Donald Trump has been the president of the United States for nearly four years. In that time, the former reality TV star with no political experience has racked up scandal after scandal: He’s been impeached and accused of sexually assaulting more than 20 women, has cycled through more cabinet members and senior-level staff than any of his predecessors, has blatantly lied to the American public, and slowly, but surely, has chipped away at the fabric of political norms. Trump’s incompetence has shined brighter under the lights of a global pandemic that has forced the United States to shutter nonessential businesses, pass a trillion-dollar stimulus plan to keep small businesses afloat and cover a few expenses for some American citizens, and prepare for a future where potentially 100,000 people may die.
Instead of reopening the White House office for global pandemics, supplying states with the resources (and the medical supplies) to combat COVID-19, or following the research and guidance of doctors and scientists, Trump has said—repeatedly—that this strain of the coronavirus will disappear almost like a miracle. Trump’s administration has trotted out his son-in-law Jared Kushner—another official without any political or natural disaster experience—to offer buzzwords rather than solutions. And through it all, thousands of people are sick, many of them are dying, and hospitals and the funeral industry are overwhelmed by the sheer volume of people who are sick and dying or who have died.
It’s in these moments, though, that the popular political podcast Mueller, She Wrote is offering somewhat of a guiding light. Mueller, She Wrote is one of dozens of podcasts erected after Trump’s election, but it is hosted by a trio of women—AG, Jordan Coburn, and Mandy Reeder—and infuses humor into the absurdist reality we find ourselves living in. AG, in particular, helps set Mueller, She Wrote apart from other political podcasts: She’s a military veteran with a doctorate who’s currently working in Trump’s executive branch. Though AG isn’t hiding—her face is front-and-center in the podcast’s press photos—she has a deep respect for the law and ethics, so she chooses not to use her real name publicly so that she’s in alignment with the Hatch Act.
Given that we’re in a crucial moment—both because we’re nearing a presidential election and because we’re in a pandemic—it seemed like the perfect time to speak to someone who understands the inner workings of a seemingly illogical administration. AG spoke to Bitch about how Mueller, She Wrote came to be, what the podcast can teach us about politics, and how we can remain committed to the truth in the age of alternative facts.
Let’s start here: How did Mueller, She Wrote come to be?
A couple months after [Robert] Mueller was appointed special counsel, MSNBC was airing All the President’s Men Revisited, an old documentary about Watergate. [The documentary] had all the typical MSNBC [anchors] like Chris Matthews, Rachel Maddow, and Joy Reid talking about Watergate. They were replaying it because of the parallels [between Watergate and] the Mueller investigation. I thought, “I bet there’s going to be a documentary about the Mueller investigation in 20 years.” I wanted to be part of that because I’d been following [the Mueller investigation] really closely. I was wondering how I could [chronicle this history in real-time] and podcasting was the answer because it’s so accessible. I wanted [the podcast to have] all women [hosts]. I wanted [it to be hosted by] comedians because there’s a lot of stuff [about] this administration to make fun of. So I called up some comedian friends of mine who identify as women, and that’s how [the podcast] started.
What were the benefits of putting this into podcast form as opposed to writing an op-ed for a newspaper, for instance, or becoming a cable-news commentator?
The number-one reason was accessibility. [A podcast] was cheap to start. You don’t have to be a journalist [to start a podcast]; anybody could do it. The other thing is there’s a huge gap in podcast content [geared] toward women, which isn’t necessarily true for cable news or other news outlets. [It was] just a huge untapped market. I don’t think a lot of women were listening to [political] podcasts because [nearly all the hosts] were men or people who identified as men. So I wanted to put out content that served a few purposes: filling that gap to appeal to women, [approaching politics] from a more compassionate and empathetic point of view, and [making] humor [an essential] part of the product. A lot of people have a lot of anxiety about everything that’s going on [in the Trump administration], so I thought humor was a good [approach]. If I could have, I would have [created] a show like Last Week Tonight with John Oliver or The Daily Show, but you have to start somewhere.
For so many people in the United States, it has been difficult to find humor in any aspect of the time we’re living in. What is the value of comedy at this moment? How do you hold on to your own sense of humor?
I’m in a unique position to bring humor to [politics] because I’ve been a comedian for 10 years and my cohosts are also comedians. I’m also very good at dissociation and compartmentalization because of some trauma that happened to me about 15 years ago. So I’m able to consume the news in mass quantities [without] it having that much of an impact on me. People need the news, but on cable [news programs], [there are] people yelling and it’s dark and disastrous. I really wanted people to be able to get the news I think is important. And I wanted [listeners] to be able to take it all in without it triggering anxiety, fear, and sadness. Our number-one goal was getting the news to people without creating panic, sadness, anxiety, and despair.
There are a lot of political podcasts, but you have one of the only podcasts hosted entirely by women. How else does Mueller, She Wrote differentiate itself from the other podcasts on the market?
We’re talking about a lot of justice and legal stuff, and we aren’t lawyers. So we have a correction segment every week. We correct ourselves, which I’ve noticed cable news doesn’t do [very often]. We want to make sure that we get everything right, so we take correction submissions on our website. We’re not a bona fide news organization, but we can theorize, speculate, and [share our] opinions. We separate [journalistic fact from our opinions]. We make sure [we] say, “Here’s what the facts are, and here is what we think might be going on.” News anchors can’t really postulate those theories. Our daily news program, The Daily Beans, has a good news segment. At the end of the show, we try to wrap it up with nothing but good news so that everyone leaves on a high note.
What has been the best part about creating this podcast and watching it blow up? What has been the most difficult part?
The best part is our listenership and the community we’ve created. Everybody who listens to our podcast is really engaged. They’re very politically active and plugged in. They’re very compassionate and philanthropic. And the community we’ve built has been an indispensable network of resources for all of us. Being women in this space is probably the hardest part. We get a lot of pushback. We get a lot of trolls and jerks emailing us all the time, telling us our lady brains are too small, and we should stay in the kitchen. Or they [say they] can’t stand the giggling. I guess women don’t laugh; we giggle. We’ve been told there’s just not enough room for us, and that’s been the toughest part because I was hoping people were better than that.
You have chosen to use the pseudonym AG so that you aren’t violating the Hatch Act. Why was it so important for you to maintain that ethical guideline and boundary?
I’ve been a federal government employee for 12 years, and I’ve always had outstanding performance evaluations. I was promoted very quickly. I based my education and my PhD [research] on [the work] I was doing with the federal government because that was very important to me. I started working for the federal government when [Barack] Obama was running for president. He’s an old community organizer, so he made a call for [ordinary citizens to] serve our country. I wanted to work for the federal government, so that’s what I did. It has been very important to me to maintain ethical guidelines, especially after Trump took office and I saw that falling by the wayside. The integrity of the agency and of civil service is very important to me. I’m former military.
In 2016, I ran to be a Democratic delegate to the Democratic National Convention. Before I did that, I sought permission from the ethics review board. When I started the podcast, I hired a lawyer who’s a Hatch Act expert, and I was advised by the ethics advisory folks on what the rules are. I wanted to make sure I wasn’t violating [ethical guidelines]. There’s a certain amount of credibility that comes with [following ethical guidelines], especially with the audience we have.
Many of us are watching this administration unfold from the outside, and it seems chaotic and unclear. How do governmental processes at the executive level actually work? Is it as all over the place as it seems to be on the outside or are there still processes and norms in place?
It’s in a considerable amount of disarray. You’ve seen all of the alt-government accounts on social media out there, like the alt-FDA, alt-NASA, the Angry Staffer [Twitter accounts], and all of these [other] folks within the government who find [the current administration’s processes] antithetical to the way government works. When you put someone in charge of the government who hates the government, they try to disassemble it. That’s what’s been going on. You’ve seen the revolving door of people who’ve been appointed and then fired. Everyone is an acting position, and that makes it extremely difficult to have any semblance of order within the government. And the federal government is a massive organization, so it’s very chaotic. The agency I work for began to unravel as well. It’s not just the disarray from the top down; you also have folks like Trump and Jared Kushner who want to purge all people who [they’ve deemed] disloyal. So we’re losing hundreds, if not thousands, of intelligent people from the ranks who are being pushed out.
You have that brain drain at the bottom and all these acting people who don’t know what’s going on at the top. For example, Rick Grenell, who’s in charge of all 17 intelligence agencies, doesn’t have one hint of intelligence experience. The head of the Environmental Protection Agency hates the planet. The guy at the FDA [Food and Drug Administration] lobbies for the food industry [rather than] for safety. The lady in charge of the Department of Education wants all private charter schools, which just disenfranchises so many people. It makes sense that things are chaotic and in disarray, which makes it especially terrible for what we’re facing right now. [There’s been a] dismantling of the directorate in charge of pandemics, so now there’s an inability to coordinate on a national level and get all the equipment from the national stockpile [to states in need]. It’s just massively chaotic for them to put their personal profits over the health of the country. I hate that everybody looking in from the outside has this terrible picture of the agencies I used to love. It’s just sad because it’s going to take a long time to put back together.
This government is our government, and it’s up to us to save it.
A lot of progressives were putting a lot of hope into the Mueller Report and into impeachment being a process that could remove Trump from office. Was that hope misguided?
I don’t think the hope was misguided because we were relying on our constitutional framework to protect us from insanity. And so far, it hasn’t worked because this administration is going outside of the bounds of that Constitution. If all things were working, it would have made a difference. I talked to Joyce Vance, Barbara McQuade, and Andy McCabe, former federal prosecutors and former U.S. attorneys, about the reservoir of trust America has to have in institutions like the Department of Justice, which include the FBI and the CIA. The FBI and CIA cleaned up their act pretty well from the ’50s and ’60s, when they were absolutely abysmal and had no trust, no faith. The American people had no faith in these institutions, but they’ve cleaned it up pretty well. And now [all the trust and faith] is all gone again because of Attorney General William Barr and the president’s weaponizing of the Department of Justice. And now the American people are left with no faith in that institution. It takes a short amount of time to drain that reservoir of trust, but it takes a long time to rebuild it.
There’s always a comparison between Richard Nixon’s presidency and Donald Trump’s presidency because they’ve both been laden with scandal. What is different about this time that makes it more difficult to hold Trump accountable?
Well, at least Nixon followed the Constitution. He made end runs around it a little bit, but when he was caught dead to rights, he realized that he had to resign for the good of the country. He might have been an asshole, but somewhere deep down, he had some patriotic bones in his body as a public servant. But this president and administration don’t have that. Their bottom line is profit, family, and nepotism, and they [succeed] by feeding fear, hate, and xenophobia, which is addictive, especially if you feel left out by the new “politically correct” culture. It’s a real shame. One of the main differences is that there’s not a public servant or leadership bone in Trump’s body.
What should ordinary citizens be paying attention to during this election cycle?
Start calling your local secretary of elections and registrar of voters, to make sure you can either send in a mail-in or absentee ballot. Just start pushing politicians at the local level to make that happen because, as we know in Wisconsin, voters are all standing in line because the Supreme Court wouldn’t postpone the election, and they wouldn’t entertain vote by mail. Republicans will not entertain voting by mail because they know they lose if more people vote. We have to keep pushing voting by mail and also other alternatives like drive-through and drop-off polling places. The United States Postal Service is set to run out of money this summer and could shut down because Trump didn’t include any money in the budget for them and Republicans refused to put any money in the $2.2 trillion stimulus package to keep them afloat. So, mail-in ballots are great, but not if you don’t have the USPS. You have to keep calling your local representatives and voter registrar and asking, “What is the plan?”
Now that the Mueller investigation has concluded, what would you say is the biggest lesson we can learn from it?
The biggest lesson is realizing that this government is our government, and it’s up to us [to save it]. We can’t rely on others to [create] the country we want. That’s how the framers intended it. There were only nine people living [in the colonies] back then; we have a lot more people to contend with, but it’s [still] up to us. We used to say on the podcast, “We are the Mueller we’ve been waiting for,” because it’s really up to us. The number-one way we can make that reality is by voting, especially in local elections. I remember Michelle Obama saying that if you don’t vote, it’s like your nana is picking out your club clothes. Do you really want that to happen? You need to [make sure] your voice is heard.