
DAVIES: Since the whistleblower complaint emerged, there's been a lot of information and text and the summary of the phone call between President Trump and the president of Ukraine, which has led to this impeachment inquiry, which is clearly picking up steam. I mean, we're going to see, you know, testimony from other players in this including the former ambassador, Marie Yovanovitch. The Trump administration says it is not going to cooperate with this because, you know, it's a witch hunt. Where do you see this going?
GREEN: Well, you know, the irony here is that Trump, by involving himself, you know, essentially made this entire project blow up in his face and committed actions that, at the very least, have launched an impeachment inquiry and I think are very likely to lead to his impeachment in the House whether or not the Senate ultimately chooses to remove him.
But what the whistleblower report showed, what the subsequent text messages that have now been revealed between the U.S. ambassador to the EU, Gordon Sondland, and Bill Taylor, a top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, that show that the U.S. apparently was withholding military aid to help a political campaign, as Taylor put it in his text. That is the quid pro quo that Democrats are alleging. And I think if there is a trial in the House, that's what it's likely to show. And the evidence we've seen so far certainly supports that.
So I think, from an impeachment standpoint, Trump is in real trouble. Whether or not he's ultimately removed from office, we'll see. I'm skeptical. But certainly this isn't the outcome that Schweizer and GAI and I think Trump and Giuliani expected to happen when they started making noise about this over the summer.
DAVIES: Right. Well, the president's defenders are aggressively promoting other narratives. I mean, Giuliani, a couple of weeks ago, was on the ABC weekend show waiving an affidavit from Viktor Shokin, you know, the prosecutor that was fired in 2016, in which alleges that, in fact, he was investigating the company Hunter Biden's - was associated with. There are certainly reasons to doubt his credibility in the eyes of a lot of people. And then, you know, last week, Senator Ron Johnson had a heated exchange with Chuck Todd on "Meet The Press" in which he was arguing that there's all this credible evidence that people in the Ukraine were trying to hurt Trump and help Hillary Clinton in 2016. It's a very aggressive strategy to - you know, bringing up other stuff. What do you think the effect will be?
GREEN: Well, I think the intention on the part of Republicans is to muddy the waters and to turn the charges of corruption against Trump that we've seen laid out in the whistleblower report and the text messages - turn them back against the Democrats.
What is troubling to a lot of people is that a lot of these charges are based on discredited conspiracy theories. What Ron Johnson was talking about was a conspiracy theory that Trump and Giuliani have propagated that it wasn't Russia that hacked the Democratic National Committee servers in the 2016 election but Ukraine. That's something that's been knocked down by every intelligence official, U.S. and otherwise, who's looked into this. And yet, this is what's being propagated by Trump.
And I think a lot of Republican politicians, fearful of Trump's wrath and eager to toe the partisan line, have found themselves forced or obligated to repeat these wild charges in a way that bears no relationship to reality but is nonetheless, I think, muddying the waters and shaping public opinion in a way that is intended to mitigate the damage of the charges against Trump.
DAVIES: Is Steve Bannon playing a role in stoking any of these allegations?
GREEN: You know, he really isn't anymore. I mean, Bannon had a very public falling-out with Donald Trump in 2017, where Trump sort of publicly humiliated him and excommunicated him from the Republican Party. He lost his position as the head of Breitbart News, was essentially sent out into the wilderness.
I mean, Bannon is still around on the scene. He is focused more on China these days and trying to, I think, strengthen Trump's resolve to conduct the trade war. Trump did tweet favorably about him a couple of months ago. But there isn't a close relationship there in the way that there was during the presidential campaign.
DAVIES: Yeah. I asked because you wrote a book about Steve Bannon and talked to him a lot. He was also going around Europe trying to kind of build a, you know, nationalist, populist movement. How did that go?
GREEN: Well, it basically failed. I mean, the nationalist movements in Europe weren't really interested in an American political strategist coming in and telling them what to do. They didn't perform nearly as well in the May European parliamentary elections as Bannon and some of the nationalist contingent were hoping for.
And so he's focused mainly these days on kind of beating the war drums against China, going out and publicly defending Trump's aggression against China when it comes to tariffs and the trade war and that sort of thing, and seeking to remain relevant in that way. But so far, there has been no reproach with Trump and the White House, or the Mercer family, for that matter. And so he's off on his own.
DAVIES: You know, looking at the strategy of the Government Accountability Institute with this book, you know, the idea was to kind of repeat the playbook that worked with the Clinton candidacy in 2016, where you develop information, it becomes adopted by the mainstream media and becomes a scandal. And in this case, it seems like another - kind of a different weird thing happened, which is that it turned into a scandal for the president himself when he pursued a theory and then engaged in conduct which has resulted in this impeachment inquiry.
At the same time, Peter Schweizer, the author of the book funded by the Government Accountability Institute, is being quoted. I mean, the story is out there. I wonder how they view this - how it's all worked out.
GREEN: Well, the irony here is that the target was supposed to be the Bidens, not the president. And by the president becoming involved, you know, the original plan has kind of blown up. What may wind up happening - as you say, you know, Biden and these charges are very much in the news. That was part of the intention, even if the negative attention toward Trump wasn't part of the plan. What we could see end up happening is a kind of a murder-suicide where Trump really does take out his strongest Democratic challenger, Joe Biden, only, he winds up, in the process, getting himself impeached.
DAVIES: Well, Joshua Green, thanks so much for speaking with us again.
GREEN: Thank you. It's always a pleasure.
GROSS: Joshua Green is a columnist for Bloomberg Businessweek and the author of a book about Steve Bannon called "Devil's Bargain." Coming up, Maureen Corrigan reviews a new memoir by Saeed Jones about growing up gay and black in Texas. This is FRESH AIR.
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TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Saeed Jones has served as BuzzFeed's LGBT and culture editor and is the author of a 2015 award-winning book of poetry called "Prelude To Bruise." But before any of those achievements, Jone (ph) was a black gay kid growing up in Lewisville, Texas. He writes about that experience and more in his new memoir "How We Fight For Our Lives."
Book critic Maureen Corrigan has a review, which includes a reading that contains a hateful, anti-gay slur that was hurled at Saeed Jones when he was a youngster, and it's had a lasting impact on him.
MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: One could say that Saeed Jones' new memoir, "How We Fight For Our Lives," is a classic coming-of-age story. A boy grows up in Texas. He's black, gay and isolated. He's raised by a single mom. He struggles with identity, goes off to college and eventually achieves a wobbly sense of self-affirmation.
But Jones' voice and sensibility are so distinct. He turns one of the oldest of literary genres inside out and upside down. Take Jones' intricate reflection on an incident when he was 12, where two sort-of friends brutally turn and ostracize him with one word.
You never forget your first f*****, says Jones, because the memory in its way makes you. It becomes a spine for the body of anxieties and insecurities that will follow, something to hang all that meat on. Before, you were just scrawny. Now you're scrawny because you're a f*****. Before, you were just bookish. Now you're bookish because you're a f*****. Soon bullies won't even have to say the word. There will already be a voice in your head whispering f***** for them.
"How We Fight For Our Lives" is at once explicitly raunchy, mean, nuanced, loving and melancholy. It's sometimes hard to read and harder to put down. Jones' memoir effectively deep-sixes any illusions I had that it must have been a little easier in recent decades to come of age as a queer black boy in Texas. Granted, Jones' public high school is open-minded enough to host a touring production of "The Laramie Project," the play about the hate-murder of Matthew Shepard. But what Jones takes away from that performance is that he'd better closet himself even more securely at school. Jones recalls his younger self realizing that being a black gay boy is a death wish, and one day if you're lucky, your life and death will become some artist's new project.
Throughout "How We Fight For Our Lives," readers feel the tension of Jones' adolescent and college years as he's trying to figure out how to be. By the time he gets a full scholarship to Western Kentucky University for his debate skills, Jones is a roiling vessel of shame, need and anger. He's explicit in his accounts of using sex to humiliate himself and his partners, especially the straight white men he seduces. Jones says, I hungered for the power of the all-American man. If I couldn't actually be one myself, I thought, I could survive by devouring him whole. If America was going to hate me for being black and gay, then I might as well make a weapon out of myself.
All this time, Jones' mother remains a steady, loving presence in his life. She's out of the apartment a lot when he's growing up, working long hours at her job at the airport. But she always tries to be supportive up to a point. She really doesn't want to talk about Jones' sexual identity. One evening when he's in college, Jones casts his eyes downward and starts a conversation with his mom about a guy he dated. Here's how that goes. When I looked up, Jones says, she was staring at me wide-eyed, almost pleadingly, as if I'd lead someone afraid of heights to the edge of a rusting bridge. And then I did exactly what I thought all people who love each other do. I changed the subject. I changed myself. I erased everything I had just said. I erased myself so I could be her son again.
"How We Fight For Our Lives" is a raw and eloquent memoir. I don't think I'm taking away from the particularity of Jones' experience when I say that in passages like the one I just read, Jones also speaks to how difficult it is for nearly everybody to hold onto that vulnerable construction we call ourselves. Jones reminds us that an invisible man illuminated only with a bare bulb is not only unseen by others; he is barely seen by himself.
GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed the new memoir "How We Fight For Our Lives" by Saeed Jones. Coming up, jazz critic Kevin Whitehead reviews the new album by the Taylor Ho Bynum 9-tette. Kevin says it's serious fun. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MARY LOU WILLIAMS' "IT AIN'T NECESSARILY SO")
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Cornet player and composer Taylor Ho Bynum first attracted notice as a close associate of his former teacher and ongoing collaborator, Anthony Braxton. Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead says Bynum has come into his own the last few years with a series of projects involving like-minded players, some of them are on Bynum's new album for nine musicians, including newly minted MacArthur Fellow, guitarist Mary Halvorson.
(SOUNDBITE OF TAYLOR HO BYNUM 9-TETTE'S "NEITHER WHEN NOR WHERE")
KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: Members of Taylor Ho Bynum's 9-tette working a groove. That's from Bynum's album "The Ambiguity Manifesto," where instruments or their roles may ambiguously merge. Tomeka Reid's cello blends with Ken Filiano's bowed bass and heel-plumb the depths with Stomu Takeishi's bass guitar and Bill Lowe's tuba or bass trombone. Bynum on cornet leads the four horns.
(SOUNDBITE OF TAYLOR HO BYNUM 9-TETTE'S "NEITHER WHEN NOR WHERE")
WHITEHEAD: Composer Taylor Ho Bynum doesn't give his players super hard material. The music is more about how the self-starters juggle his themes. Within the horn section or the rhythm section, players might branch off to run musical subroutines or might drop out to vary the texture. There's some good collective improvising, but I'm drawn to the moments when they all converge on a melody. Each player may phrase a tune their own way, as in the very early jazz bands, who echoed loose congregational church singing.
On this album's second half, the band plays exploded versions of the same material, blending compositions on occasion and holding them up to a funhouse mirror.
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WHITEHEAD: Guitarist Mary Halvorson's squiggling embroidery is often close to the heart of the action. She's busy but always serves the greater music in a way that might recall the spiny guitars in afro-pop bands. This is from Taylor Ho Bynum's "Real/Unreal."
(SOUNDBITE OF TAYLOR HO BYNUM 9-TETTE'S "REAL/UNREAL")
WHITEHEAD: Tomas Fujiwara on drums there. When the band takes a second pass at that composition, they stretch it out literally, slowing it down to mull over the details. Again, everyone sings the tune or sings around it in their own way and in their own time. Saxophonists Jim Hobbs and Ingrid Laubrock sweeten the backgrounds.
(SOUNDBITE OF TAYLOR HO BYNUM 9-TETTE'S "UNREAL/REAL (FOR OLD MUSIC)")
WHITEHEAD: There are some beautiful instrumental effects there a composer would take a while to dream up or write out. Those effects are more quickly realized by skilled improvisers who come prepared, like the crew on "The Ambiguity Manifesto." Taylor Ho Bynum compares his composing to designing a playground for improvisers, with different activity zones, but no set rules. That's an apt metaphor. All that play makes for serious fun.
(SOUNDBITE OF TAYLOR HO BYNUM 9-TETTE'S "UNREAL/REAL (FOR OLD MUSIC)")
GROSS: Kevin Whitehead writes for Point of Departure and The Audio Beat. He reviewed "The Ambiguity Manifesto" by the Taylor Ho Bynum 9-tette. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be Megan Phelps-Roper. Her grandfather founded the infamous Westboro Baptist Church, which preached that God hates gay people. The church also picketed the funerals of American soldiers. She left the church seven years ago in her mid-20s. Her new memoir is called "Unfollow: A Memoir Of Loving And Leaving The Westboro Baptist Church." I hope you'll join us.
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GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF HERLIN RILEY'S "RUSH HOUR")