‘The Swamp’ documentary shows how lobbyists and money influence Washington

Hosted by

An outsider and political newcomer who couldn’t be bought because he was already rich — this was the identity Donald Trump traded on as he rode a wave of populist support to the White House in 2016. He pledged to reform decades of Washington corruption with one catchy slogan: “Drain the swamp.” 

More than five years after he glided down that gold-plated escalator in Trump Tower, President Trump has reimagined and redefined Washington. But did he deliver on that fundamental promise?

Filmmakers Morgan Pehme and Dan DiMauro spent more than a year trying to answer that question. They followed three Republican members of Congress through the government shutdown, the Mueller investigation, and the earliest days of President Trump’s impeachment. 

They painted a powerful portrait of the role of money and special interests in Washington, and how deep and murky that influence is.

Their new documentary is “The Swamp.” It’s out now on HBO.

KCRW: The documentary profiles three Republican congressmen, Matt Gaetz of Florida, Ken Buck of Colorado, and Thomas Massie of Kentucky. Why those three?

Morgan Pehme: “Dan and I are, truth be told, liberal filmmakers, but we approach this really from a nonpartisan good government perspective. We wanted to go into Congress and understand why Congress is failing people across the political spectrum. And what drew us to Matt Gaetz, and Thomas Massie, and Ken Buck was their extraordinary willingness to be candid about the systemic corruption that plagues Congress. 

And when you cover politics, oftentimes the story in front of the cameras,  the intricate narrative that’s weaved by the parties is so disparate from the true story behind the scenes. And here were three congressmen who said, ‘Come on, take your cameras into our offices, no conditions, see why it's broken for yourself.’ And so we took them up on that offer.”

Did you feel there wasn't that same level of transparency with Democrats? 

Dan DiMauro: “To our surprise, when we went in and started making this movie, we actually thought it would be a great vehicle to use these congressmen to explore how dysfunctional Congress is. Because if we just found a bunch of Democrats, which I think most documentary viewers on HBO are probably of the liberal persuasion, we wouldn't reach many Republicans. 

But we wanted to put forth the idea that it may be surprising, but there's actually a contingent of the Republican Party that is against big money in politics and decries the corruption that the special interests and the corporations have such control over the process.”

In the documentary, Congressman Buck of Colorado says: 

“A problem with the Republican Party now is we have such a fresh history of violating the Constitution, of violating fiscal responsibility, of violating personal accountability, that we don't have a high ground to stand and say, ‘You guys are doing the wrong thing.’” 

This sounds self aware. Who is responsible for creating the swamp? It's not just Republicans. 

Morgan Pehme: “That's a very striking admission coming from Ken, who also is the head of the Colorado Republican Party. And I think that's the type of candor that we were able to advance from our subjects in this film. And I have to say that this film gores everybody's ox. 

It's certainly not the Republicans who created the swamp, it was the two parties working together. And so what we show is that there are all these dynamics in place that are essentially there to corrupt members who come to do the right thing, to make sure that they play the game. 

So one of the things that we point out is, and this was shocking to us, that members of both parties have to pay for their committee assignments. You think that this was some sort of meritocracy that, ‘Oh, you have some background in the military, you should be on the Armed Services Committee.’ Well, guess what, you actually have to pony up hundreds of thousands of dollars every two years to get your committee assignment. 

And now you can't go to your small dollar donors and be like, ‘Can you give me $25 so I can serve on the Judiciary Committee?’ You really have to go to the very people who have an interest in the work product of those committees, and those are the special interests themselves. 

So this is from day one that members of Congress sit, they’re posed with this conundrum of a system that is set up to corrupt them and to draw them into the broken status quo.”

So much of this film focuses on the role of special interests. Republican Congressman Matt Gates of Florida talks about that: 

“The special interests don't really want anything to get done in this town. Because if we actually started working together on some stuff, things would change. And if things change, the people who are getting rich off the current system would not getting rich off that system. That's why I think that the greatest challenge we face is not Republicans versus Democrats. It's reformers against those who want to maintain the status quo. And we got Republicans and Democrats in both groups.”

How did partisan politics become a vehicle for fundraising, and the idea of compromise become seen as a weakness?

Morgan Pehme: “It really started with Newt Gingrich, who saw what Professor Larry Lessig of Harvard says in our film is that the politics of hate is the most effective fundraising tool that the parties have at their disposal. So if I can convince you that the other side is the devil, well, then you're going to be more willing to give me a campaign contribution to fend off the evil.

And that is something that both parties are invested in pushing us to the hyper partisan poles of our respective ideologies, much to the detriment of the nation. And I think it's so hard because our politics has descended into this type of tribalism. And as Democrats, we think, ‘Oh, if only Democrats controlled all three branches of government, then our country would be fixed.’ And Republicans think the same thing. And we've actually had both of those scenarios in the last 15-20 years. And obviously, we didn't see our problems fixed then.

But what people forget is that the founders set up this country to force people with diametrically opposed views to come together to compromise for the common good. And that compromise is not something that is a dirty word. But compromise is the very nature of the American experiments. 

And so though it may seem distasteful for people, of the many Democrats who loathe Matt Gaetz, but the fact that Matt Gaetz has built a coalition of Republicans, surprisingly, to try to end the endless wars, and he's come together with one of the most progressive members of Congress from California, Ro Khanna to do this, that's exactly how America is supposed to work. And so compromise isn't a dirty word. Compromise is an American word.”

In the documentary, Republican Congressman Thomas Massie of Kentucky, talks about his vote to reassert Congress’ constitutional powers after the U.S. killed an Iranian general in an airstrike: 

“An hour before I went to vote on that, I got a call from the president. And he wanted me to vote with the party, or I was going to get a primary challenge. And sure enough, within 12 hours of voting, the way that I felt I should vote, I got a primary opponent. And now, the next 90 days of my life are going to be a sort of hell, where I have to go do what I hate to do, which is get on the phone, grovel, raise money, and try to beat this guy. And I can trace it all back to that one vote.” 

How is outside influence making political discourse more and more extreme?

Dan DiMauro: “I don't think our current state of affairs with our politics being played out on social media and cable news every night is necessarily helping towards that goal of reaching compromise.

… Congress is paralyzed right now. And [it’s] why we think rooting out the corruption of Congress should be all Americans’ — across the political spectrum —it should be their number one issue because there are a lot of problems and issues that our country is facing. And until we fix our broken Congress, there's no way the politicians in Washington are ever going to be able to solve any of the greater threats that are facing our nation and looming on the horizon. 

How does cable news  contribute to partisanship?

Morgan Pehme: “Cable news doesn't want to have people on for substantive policy discussions. They want to have somebody come on who will say something inflammatory that will boost ratings. And then they can, like Matt Gaetz says, click whatever he says, turn it into a short clip on the internet, which pushes his base, energizes his base, and also very strategically infuriates the other side. And then Matt Gaetz’ supporters come to his defense, and that whole conflagration works to his benefit. And that is the cycle.”

Whether it’s the documentary cameras, cable news or social media, how much of what we saw from Congressman Gaetz and other lawmakers in the film is just an act? There's a point in the film when Gaetz is talking with now former California Democratic Congresswoman Katie Hill. 

Gaetz: “Right. I'll never love another president again.” 
Hill: “I remember you telling me that. Like one of the first times I talked to you is we were getting on the elevator, and I’m like, ‘Is this real? Do you really believe this?’”
Gaetz: “I do.”
Hill: “Whatever.”
Gaetz: “I defend flawed people. It's sort of my thing.”
Hill: “I mean, that's fine. I defend flawed people too. I just feel like I have to defend our Constitution.”

Does Gaetz really believe this or is he a performative opportunist?

Dan DiMauro: “I won't pretend to know what's going on inside his head. But I could certainly tell you that he was 1,000% unwavering in his support for the president. 

And I think what our film shows is we kind of take that journey with him, and try to understand how he could be so energized by Trump's campaign rhetoric in 2016 to drain the swamp of Washington, and root out the corruption that the special interests and corporations have over our government. While at the same time, supporting the president who has made no attempt to address any of those problems that he spoke about so often on the campaign trail, and has shown us it's little more than rhetoric. Because in his administration, there's just been an explosion of lobbyists, and an explosion of influence peddling to a degree that not any president has done before him.”

Can the swamp be drained? Is there much hope for the system? 

Morgan Pehme: “I think there is reason to be hopeful. And that's one of the reasons why we selected Republican protagonists. ... Americans left, right and center, we know that our system is failing us. We all understand that the system is rigged for the people who have paid to control it against the interests or above the interests of the American people. 

We made this movie to bring together viewers of all political stripes around this shared mission. We don't need to agree on anything else. But we should agree on the fact that our government should be representing our interests, not special interests. And the fact that we found consensus among folks across the political spectrum is hope. …  What we hope viewers will do is be mobilized to tell their members of Congress, ‘Stop playing this game.’”

— Written by Jennifer Wolfe and Amy Ta, produced by Brian Hardzinski